Sam Darnold was always going to be a tough sell, in my opinion, as David Tepper's long-term quarterback solution. The Panthers uber-aggressive owner wants a top flight, elite starting QB; it's lost on no one within that organization or around the league, and it's always looked a long shot to me that Darnold was going to suffice.
And for all of the hype about Darnold at the very start of the season, as the Panthers rolled to a 3-0 start, the reality is that the former first-round pick has limitations, he quickly became – at least to some degree – damaged good by how the Jets mismanaged him, and expecting him to emerge as a true franchise quarterback seemed like a stretch. And on Sunday, as Darnold threw three interceptions, including one final pick late in the game to clinch a troubling loss to the Eagles, some who know the billionaire Tepper well could just see hm fuming in his suite and mulling throwing a cadre of draft picks at the Texans to take Deshaun Watson off their hands.
If you recall, I reported extensively on Tepper's lust to land Watson – a college star at Clemson, just down the road from the Panthers headquarters – early in the offseason. But back then, the Texans were still being ridiculously obstinate about the star quarterback's future in Houston, and the Panthers eventually made a far-lesser gamble by acquiring Darnold and crossing their fingers that Darnold might find the form that led to him being a top-10 pick in 2018.
Then the allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault started mounting for Watson, and with that cloud of uncertainty hanging over Watson's future, both legally and as it pertains to the NFL, no trade has come together at this point. And, most executives in this league figure Watson would end up on the Commissioner's Exempt List if a team did try to deal for him and play him this season.
But with Darnold having his struggles, and Tepper wildly driven to win and accustomed to having a Hall of Fame quarterback (as a minority owner in Pittsburgh he was there for Ben Roethlisberger's rise), and the trade deadline now just a few weeks away, it's a prospect worth monitoring. For all of the talk about the Dolphins and Watson, Tepper isn't used to not getting his man, and if he were to set his sights on Watson I wouldn't bet against him doing what it takes to secure the deal.
He knows Texans executive Jack Easterby fairly well, the Texans would obviously rather ship their best player to the NFC if possible, and Tepper would have Watson's contractual rights well beyond this season even if the NFL did intervene. If nothing else, you'll never convince me he is content with the current QB room, and he probably sees Darnold as being a lot closer to last year's placeholder QB, Teddy Bridgewater, than to the likes of Justin Herbert or Joe Burrow or Kyler Murray or Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson.
You'll never convince me he doesn't think there isn't a better option out there. You won't convince me that he's satisfied.
Darnold has tossed three touchdowns to five interceptions over the last three games, taking 11 sacks in that span. One could most definitely argue that Darnold had everything to do with the Panthers losing control of a game they appeared to have in hand Sunday, undermining a very good defense, and allowing the Eagles to overcome a 15-3 deficit.
Throwing horrible picks at a terrible time became something of a calling card with the Jets; everything was horrible there, hence a second chance in Carolina. But Sunday he had future head-coach-in-the-making Joe Brady calling his plays, and he was playing with a lead, and this is the kind of outing that is very likely to resonate strongly with this owner for all the wrong reasons.
I'd still figure that Watson is a Texan come three weeks from now. But you never know.
Winston good enough for Saints (for now)
Jameis Winston is never boring. Let's give him that.
The Saints quarterback began the game with an interception, bounced back to throw a beautiful bomb for a touchdown, took a bad sack holding the ball too long on the third possession and then ended the half on a ridiculous, improbable Hail Mary touchdown that basically gave the Saints the cushion they would need to hold off Washington.
You get a little bit of everything with him. All the time.
I don't think Winston will end up as more than a one-year stopgap (a la Darnold) but I continue to believe he will be enough to get that team to the postseason. They have an offensive line, they can run the ball and the defense has plenty of bite. Not a bad equation. And after that brutal early pick he bounced back to throw four TD passes.
Consistency will never be his hallmark. Even Sean Payton can't coax that. But he has managed to not throw a pick in three of his five outings for New Orleans, and a road-weary team that dealt with the impact of a tropical storm can reset with an early Week 6 bye and get back into some normal routines after that.
Suddenly, concern about Denver's 'D'
But there was always a caveat. They hadn't played anyone yet. They weren't dealing a with big boy offense. They got to feast on a then-struggling Daniel Jones in the opener followed by rookies Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, allowing 26 total points and a collective QB rating around 50 and looked impenetrable. Now that they have faced the Ravens and Steelers last few weeks … not so much.
Pittsburgh's offense got right against them a week after Lamar Jackson lit them up, and you have to start asking questions about whether this operation is really going to be good enough to flirt with a wild-card spot in a tough AFC. Injuries have taken a significant toll, but that's football, and Vic Fangio's defense has suddenly yielded 50 points in two weeks and the Broncos have the air of a team that may have peaked in September.
Ben Roethlisberger pushed the ball downfield with more verve and regularity than he has in perhaps a calendar year, and a Steelers team that hasn't run the ball well since sometime in 2019, perhaps, quickly churned up 100 yards behind rookie back Najee Harris. Color me concerned.
More Week 5 insider notes
- Something has to give in Miami. They have made too many mistakes and taken too many steps backward to think that this regime is going to be intact in 2022, barring a major reversal that doesn't seem likely. They have regressed substantially from a year ago, continue to get next to nothing from vital draft picks and acquisitions and Brian Flores' defense isn't much good this year. Xavien Howard getting attacked by Tom Brady and Antonio Brown all day? I suspect Flores would win a power struggle with GM Chris Grier if it comes to that, and that he could curry sufficient favor with ownership, though one wonders if a total reboot would make the most sense if that kind of inept football continues. The dual-offensive coordinator thing was always silly, and now it looks downright mindless …
- Ja'Marr Chase is looking like the offensive rookie of the year to me. Brutal loss for the Bengals, but they have made major strides, Zac Taylor has grown into the head coach role and as long as Joe Burrow stay healthy they are going to be a factor in the AFC playoff scene …
- Bill Belichick the GM hit a home run with the signing of Matt Judon, but the Patriots continue to leave me wanting more. Gutsy comeback over Houston, but there are problems on both sides of the ball with this team …
- Cannot believe the Lions found a way to lose another game in such awful fashion. Dan Campbell will appreciate the hell out of his first NFL win, and that group already shows a different fire and spirit than was the case with Matt Patricia at the helm. You have to think they get at least a little bit lucky soon enough.