CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As much as Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold seemed to embrace the New York City spotlight that turned Joe Namath into “Broadway Joe,” the spotlight can take its toll when you’re not succeeding. It can swallow you up and spit you out like a failed Wall Street stockbroker.
Darnold, 24, failed. He went 13-25 as a starter for the New York Jets after being selected with the third pick in the 2018 draft. He completed only 59.8 percent of his pass attempts and threw almost as many interceptions (39) as he did touchdowns (45).
So the Jets split with Darnold and traded him to Carolina, where for many years the fan base was known as a “wine-and-cheese” crowd, more laid back at games more for the experience and not the most enthusiastic in terms of creating a home-field advantage.
Several former Carolina quarterbacks who are familiar with going from a large market to a smaller one — New York is the largest market in the country, Charlotte ranks 22nd — believe the change will be good for Darnold. They agree there will be fewer demands on his time and more time to spend on football and enjoying life.
They agree it will be good for him to get away from a fan base that is as likely to greet you with an improper gesture as they are to applaud you.
Few understand more than Rodney Peete, who, like Darnold, went to USC and spent most of his career in big markets such as Dallas and Philadelphia before coming to Carolina in 2002.
“The fans at Carolina are passionate and they love football,” Peete said. “But it’s not the nastiness of a Philadelphia or New York, where it can get extremely personal. So that’s going to be a relief for him.”
Steve Beuerlein, who played for the Panthers (1996 to 2000) after stops in Los Angeles (Raiders), Dallas and Phoenix, agreed.
“This could end up being the best thing to ever happen to Sam,” Beuerlein said. “He gets a chance to rejuvenate his career in a city that is as welcoming as any in the country.”
Jamie Ortiz, Darnold’s high school coach in San Clemente, California, said Darnold is the only NFL quarterback without a Twitter account and had to be forced to open a Facebook page for college recruiters to contact him.
His point: Darnold is private and doesn’t crave the spotlight, even though his position puts him in it, so Charlotte will be good for him.
“Sam’s a very old-school, old-soul kind of guy,” Ortiz said. “So maybe the Southern charm of Carolina is something that will fit him very well. The aggressive New York drivers, who give you the middle finger, that’s just not his nature.”
‘Reminds me of home’
Carolina wide receiver Robby Anderson recently noticed a “glow” and “aura” in Darnold that he never saw with the Jets when they were together in 2018-19.
He didn’t elaborate, and neither did Darnold when asked what Anderson meant.
One thing’s for sure: Darnold is comfortable in his new surroundings. He compares his new home to San Clemente, a beach town with a population of about 65,000 although it is much smaller than Charlotte (estimated 900,000).
“Honestly, it reminds me of home,” Darnold said. “Where I live, there’s kind of a small-town feel, which I like. It’s nice to be able to walk around.”
While Darnold wasn’t a hermit in New York, he knew the paparazzi were lurking. For example, there was a 2019 story in “Page Six,” the gossip column of the New York Post, saying Darnold was “wasted” after a win over the Oakland Raiders.
When Darnold missed three games in 2019 with mononucleosis, it was all over the tabloids that the quarterback got the “kissing disease” from a random woman who showed up at a game wearing a No. 14 Darnold jersey and holding up a sign that said “I gave Darnold mono,” even though the two never met.
When mic’d up for a 2019 Monday Night Football game, Darnold was caught saying “I’m seeing ghosts” during a loss to New England that had fans laughing at him. He became the butt of jokes.
It wasn’t even a story in the Charlotte Observer when Darnold recently celebrated his 24th birthday with star running back Christian McCaffrey — who was celebrating his 25th birthday — and McCaffrey’s girlfriend, model Olivia Culpo.
However, pictures posted by Culpo were turned into a story in “Page Six.”
“Charlotte’s such a great place to live, such an easy place to live,” McCaffrey said. “People are always extremely nice and respectful of people’s boundaries and space and time.”
To Darnold’s credit, he never expressed angst over reports about his personal life in New York. The one that seemed to irk him the most was the “ghosts” comment that he and the Jets believed never should have gotten out.
If anything, Darnold felt playing at USC prepared him for the New York market.
