Sam Darnold isn’t the Vikings savior, but here’s how he wins

The Vikings were left in an impossible decision with the announcement that Kirk Cousins was heading to the Atlanta Falcons. It was an expected departure in the near future, but Minnesota didn’t think it would come to an end this quickly. It left the team without a starting quarterback, a market of thinning options, and a draft position that didn’t ensure they’d find a prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Enter Sam Darnold, the one-year rental designed to just steady the ship while the organization works out what it’s next step will be. The reality is that 2024 went very quickly from an assumed return to the playoffs, to a complete nightmare for Vikings fans — with very real concerns whether Justin Jefferson, the league’s best wide receiver, will endure this rebuild at the position.

I’m intimately aware of Sam Darnold’s game. As a fan of the Panthers I watched him play for a season and a half under center, arriving in Carolina with much of the same promise that this could be the team that could “fix” him. Let’s dive into what Darnold’s time in Carolina taught us, and whether Vikings fans have anything to look forward to.

Who is Sam Darnold as a player?

Physically you’re talking about a guy who has all the tools. This was present when he was drafted in 2018. Darnold has good size, underrated athleticism, and an NFL-caliber arm to make almost all the throws you want to see on a regular basis.

The biggest issue is consistency. In fact, Darnold may be one of the most inconsistent starting quarterbacks I’ve seen play in Carolina. He consistently vacillates between making All Pro caliber throws, then looking as if he’s forgotten how to play the position the next.

It’s not for lack of confidence, but rather a pervasive fear of pressure. Darnold’s infamous “seeing ghosts” line in New York exists to this day. If the pocket is clean and he feels comfortable he will make the throws, but he reacts incredibly poorly to not just pressure, but perceived pressure — and that’s a mammoth problem.

Darnold was unable to differentiate times where he was actually under threat of being hit and needed to get the ball away, and when it only looked like he was going to be taken down. This led to far too many plays Darnold gave up on, or released the ball too early, leaving yards on the field as a result.

In 2022 when Darnold bounced back into a starting role he returned under a much better Panthers offensive line. It’s for this reason his numbers jumped and he was able to find his rhythm. Still, there remains a pervasive, ceaseless problem where Darnold mishandles pressure, and when this starts he has a tendency to get in his own head and spiral.

Sam Darnold, inside the numbers

So the question now is “Where does Sam Darnold win?” This is actually an area where he’s a good fit for the Vikings. As a quarterback he has been hard-coded with mistrust, likely from his time in New York. As a result he doesn’t lead his receivers particularly well, or throw any passes he doesn’t feel will be wins.

Both Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison excel at getting separation early in their break. This is huge for Darnold under center, because he likes to have a safety blanket of knowing he’s got an open window before he releases the ball.

When he has that confirmation he can actually be a quite good quarterback. D.J. Moore was skilled at getting early separation in 2022, and the link between Darnold and Moore was one of the only bright spots about the Panthers offense that year. When he has that level of safety there’s no problem with him ripping the ball downfield, with intended air yards in 2022 of 7.9 that season — well above league average.

The flip side is that he was incredibly well protected. Darnold was only under pressure on 20.2 percent of snaps in 2022, which is astonishingly low for a struggling team. By comparison Bryce Young, under the crumbling Panthers line in 2023, was under pressure on 24.2 percent of downs.

Darnold is at his best running plays off play action. His 2022 splits in Carolina were pronounced in this regard.

  • Play action passes: 45-of-52 (86 percent), 414 yards (8.0 yards-per-attempts)
  • Traditional drop backs and RPO: 37-of-88 (42 percent), 729 yards (8.2 yards-per-attempt)

If the Vikings can establish the run with Aaron Jones, and the threat of his rushing ability leads defenses to committing a safety to the box, then the team can run play action and Darnold can be most comfortable.

Darnold is an incredible streaky passer, so don’t get caught in the hype

At times Darnold’s performances can look out of this world, but they’re fools gold. His tenure in Carolina taught fans this the hard way. After the trade in 2021 he came out of the gate looking like a Pro Bowl quarterback. His four-game streak to open the season truly had fans believing the team had fleeced the hapless Jets and gotten a soon-to-be top quarterback.

99-of-146 (67 percent), 1,189 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT — 95.38 passer rating

Then everything fell apart. Those early games were a product of a lack of pressure, not quarterback skill. Darnold finished the season with 9 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 71.9.

The cautionary tale is that even if Darnold comes out of the gates hot, don’t fall into the trap of assuming he’s a changed QB — because his DNA as a passer remains as someone who doesn’t handle in-game adversity well.

What’s the ceiling for the Darnold-led Vikings?

That’s the big question mark. If this team can protect him, and the run game is a threat, then there’s no reason to believe this team can’t win games. The issue is that he’s going to miss a lot of throws that Kirk Cousins could have made, and slow the offense as a result.

A lot of pressure falls on Brian Flores to devise a defense that can keep Minnesota in a good position. Darnold is not a quarterback who can throw you back into games, or thrive in obvious passing scenarios. He needs to be handled with kid gloves, at which point he can make plays.

Darnold is not a good quarterback, nor is he a bad one — he just is who he is. If you can insulate him there’s success to be had, but don’t think for a second that this will be the time he turns it all around.

Ultimately the expectation should be for a long season in Minnesota, punctuated with small amounts of joy.

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