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Panthers' Darnold Sheds Mask, Won't Discuss COVID Vaccination

 Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold speaks to reporters Tuesday in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
David Newton/ESPN
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold speaks to reporters Tuesday in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Sam Darnold wasn’t willing to divulge whether he’s been vaccinated against the coronavirus as the Carolina Panthers reported to training camp.

Instead, Carolina’s new starting quarterback said his focus is on making “smart decisions” on the field as he tries to resurrect his NFL career after going 13-25 in three seasons in New York, prompting the Jets to trade him to the Panthers.

“People outside looking in can say there is a lot of pressure on (me) and he’s got to win — and that’s true,” Darnold said. “But at the end of the day it’s me going out and doing everything I can today to get better.”

The 24-year-old Darnold said on a Zoom call last month that he hadn’t been vaccinated, adding that he “still has to think about all those certain things that go into it.”

He did not wear a mask Tuesday as he stood a few feet from reporters answering questions.

A Panthers spokesman wouldn’t say if Darnold had been vaccinated, but confirmed to The Associated Press that unvaccinated players are required to wear a mask while conducting interviews with the media.

Darnold said the new league protocols on testing that were recently put in place — ones that could result in teams with COVID-19 outbreaks having to forfeit games — didn't affect his decision.

“For me, I was just making personal decisions the whole way,” Darnold said. “That was pretty much it for me in terms of getting vaccinated or not. It's been a personal decision the whole time so I weighed my options and made my decision that way.”

Panthers coach Matt Rhule is encouraged that more than 85% of his players are vaccinated, making Carolina one of the most highly vaccinated teams in the league.

“There is no doubt that being vaccinated helps our team,” Rhule said. “The more guys that are vaccinated, the closer we can be in meetings and the more we can be around each other. But at the end of the day it’s everyone’s personal decision.”

On the field, Darnold inherits an offense with considerably more talent than he had to work with in New York.

Although the Panthers have questions at left tackle, they feature a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in D.J Moore and Darnold’s former Jets teammate Robby Anderson, a new weapon at tight end in Dan Arnold and 2019 All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, who said he's healthy after missing 13 games last season due to injuries.

Darnold seems focused on the task at hand.

He’s been at the stadium almost every day before 7 a.m. lifting weights, watching game film and learning offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s playbook. He’s worked extensively with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer on his footwork, hoping to eliminate throwing off his back foot.

Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said he saw significant progress from Darnold during offseason workouts.

“There are times when he’s looked really, really good and you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s making a lot of progress,’” Fitterer said. “And then you throw something new at him and it catches him off guard. But then he changes the next day and doesn’t make that same mistake, which is really good to see.”

McCaffrey has been impressed with what he’s seen from Darnold, who replaced Teddy Bridgewater as the team's starting QB.

He said Darnold has talked with his teammates to get a feel for their strengths on the field.

“He’s a great leader and he knows exactly who he is and knows how to get the best out of the people around him,” McCaffrey said. “I think his poise is something that is important at the quarterback position. He doesn’t get too high or too low and that is something that we feed off of.”

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Steve Reed | Associated Press