Sam Darnold’s rocky 2021 season took another downturn when the Carolina Panthers QB was diagnosed with a severe shoulder injury. Darnold’s season had already been trending downward at the pace with which a rock plunges into a ravine, and it appears we might have hit the bottom heading into Week 10. Let’s take a look at the severity of Darnold’s injury, the time frame for a potential return, and the Panthers’ options in his absence.
Sam Darnold’s injury will see the QB miss several weeks
After extensive tests to attempt to diagnose Darnold’s shoulder injury, a crack in the scapula of his throwing arm was discovered. According to a report by NFL Insider Ian Rapoport, the injury is an incomplete fracture and will require Darnold to miss several weeks.
Darnold played through the injury in Week 9
Darnold first suffered a shoulder injury in the Panthers’ Week 8 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. He also suffered a concussion in that game. The concussion was viewed by many as the bigger hurdle to him playing in Week 9. Darnold was cleared from the concussion protocol on Saturday and started for the Panthers against the New England Patriots in Week 9.
What is not clear is whether the fracture was already present before the game against the Patriots or caused during that game. The shoulder soreness that Darnold struggled with last week would suggest some sort of fracture went undetected. Whether the game against the Patriots exacerbated the situation or not is unknown.
What is the time frame for Darnold’s return from injury?
Matt Rhule said the timeframe for Darnold to recover from his injury is currently 4-6 weeks. That would put Darnold on pace to return between Weeks 13 and 15. With the Panthers having a bye in Week 13, there is little chance we see him before that. Therefore, that would give him either 4 or 5 games at the end of the year.
The Panthers’ problem is whether they push Darnold out if he is not quite 100%. The Panthers have a decision to make about the future of the QB position in 2021. From what we have seen, they should be looking to move on from Darnold. A report from ESPN on Sunday morning stated that league sources have said the Panthers are acting as if Darnold is out for the entirety of the 2021 NFL season.
Nonetheless, with the Panthers committed to Darnold’s fifth-year option, might they want to have another short look at him to end the season?
The problem is, if Darnold isn’t 100%, his performance will not be representative of his true potential. If the injury were to his non-throwing shoulder, it would be different. But with the injury to the right shoulder, the Panthers likely learn little throwing Darnold into the fire for a three-to-five-week sample size at the end of the year. Their decision may also depend on the QB situation behind Darnold later in the season.
Cam Newton is set to be the starter for Carolina from Week 11
While P.J Walker will get the start in Week 10, the Panthers reunited with their former QB and 2015 NFL MVP in Cam Newton. Newton is expected to be active in Week 10 but will not start until Week 11 at the earliest. That leaves Walker with an opportunity to make a claim for his place in Week 10.
In 2021, Walker has thrown just 15 passes. Unfortunately, he has been sacked as many times (3) as he has completed passes this year. In both of the past two seasons, he has been running schemes designed for another QB. It now appears as though we will not have a chance to truly see what Walker can bring to the table in the NFL.
Unless Walker is incredible in Week 10, this is now essentially Newton’s team for the foreseeable future. The QB, who threw for 3,980 yards with 182 passing touchdowns, while adding 1,071 rushing yards, and 70 rushing touchdowns in his first nine years with the Panthers will get the opportunity to prove what he still has. If he performs well, the Panthers have no reason to rush Darnold back.
However, the Panthers likely won’t consider Darnold’s season to be completely over, just in case. If Newton keeps them in playoff contention but gets hurt in the final weeks, then having Darnold to turn to could be valuable. If Newton struggles, the Panthers may also decide they want to see more of Darnold. The QB situation in Carolina has gotten very interesting indeed.