Jake Delhomme explains what’s off with Sam Darnold, what Panthers should do about Watson

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Jake Delhomme, the Carolina Panthers’ Hall of Honor quarterback who is also the team’s primary radio analyst, took a rare break from the press box last Sunday and instead tuned into the game on television.

His verdict?

“Very hard to watch,” Delhomme said of the Panthers’ 25-3 defeat.

A self-proclaimed football nerd, Delhomme studies quarterbacks like they are the Rosetta Stone. I called the man who led the Panthers to their first-ever Super Bowl this week to ask him mainly about struggling Panther starter Sam Darnold, and we also talked about Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton.

The three-word version of Delhomme’s theory on Darnold?

Darnold is suffering from “paralysis by analysis.”

But there was a lot more to it than that, as well as Delhomme’s thoughts on whether the Panthers should trade for Deshaun Watson and whether Cam Newton will ever play again in the NFL. Here’s our interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Scott Fowler: So what’s wrong with Sam Darnold?

Jake Delhomme: Last week was not good. His feet were a little all over the place. I thought maybe there was some predetermining where he was going to go with the ball … Even the checkdowns weren’t accurate.

And I just think that’s more of a function of paralysis by analysis. I think he’s thinking way too much right now.

I think he has the physical skill to be a really good quarterback. I believe that wholeheartedly. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen him make some throws. The throw that he made to Ian Thomas backed up on fourth down in the end zone against Minnesota? He literally picked up the ball and put it in his Adam’s apple.

And look, we are not protecting him well. It’s not rocket science, you know? He’s had some pressure. … But I just think he’s overthinking, and it’s like he’s paralyzed in his play. It paralyzes your body. I truly believe that. Can he get out of it? I think he can.

SF: But Darnold has appeared to get worse in every game during this four-week losing streak that has dropped the Panthers to 3-4 and he even got benched last week. You’re not giving up on the Darnold experiment like some fans already have?

JD: No, I’m not. And listen, I understand how bad last week was. We know it wasn’t good. Everybody knows. ... And (Darnold) doesn’t show a ton of emotion, right? He’s very measured. I just want to see him relax and breathe a little bit.

Maybe last week was a culmination. He wanted to play well. It’s back in New York. ... Did that make him want to be perfect?

Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold was benched for the final few series against the New York Giants on Oct. 24, but coach Matt Rhule said Darnold will start again on Halloween at Atlanta.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold was benched for the final few series against the New York Giants on Oct. 24, but coach Matt Rhule said Darnold will start again on Halloween at Atlanta.

He’s got to get better. It’s very simple. Nobody is coming to save us. Do I sound like (former Panther coach) John Fox? Well, he was right. Nobody is coming to save us, so how are we going to respond?

There’s no better way than to go and play well in Atlanta. Just let it loose. Go play. Trust the offense. You’re smart. Get the play call, go through the reads — 1-2-3 checkdown. Boom.

SF: How much of Darnold’s problem is the absence of Christian McCaffrey, who has missed every game of the four-game losing streak and will again be absent Sunday vs. Atlanta due to a hamstring injury?

JD: The first 3 ½ to 4 games, Darnold’s feet were so good. He would drop back and if it was zone, he went right to his checkdown. Now was that because Christian was playing the majority of the time?

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, center, will miss his fifth straight game Sunday at Atlanta. He hurt his hamstring Sept. 23 at Houston.
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, center, will miss his fifth straight game Sunday at Atlanta. He hurt his hamstring Sept. 23 at Houston.

Well, he was dropping to his checkdown because 1) it was Christian and 2) it was the right thing to do. And so I just don’t see that happening as quickly the last few weeks. ... That play in the red zone last week (when Darnold threw an interception to James Bradberry), they were playing zone coverage and Bradberry is a fantastic zone corner. I thought that was forcing a square peg into a round hole. Obviously, I’m the pot calling the kettle black in terms of forcing square pegs (Delhomme once played a playoff game for the Panthers in which he threw five interceptions and lost a fumble).

