The real story behind why Sam Darnold became Panthers QB instead of Deshaun Watson

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No matter how good your decision-making process is in the NFL, you also need great luck to have a shot at a memorable season.

Consider the strange case of the Carolina Panthers and Deshaun Watson.

If things had gone the way the Panthers wanted them to in late January, the Panthers would be the ones saddled with Watson and his 22-civil-lawsuit mess right now. Sam Darnold would either be playing for the New York Jets or for someone else entirely.

Instead, on Thursday night, Darnold will lead the 2-0 Panthers in a nationally televised Thursday Night Football game (8:20 p.m. on NFL Network; WSOC-Channel 9 in Charlotte) against Houston. The Texans have benched a healthy Watson, the former Clemson quarterback who faces multiple investigations after the allegations of sexual assault and lewd behavior. Watson remains on the trade market, but he’s radioactive with the ongoing NFL investigation.

The Texans will start rookie quarterback Davis Mills in what is a prime opportunity for the Panthers to begin the season 3-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl year of 2015.

Based on my reporting, here’s how the Panthers’ complicated quarterback situation played out over the past nine months, as attempted trades for Watson and Matthew Stafford never happened despite the Panthers’ best attempts. Those unsuccessful forays eventually led the Panthers to Darnold, who has played well for a surprising Carolina team.

Trying to trade for Watson

Panthers owner David Tepper fired former general manager Marty Hurney in December, citing philosophical differences, and hired new GM Scott Fitterer on Jan. 14. Fitterer, whose opening press conference is mostly remembered for his declaration that he wanted the Panthers to be “in on every deal,” had one huge immediate issue: Fixing the quarterback position.

The Panthers had grown disenchanted with Teddy Bridgewater after only one season. Bridgewater was a nice guy, but he had gone 4-11 as the Panthers’ starter in 2020 and had made too many fourth-quarter mistakes in winnable games.

A QB upgrade was deemed necessary.

But who? And how?

The Panthers tried to pursue Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) in January and February, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by the Texans.
The Panthers tried to pursue Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) in January and February, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by the Texans.

Tepper was extremely bullish on Watson, who in late January was reported by several media outlets to want out of Houston because he was unhappy with the direction of the franchise. Tepper stays in touch with the Panthers’ decision-makers daily and likes to be informed about all team personnel moves and at least consulted on the major ones. The owner thought Watson would be a great fit. (I did, too, writing a column in February advocating the Panthers do practically anything to trade for Watson, a 25-year-old franchise quarterback with a manageable contract who remains one of the best 10 QBs in the world.)

Remember, all this came before any of the civil lawsuits.

Houston repeatedly shut down the Panthers’ many efforts to see what would be required to get Watson, declining to even return the team’s phone calls. Although Watson would have had to approve any trade to Carolina or anywhere else, the Panthers never got in touch with Watson’s agent to see if that could happen. They wanted to see if Houston would engage with them first, and since that never occurred, they figured the rest was moot. Houston was treating several other NFL teams the same way.

Panthers’ attempts to land Stafford

Around the same time in late January, the Panthers got involved in the bidding war for Stafford, the veteran QB with the strong arm who had been stuck since 2009 on a mediocre Detroit team.

Carolina was willing to trade Bridgewater and multiple high draft picks to get Stafford. The Panthers front office was excited about the possibility.

But Stafford preferred the L.A. Rams as a destination. The Rams ultimately out-flanked the Panthers and several other Stafford suitors with a trade offer to Detroit that included quarterback Jared Goff and two future first-round picks.

Detroit QB Matthew Stafford (9) was on the trade market in early 2021 and Carolina was interested. But Stafford instead was shipped to the L.A. Rams.
Detroit QB Matthew Stafford (9) was on the trade market in early 2021 and Carolina was interested. But Stafford instead was shipped to the L.A. Rams.

The proposed Watson deal remained a non-starter for the Panthers for several weeks after that — Houston was still insisting at the time he wasn’t going to be traded.

Then, in March, the lurid accusations — and the civil lawsuits — about Watson’s inappropriate behavior with multiple massage therapists started to pile up. Through his attorney, Watson has denied all wrongdoing.

