HOUSTON — The Panthers had to find out a little bit about themselves Thursday night when they had to play without Christian McCaffrey.
The Panthers quarterback took on a leading role, leading his team through the adversity of losing their best offensive player, and surviving a sloppy game to beat the Texans 24-9 on the road in a short week.
Darnold threw for 304 yards and ran for two touchdowns to lead the way, as he continues to earn the respect of his teammates.
On a night when moods were downcast after McCaffrey (hamstring) and rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn (broken foot) left with injuries, outside linebacker Haason Reddick brightened a bit when asked what Darnold is showing his teammates.
"That he can ball, man," Reddick said. "Sam, he's a gamer. Guy's a flat-out baller right now."
That's more of a description than Darnold will give himself, as he was his same matter-of-fact Darnold after what could be a defining win here.
"For us, we're starting to find our identity as an offense," Darnold said. "I've just got to, whatever play is called, we've got to execute that play. That's my job, is to get us in the right play and make sure we're hitting on all cylinders, and the offense is moving in the right direction."
That's not a quote that will fire up the locals, it's just his personality. And that's part of the reason he's working at the moment. He just shows up and works.
While many people wondered whether he could recover from the New York experience, he's showing poise here, and earning more and more confidence from those around him in the process.
"Number one, if you watch the way we called the game, it means we trust him," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said. "Even in that last drive, we were throwing four verticals with him. I just think in my mind, I say to myself all the time, these are professional football players. Let them go play. Don't try to over-manage the game. Let them go make plays."
Darnold did just that on the opening drive of the second half, helping the Panthers scrap together an offense by finding DJ Moore a couple of times, punt returner Alex Erickson for a 25-yard completion, and then handing it to tight end Tommy Tremble for a touchdown run. That was the Panthers' first score in the third quarter this season, and was followed by two more scoring drives in the fourth quarter. One ended with a short Zane Gonzalez field goal, and the other with a Darnold 1-yard plunge where he lost his helmet in the process.
"It was hectic," Darnold said "There were a lot of things going on."
The same could be said of his team. If McCaffrey misses time, much more focus will be on the quarterback, and he knows it.
But he called back to the team's near-perfect attendance in OTAs, and to a physical training camp and guessing joint practices against the Colts and Ravens.
"I mean, we're resilient," he said.
That starts with Darnold, who is convincing them day by day that he can be the leader they need. Thursday, it was a second half when he steadied the ship by going 10-of-14 for 146 yards on three scoring drives.
"We got a good one, man," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We've got a good one, and he's only going to get better.
"It's always hard playing without one of your best players, but Sam stepped up and did a tremendous job tonight."
View photos throughout Thursday Night Football in Houston in Week 3.