I’ve seen him play well without Christian. Or, should I say, well enough (against Dallas and Minnesota) …

Listen, when 22 suits up again, I think you’re going to see the offense’s confidence come back. Is that wrong? That it’s one person that has that much effect on a team? I don’t know. But 22 is special, and he does something to this offense.

Former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme now lives in Louisiana, where he grew up. He is scheduled to call 13 of 17 Panthers’ regular-season games on the radio this season.
Former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme now lives in Louisiana, where he grew up. He is scheduled to call 13 of 17 Panthers’ regular-season games on the radio this season.

SF: Anyone you’ve seen this season you think Darnold should emulate?

JD: Kirk Cousins. I want to tell him: ‘Sam, just play like Kirk played that day (when Cousins threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in Minnesota’s 34-28 win over Carolina on Oct. 17th).’

Kirk saw us coming with pressure? He checked to a quick screen immediately to the outside. He didn’t like something? He threw the ball away.

Now he’s got a lot more NFL years than Sam does. But I just kind of thought: Man, if Sam would just do that a little bit more, I think it would really help him out and get his confidence back.

Jake Delhomme still leads the Panthers in number of all-time playoff wins by a quarterback, with five.
Jake Delhomme still leads the Panthers in number of all-time playoff wins by a quarterback, with five.

SF: What’s your thought on the Deshaun Watson conundrum? Should the Panthers trade for him?

JD: How does anybody trade for him? And not because he’s not a great player. Listen, if there were no accusations out there at all (Watson is accused of sexual misconduct in 22 separate civil lawsuits) and it was just a problem with the team, then 100%. If you’re looking for a franchise quarterback, he’s your guy.

But my thing is: Where does this end up? I understand he’s not suspended. I understand nothing has happened. But who’s to say you trade for him, they put him on this (commissioner’s exempt) list and then what?

In 2009, his final year with the Panthers, Delhomme celebrated a victory over Washington.
In 2009, his final year with the Panthers, Delhomme celebrated a victory over Washington.

To me, there’s just not enough clarity. If I’m a team, how do I know? I give up all this and then will I have him? Will I not have him? But for the player himself, he’s a hell of a football player. That’s not in question here. It’s just everything else that comes with it. I just don’t know if there are enough answers there.

SF: I know you and Jordan Gross, your fellow Hall of Honor inductee in 2019, have split the Panthers’ official radio analyst duties for the past several years. How many games will you do this year?

JD: Most of them (13 out of 17 regular-season games). Jordan did the Giants game. He’s doing the Washington game in Charlotte. He’s going to Arizona and he’s going to the Tampa Bay game in January.

SF: Lastly, what are your thoughts on Cam Newton? He says he’s now vaccinated against COVID, he’s only 32 years old and he doesn’t have an NFL job after being released by New England. Will he ever play in the league again?

JD: Man, I don’t know. I truly think talent-wise he can. I would love to have seen him play this year. I think he would have been a better quarterback this year. You know if Mac Jones doesn’t fall to 15 (in April’s NFL draft), Cam is the quarterback in New England.

You can’t tell me he couldn’t help a team, because I think he could. His sheer size. His presence.

Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton smiles in 2016 after a training camp practice.
Former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton smiles in 2016 after a training camp practice.

SF: You told me once, though, that Cam wasn’t a ‘just in case’ quarterback and that you couldn’t see him as a backup.

JD: And I don’t see him that way. Because if you’re a team that’s struggling, how do you look on the sideline if you’re the coach and know the team is going to be like: ‘Hey, put this guy in.’ He’s a former NFL MVP who isn’t 40 years old. This is a Greek god.

And maybe that’s why teams have struggled to bring him in, even as a backup. Because either they don’t think he’s a backup, or it would mess up the psyche of somebody else? I can’t answer that one. I don’t know.