The NFL, the FBI and the Houston Police Department continue to investigate, and Watson is in an odd state of limbo. Although healthy, the Texans won’t play him, haven’t released him and continue to pay his $10.5 million salary. Now the Texans are reportedly ready to trade Watson, but ESPN has reported that they continue to insist on some combination of six draft picks and/or players.

No NFL team will meet that price — although the Panthers certainly would have considered it in January.

The pursuit of Sam Darnold

In mid-March, Bridgewater was still on Carolina’s roster as the de facto starter, and the Panthers also held the No. 8 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. The team was doing its normal due diligence, scouring players on other NFL squads at all positions.

At one point, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was watching a New York Jets tape and was impressed with Darnold. He went into Fitterer’s office and wondered if Darnold might be available via trade. Darnold had had a terrible statistical year for the 2-14 Jets in 2020, after all.

The Panthers decided to find out and got in touch with the Jets. Darnold had played for three years in the NFL and was the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, but at the time he was still only 23 years old. What if Carolina could get Darnold, still keep the No. 8 pick and then draft a positional player there who could also help right away?

Carolina’s first trade attempts with the Jets in mid-March, though, weren’t greeted with open arms. The Jets held the No. 2 overall pick, which meant they could select anyone except Trevor Lawrence, whom everyone correctly assumed Jacksonville would take at No. 1.

The Panthers gave up three draft picks to wrest Sam Darnold away from the New York Jets in April, after the Jets were satisfied that Zach Wilson could be their QB of the future.
The Panthers gave up three draft picks to wrest Sam Darnold away from the New York Jets in April, after the Jets were satisfied that Zach Wilson could be their QB of the future.

New York had decided that it probably wanted BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, but the Jets wanted to wait until his Pro Day on March 26, when they could watch him make a variety of difficult throws in controlled circumstances.

Wilson aced his Pro Day in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams. Fitterer and Jets general manager Joe Douglas were in Provo, Utah, to watch in person.

The successful Pro Day made the Jets comfortable with the idea of Wilson as their future QB, which meant they were now far more willing to trade Darnold. However, they wanted a first-round pick as part of the deal — ideally, Carolina’s No. 8 pick in 2021. The Jets were aiming high for compensation, as teams generally do.

Carolina was strongly opposed to trading the No. 8 pick and also didn’t want to give away a future first-rounder, either. Negotiations got serious. And within about a week, a deal was struck. It was officially announced April 5: Carolina would send a 2021 sixth-round pick, as well as their second- and fourth-round picks in 2022, to the Jets in exchange for Darnold.

An unanswered prayer

Bridgewater then needed to be moved or released, because he was too expensive to keep as a backup QB. Carolina ended up trading him to the Denver Broncos for a sixth-round pick and some salary-cap relief in late April, just before the 2021 draft. Like Darnold, Bridgewater has now won his first two starts for his new team.

The New York Jets weren’t willing to trade Sam Darnold until they saw Zach Wilson (2) throw the ball well at Brigham Young’s Pro Day on March 26th. Wilson opened his career against the Panthers on Sept. 12th, getting sacked six times.
The New York Jets weren’t willing to trade Sam Darnold until they saw Zach Wilson (2) throw the ball well at Brigham Young’s Pro Day on March 26th. Wilson opened his career against the Panthers on Sept. 12th, getting sacked six times.

With the No. 8 pick on April 29, Carolina had a shot at taking either Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields or Alabama QB Mac Jones. Instead, the Panthers took South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, figuring he could start from Day 1 and deciding to gamble a little more on Darnold. It’s early, but the plan has come to fruition beautifully. Darnold hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been impressive, throwing for 279 and 305 yards in Carolina’s two wins. Horn had his first NFL interception in Week 2.

As for Watson, who will watch the Panthers-Texans game Thursday night from the bench in Houston:

He was the quarterback the Panthers wanted most only nine months ago. It didn’t work out and never came close.

Instead, the Panthers’ unsuccessful fling with the idea Watson could be another lyric in Garth Brooks’ old country standard “Unanswered Prayers.”

In that song, the grown-up protagonist sees his old flame at a high school football game while accompanied by his wife, then thanks God for not granting his inexperienced wish as a teenager to link him to his old girlfriend forever.

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” as Garth sang.

The Panthers’ unrequited pursuit of Watson certainly qualifies as one of those — an unanswered prayer that worked out for the best.