Sam Darnold still a bust or did he just need the right situation?
By Peter Panacy
Depending on who you ask, Sam Darnold will either continue to be a bust with the 49ers or will suddenly blossom into a star.
The narrative around new San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold is truly fascinating.
The No. 3 overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft out of USC, one who flamed out with both the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, certainly joined the best possible roster and under the best head coach he's had, Kyle Shanahan, since going pro.
At the same time, and despite having $3.5 million in guaranteed money with the Niners this season, he's still a No. 3 option on the depth chart behind fellow signal-callers Brock Purdy and Trey Lance.
With Purdy still recovering from offseason elbow surgery, Darnold and Lance are poised to split first-team reps during organized team activities, minicamp and potentially even training camp. And, if Purdy isn't available for the start of the regular season, the competition between Lance and Darnold will be even more meaningful.
Could Darnold ultimately start the year as San Francisco's QB1? Is there a reality that Darnold merely just went through horrible contexts and only needed a team like the 49ers and a coach like Shanahan to fully thrive?
Or is Darnold as bad as he's been?
Truly, the argument in favor of both has been, well... provocative.
Is Sam Darnold a victim of 'potential untapped?'
Having "potential" is a nice way of saying, "you haven't done anything." In Darnold's case, that's effectively true.
He own's a 59.7 completion percentage with 61 touchdowns thrown against 55 interceptions and a career passer rating of 78.2. While things improved modestly down the stretch with Carolina last year under then-interim head coach Steve Wilks, now the Niners' defensive coordinator, the general conclusion is Darnold is a bust.
Except there are plenty of well-respected analysts and even NFL insiders who either feel or are reporting that Darnold can finally thrive under Shanahan.
Remember what NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco said to KNBR 680 earlier this offseason?
"He might be — can I say this — the most talented thrower of the football that the 49ers have ever had. Let’s just put him in the very high echelon of guys who can just drop back in the pocket and throw the football. I think that he hasn’t really had any chance to succeed since his college days are over. I think he’s had four head coaches in five years, five offensive coordinators in five years. He’s a talented guy."
Maiocco later admitted the hyperbole, but he stood by his statements with regard to Darnold's pure talent.
He's also not alone in claiming Darnold's upside, as KNBR radio host and gameday play-by-play announcer Greg Papa suggested the quarterback "could be Brock Purdy of 2023," in terms of coming out of nowhere and succeeding:
The talk goes beyond San Francisco circles, too, as ESPN's Jeremy Fowler (h/t BroBible's Dov Kleiman) reported that Darnold will contend for "meaningful snaps as early as week 1 and believe his major talent has gone largely untapped."
'Sam Darnold still sucks' argument
This is an excellent argument from Chat Sports' Chase Senior:
"Even though he's had those four head coaches and five [offensive coordinators] in five years, he's made some really poor decisions with the football," Senior argued. "And that's really been the thing that's held him back."
Simply put, whatever the talents are, Darnold has failed to capitalize on some awful mistakes. Even with a bad team around him, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 61-to-55 isn't good. And neither is a career interception percentage of 3.1.
Read More: Sam Darnold contract shows 49ers' concern with Brock Purdy's recovery
That portion of the argument stresses that Darnold struggles with things that no coaching staff or teammate can effectively assist with, and those problems won't just carry over to the 49ers this year but they'll also undermine the rest of the quarterback's career.
Do we know that to be true, too?
Of course not. There are so many X-factors at play over the next few months, including Lance, who could essentially outplay Darnold even if the latter ends up shining during training camp. In fact, Darnold could potentially have his best camp ever. But, if Lance winds up being only slightly better or Purdy comes back and plays well, too, Darnold will be relegated to QB3 status once again.
Or Darnold might just not be that good. Both outcomes are fully in play.