The New York Jets won’t have to wait long to check in on Sam Darnold, as they’ll open their 2021 season against their April trade partners.
The Opponent: Carolina Panthers
The Date: Week 1, September 12, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
The Series: Carolina leads 4-3 (last meeting: 2017, 35-27 CAR)
The “main protagonist showing off their new significant other in front of their ex” episode seems to be a staple of every sitcom. But more serious matters await in Charlotte on September 12.
Five months after collaborating on a trade that set the post-Trevor Lawrence portions of the 2021 NFL Draft into motion, the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers will do battle to open their respective campaigns. That April transaction ended the Jets’ Sam Darnold era in New York, giving way to the Zach Wilson chapters of the green Gospel.
Blessed with a rare meeting between New York and Carolina, the scheduling powers that be at the NFL wasted no time in staging a reunion. The Jets will face off against an interconfertnce opponent on kickoff weekend for the first time since 2018, when the Darnold saga began with a win in Detroit.
Darnold won’t be the only former green representative partaking in the game. Other ex-Jets who saw nothing finer than Carolina include Robby Anderson, Juston Burris, Pat Elflein, and Frankie Luvu.
The Skinny on the Panthers
The Jets will likely be all too familiar with the predicament the Panthers currently find themselves in: trapped in a division with Tom Brady with no end to his reign in sight. Carolina hit the reset button shortly before Brady took his talents to Tampa, firing Ron Rivera and bidding farewell to franchise face Cam Newton after the 2019 season.
To replace the departed Rivera, Carolina hired Matt Rhule, who knew more than a thing or two about rebuilds on the college level. Following a one-year term as a metropolitan assistant (assistant offensive line coach with the Giants), Rhule went back to school and dragged Temple and Baylor out of the college football underworld. Rhule was reportedly strongly considered for the Jets’ job following Todd Bowles’ ousting, but he wound up returning to Waco for one more season (guiding the Bears to a Sugar Bowl appearance and a program-record 11 wins).
The football gods immediately bestowed Rhule another hurdle to leap, as injuries swallowed Christian McCaffrey after he became the highest-paid rusher in NFL history (four years, $64 million). Despite the loss of McCaffrey, the Panthers played respectable football. They were unable to escape another 5-11 season (their ten-win tally over the last two years is their worst since 2010-11), but nearly every game was competitive. Eight of their eleven losses came by single digits and they scored a late win over the playoff-bound Washington Football Team in December.
What’s New in Carolina?
When removing veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina was one of the youngest teams in football last season (26.05 on their 53-man opening day roster). Somehow, they managed to get younger, apparently finding the fountain of youth in Cleveland.
The Panthers were one of three teams (Dallas and Minnesota the others) that came to the podium an event-high 11 times during draft weekend. They used their opening pick (eighth overall) on South Carolina defender Jaycee Horn and ensured continued to surround Darnold with strong talents. Some of Carolina’s Saturday gems could particularly intriguing: injury issues landed Oklahoma State offensive force Chuba Hubbard in the fourth round, while another former Gamecock, Shi Smith, could become a hidden gem in the sixth-round.
Defensively, Horn will join Burris and versatile sophomore Jeremy Chinn in the secondary. Veteran A.J. Bouye likewise joins the fold, though the former Denver Bronco is missing the first two games of the year with a PED suspension.
Even before their draft day splurge (which also netted them LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. in the second round), Carolina brought Darnold to an offense that, at least on paper, was better than anything he had to work with in New York. In addition to McCaffrey and fellow former Jet Anderson, Darnold will also get to work with D.J. Moore (1,193 yards in 2020) and touchdown hawk David Moore (no relation).
How to Beat Them
-Let Bygones be Bygones
It’s no secret that the Jets’ visit to Charlotte will be one of the most intriguing matchups of Week 1…if only because the court jesters of Twitter probably already have scheduled posts lauding Darnold and Anderson.
The Jets have proven to be one of the most exhausted sources of social media schadenfreude in football circles. That was ridiculously present throughout the course of the Darnold era. The discourse behind his mononucleosis diagnosis and supernatural encounter probably would’ve died down in a week if it happened anywhere else in the NFL map…but, because it happened in a green uniform, it went viral.
Simply put, the Jets can’t go into Charlotte purely with the purpose of trying to show Darnold and Anderson (who has never let an opportunity to disparage the Jets go to waste) what they’re missing. They’re playing the Carolina Panthers, not the Carolina Ex-Jets.
The team would be wise to follow the example of general manager Joe Douglas. Ironically enough, no one in football was more complimentary toward Darnold than the man who pulled orchestrated his trip down south (notably scoring a second-round pick for a quarterback with a career 78.6 passer rating). Douglas has diplomatically addressed the trade, claiming that Darnold’s “best football is in front of him” but that the trade was in the best interest of both sides.
“Ultimately, we felt that wouldn’t be the best situation for Sam…for Coach Saleh and his staff, and for the locker room,” Douglas said, per team reporter Randy Lange. “We felt this was the best decision for the organization moving forward, hitting the reset button.”
-Un-Christian Like Behavior
To the Panthers’ credit, the team did not completely fall apart when McCaffrey was lost for the season, thanks in part to a career-best season from the Atlanta-bound Mike Davis. If disaster comes to Carolina again, it’ll likely come down to the talented Hubbard to pick up the slack.
But, if McCaffrey is truly back, he’ll undoubtedly be a front-runner for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. No one on the New York defense…heck, any defense on Carolina’s 2021 docket…needs to be told what he’s capable of at full strength.
In the midst of their woebegone 2020 season, the Jets’ run defense was a rare silver lining. Thanks to the breakouts of interior linemen Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers, the Jets’ run game ranked fourth in the AFC last season (12th overall in the league). They’ll have an instant opportunity to prove that last year was no fluke, especially when the offseason centered on bolstering the pass rush.
Will the Jets be able to show Darnold what he’s missing when they meet in September? Follow @GeoffJMags on Twitter @GeoffJMags and continue the conversation.