EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he was looking for a "spark" when he pulled quarterback Sam Darnold in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss to the Giants.
Darnold had thrown for just 111 yards with an interception at the time of the switch, with the Panthers trailing 15-3 in a game they'd lose 25-3.
But Rhule also said he trusts Darnold, and disagreed when asked if Sunday's move made it clear that Darnold wasn't the answer for the franchise.
"Nope. I wouldn't say that," Rhule said. "Obviously, it wasn't what we wanted. I've been on record; quarterbacks go through ups and downs and highs and lows. Look at (Giants quarterback) Daniel Jones tonight. He went through the same kind of game last week (four turnovers in a loss to the Rams), and he came out tonight and played great.
"Sam's got to take care of the football. Sam's got to throw on time. And if it's not there, find the check downs. We can't be driving with a chance to take the lead and throw interceptions. His sense of urgency this week, I expect to be heightened. I try to put that sense of urgency on our coaches, obviously it didn't show up. We have to coach better, and our players have to play better, and that starts with the quarterback."
Rhule realized what he was doing when he pulled Darnold in New York, the site of Darnold's tumultuous three years with the Jets, and how it would set the stage for days or weeks of second-guessing and speculation about the Panthers' decision to trade for Darnold, and to pick up his 2022 option.
"The last thing I want to do is embarrass somebody," Rhule said of replacing Darnold with PJ Walker. "Because I know this is going to be the story this week. But I believe sometimes, if you go back to the old days before all the pressure, quarterbacks would have to sit for a little bit. Sam will define who he is. This is up to him. But we wanted to get something going. . . .
"Sam will be the quarterback. I just wanted to get something going today."
While he sounded a vote of confidence in Darnold, Rhule was also clear that his quarterback needed to play better. The system isn't built for Darnold to do it all himself, and without injured running back Christian McCaffrey and with an offensive line that got another shuffle Sunday, that stability isn't there.
In the three games with McCaffrey, Darnold committed two turnovers. In the four games without his star running back, Darnold has committed eight (seven interceptions and a fumble).
"He just needs a lot of help from a lot of guys right now that he's not getting," Rhule said. "But I see all the good moments too. I see the good things. We're going to keep coaching him. . . .
"Obviously, I want Sam to play better. But he's the guy."
A number of teammates echoed a sense of belief in Darnold. When asked if he trusted Darnold as the starter, center Matt Paradis replied: "One hundred percent. We trust Sam. I trust him. He's a great quarterback, he's a great man. And I trust him."
Defensive end Brian Burns was equally confident in the moment's after the loss: "A hundred percent. He's my teammate, I believe in him, he's our starting quarterback."
Darnold himself didn't appear shaken, or any different than his normal postgame bearing. Then again, Darnold doesn't generally change much that way, win or lose.
He said he "internalized" the decision to replace him, and dismissed the importance of the setting.
"No. It's hard no matter where you are," he said. "As a competitor, you want to go out there and give 100 percent for your teammates and for the guys next to you."
Darnold agreed when asked if this was officially a "slump."
"I think that's a good word for it," Darnold said. "I think offensively speaking, we're unable to find a rhythm. We had a couple of good drives. . . . I've got to continue to do a better job of protecting the football. Because when we get down there, it's points, points we can't afford to give up."
He also insisted the offense could be successful without McCaffrey, regardless of the lack of evidence.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "Obviously Christian's a great player, but yeah, this offense is great. It's a really good system, and we've got to go and execute better and play better."
As Darnold knows, and as Rhule said, that begins with Darnold himself.
View in-game photos from MetLife Stadium as the Panthers play the Giants in Week 7.