Matt Rhule's second season in Charlotte began with the belief his staff could reclaim the career of Sam Darnold, but it hasn't gone according to plan.
Darnold hasn't played in over a month due to a scapula injury that landed him on injured reserve, prompting the Panthers to launch a reunion tour with Cam Newton, one that has included the implementation of a two-quarterback system with Newton and backup P.J. Walker simply out of necessity. Carolina has spent the last month floating at best, winning just once since Darnold's injury. At 5-8, the Panthers' season is on the brink, and reinforcements don't appear to be coming soon.
Darnold was designated to return from injured reserve Wednesday but is not yet cleared for contact. That will mean more of Newton and Walker for the foreseeable future.
"He's cleared, but he's not cleared to play," Rhule said, via the team's official site. "I'm not sure when that will be. He's good enough to throw and move around, but he can't take contact yet. So that will come down to a CT scan, probably in the coming weeks. So he's still got a little ways."
With only four weeks left to play, the "coming weeks" are dwindling. Darnold's first season with the Panthers has been underwhelming, but the team is at least financially committed to him through 2022 after picking up his fifth-year option following the trade that brought him to Carolina.
He might not see the field again until 2022. Whether that happens with the Panthers will be decided in the offseason.
"I don't even know if he'll be back," Rhule said. "It's good for Sam to start to get out there and practice with his teammates and do some drills, and all that but that's so far down the line in terms of getting cleared. So much will happen between now and then."
The length of time between now and then is just four weeks. Darnold's season could already be over, and if it isn't, it sounds as if his return could arrive in an essentially meaningless game. The Panthers have 21 days to activate Darnold from IR. For Carolina, there's still value in bringing him back for evaluation purposes.
Beyond that, the Panthers can only hope that game (or those games) means more than reps to be used for future improvement. After winning just two of its last 10 games, Carolina certainly could use some of that.