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Matt Rhule preaches patience with Sam Darnold's peaks and valleys

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold throws the ball during

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold throws the ball during the first half in the game against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 19 in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: Getty Images/Grant Halverson

Sam Darnold doesn’t have to carry a teammate’s helmet and shoulder pads off the practice field. He isn’t singing the USC fight song in the cafeteria.

But in just about every other way, Matt Rhule is treating his quarterback as if this is his first NFL season.

"The way we’re approaching Sam is like he’s a rookie quarterback," the Panthers’ second-year coach said on Thursday. "I know he had three years in New York with the Jets, and those were three great years. But we’re approaching it like we drafted him in this year’s draft."

Darnold, 24, played with the Jets from 2018-20 after being taken third overall by then-general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles. After showing some promise as a rookie, he regressed under Adam Gase in 2019-20, and current Jets GM Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh decided to trade Darnold to Carolina to clear the deck for No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson.

The results in Carolina have been mixed for Darnold, who returns to MetLife Stadium for Sunday’s game against the Giants. He started off 3-0, including a win over the Jets in the season opener, but he has lost three straight games. He had a combined rating of 99.0, three touchdown passes, one interception and three rushing touchdowns in his first three games. In his last three, his average rating is 62.1, and he has four touchdown passes and six interceptions to go with two more rushing scores.

The recent struggles haven’t tempered Rhule’s enthusiasm about his quarterback.

"I’m really confident in Sam," he said. "I truly, truly believe — I told Sam from the very beginning that this is going to be a process. With all these young quarterbacks, you see them have really good moments, you see them have some struggles, and you just have to be patient with them."

One reason behind Darnold’s struggles: the absence of Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey, who is on injured reserve with a hamstring problem. In the three games in which McCaffrey suited up, the Panthers won and Darnold was exceptional. In the three losses, he was mediocre.

But Rhule remains heartened by what he saw in Sunday’s 34-28 overtime loss to the Vikings.

"We were down 11 points, he took us right down the field, and we kicked the field goal," Rhule said. "We got the ball back at the 2-yard line, went 98 yards, he completed a fourth-and-10, and we scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion [to send the game into overtime]. That’s the last time he touched the football."

Rhule was a Giants assistant under Tom Coughlin, and he learned something invaluable about quarterbacks by watching Eli Manning.

"You’re going to play for 50 minutes, and all of a sudden, at the very end, Eli is going to find a way to go out and win the game," Rhule said. "You see the great quarterbacks in the NFL, and just give them the ball at the end, and they’re going to go win it. For Sam to do that [against the Vikings], I thought that was a huge step, and we just have to keep building off it. Just have to be consistent and patient with him."

That patience appears genuine. When asked about recent speculation that the Panthers might be interested in acquiring Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has not played this season and faces more than 20 civil lawsuits alleging improper behavior and sexual assault of massage therapists, Rhule said the team is committed to Darnold.

"I believe Sam’s going to be a great quarterback for the Carolina Panthers and I haven’t done any work on anyone else," Rhule said. "I’m bought in on Sam, and my biggest thing is making sure me and [quarterbacks coach] Sean Ryan and [offensive coordinator] Joe Brady do a better job of putting Sam in the best position.

"He’s my focus, and I expect him to play his best football moving forward. I’m not looking anywhere else."

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