“When I was the backup, I was actually third string when Cody Kessler was the starter at USC,” Darnold said at the 2018 combine. “Then Max Browne got the starting job my redshirt freshman year, and I thought during that process I was preparing every single day to be the starter.
“Being in L.A., being at USC, has prepared me really well for the opportunity to go to a big stage like New York City.”
Still, those who know Darnold and have played for the Panthers believe Charlotte will be a better fit for the player who is more comfortable in sandals than designer shoes.
Former Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said he would be living in Charlotte now instead of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, if he and his wife didn’t grow up there and still have family in the area.
The few times he was booed in Charlotte, he felt he deserved it.
“If ever they were against me, it was the 2009 season,” said Delhomme, who threw 18 interceptions and only eight touchdowns two years after leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and six years after taking them to the Super Bowl. “And you know what? I sucked.
“And even at that time, I had my kids in school and I picked them up from school when I could, nobody never, ever said anything [bad] outside to me.”
Peete says that atmosphere will benefit Darnold.
“He’s not Mr. Flashy, Mr. Big City New York guy,” said Peete, who has gotten to know Darnold through their USC connection. “He’s more laid back and ‘I don’t crave the limelight.’
“He’s not Hollywood.”
‘Flannel jeans and a hat’
Ortiz got a chuckle out of seeing a recent Panthers video of Darnold wearing San Clemente High shorts.
It reminded him of draft night when Darnold was backstage with him, a few high school buddies, his parents and long-time quarterback coach Jordan Palmer. There weren’t any big names from USC or other high-profile people.
“To me, that’s a sign of the character of the kid,” Ortiz said.
Darnold wore a simple navy blue suit that night. Nothing flashy like a lot of draft picks.
“He usually wears flannel, jeans and a hat,” Ortiz said. “He wears the same stuff he wore in high school.”
You won’t see Darnold wearing edgy to over-the-top outfits like those of former Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who was as flashy off the field as he was on it.
But a big part of Newton’s popularity also came from playing a big role in the community, something other former Carolina quarterbacks say is almost as important to the fans as winning, and not as essential in larger markets.
“The more Cam was in the community, the more people respected him,” said Derek Anderson, Newton’s backup from 2011-17. “Cam was to the point he was riding a scooter through town at 6 in the morning to practice. There’s not a lot of places somebody like him can do that.”
Talent greater than market
While the external pressure on Darnold to succeed may be less in Carolina, the internal pressure is the same.
“I’ve always had high expectations for myself,” Darnold said.
Big market or small, Darnold expects to win. If he doesn’t, he’ll be looking for another market.
“In a smaller market you have less to deal with,” Palmer said. “So yes, that’s an advantage. But for Sam, it’s not a huge advantage.”
Darnold still doesn’t know the Carolina offense — which Robby Anderson insists is much easier to grasp than New York’s — well enough to consistently win. But coach Matt Rhule seems pleased, choosing to call Darnold’s offseason good with the potential to get great.
McCaffrey likes what he’s seen.
“He’s just been very consistent,” he said. “When you stack a bunch of consistent days on top of each other, you’ll ultimately create a lot of growth, and that’s what he’s done.”
Being surrounded by McCaffrey, wide receivers Anderson and DJ Moore, and a respected coaching staff full of teachers, ultimately will be more beneficial to Darnold than Southern hospitality.
Ortiz likes that Rhule talks about the “process” more than he did at San Clemente.
Peete likes that Darnold won’t have to win games on his own, as was the case at USC and in high school.
“You could put Patrick Mahomes in Detroit or with the Jets, and he doesn’t have the success he’s had in Kansas City,” he said. “Why? Because of the weapons.”
The weapons, more than the market, are why Peete and other former Carolina quarterbacks believe Darnold has a chance to succeed. As much as Darnold failed with the Jets, they believe the Jets failed Darnold by not providing that.
“I’m confident saying he won’t be in a situation where he is down by 25 at halftime and has to throw the ball 40 times, as he often was with the Jets,” Peete said.
Beuerlein, who lives about 15 miles from San Clemente, agreed. He also doesn’t downplay the benefit of the smaller market.
“There’s still going to be pressure,” he said. “But the Southern hospitality, people are just more welcoming and understanding and polite than what he’s used to.
“People likely aren’t going to walk by and say ‘you suck’ like in New York.”