Sam Darnold's debut season as a Panther didn't go as anyone in Charlotte had hoped, and nothing is guaranteed going into year two.
In fact, an opportunity to compete for his job wasn't even entirely guaranteed until recently. Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer told Darnold in his exit meeting that the team would be perusing the quarterback market in the offseason, forcing Darnold to tune out the noise, which became deafening during Carolina's pursuit of Deshaun Watson and again grew loud when Fitterer traded up to select Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral in the 2022 draft.
"I think what Sam's been through this offseason is hard," head coach Matt Rhule said, via the Panthers' official site. "Your back's against the wall, everyone's kind of questioning can you do this or not. You can have confidence in yourself and still say, 'Hey, I need to work on these things.' A lot of people get that confused. I think Sam has to have confidence in himself, his ability to work through and grind and develop, and at the same time, identify things he has to improve on. I think we've seen a guy that's showed up, that's got a little more edge to him, a little more, hey, I'm going to show people what I can do.
"I think Sam's very, very focused. What that means, we'll see every day on the field. You can see that he's worked."
Darnold is certainly working, and he's not bashful when asked about his reality. He understands and acknowledges what is at stake in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. He knows there's pressure, but there's been pressure on him since he first put his name on the football map while at USC.
It will be a little bit more difficult with Corral looking over Darnold's shoulder, but the elder of the two still-young quarterbacks (Darnold has four years of NFL experience, but is only a year and a half older than Corral) isn't just playing to keep his job in Carolina. He's playing to prove he's worth a job in the NFL.
Achieving such a goal -- and not just seeking to please Panthers fans -- will end up being significantly more important. And if he does so, he'll make North and South Carolina rather happy, too.
"I mean, I think whatever narrative you guys want to drive, it's not up to me, to be honest," Darnold said. "I can think about it like that, I might not think about it like that, who knows? But for me, it's going out there and just playing every play like it's my last. And it's understanding, what's my job on this play?
"There's enough to have to think about as a quarterback every single play, and if you start to add into the mix, 'oh this is a contract year, or what are they going to do, what am I going to do after this if I don't play well,' ... playing quarterback is hard enough."
Darnold has proven how difficult the position can be to both play, and occasionally, watch. After a hot start to the 2021 season for Carolina, Darnold devolved into a skittish mess before an injury opened the door for Cam Newton to make a (brief) hero's return, and once Darnold made it back to the field, he offered little inspiration, finishing with the worst passer rating of his four-year career.
Now he's learning another new system under another new offensive coordinator in Ben McAdoo. And frankly, if Darnold reached the point at which he no longer cared about what the football world thought of him and instead just went out slinging, it might end up producing the best version of him in the NFL.
Darnold with a "little more edge" might be just what the doctor ordered. After all, he doesn't have much else to lose.