Carolina Panthers suffer first loss, but QB Sam Darnold makes history with his legs

ARLINGTON, Texas – Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold never will be mistaken for Cam Newton or any other dual-threat signal-caller.

But for one Sunday afternoon at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, Darnold did something only Newton has done in team history: rush for two touchdowns and throw for two more in a game.

Newton did it three times during his career at Carolina (2011-2019).

In terms of rushing touchdowns through the first four games, Darnold one-upped Newton during the 36-28 loss. In fact, he one-upped every quarterback in NFL history.

He now has five rushing touchdowns in the first four games, one more than Newton (2020, 2011), Kyler Murray (2020) and Robert Griffin III (2012) had in their best Weeks 1-4 starts.

It’s a surprising feat for Darnold, who is not known for using his legs. He had only five rushing touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons with the New York Jets.

“It’s just kind of a matter of what defenses want to do to us,’’ Darnold said. “If they’re going to throw a certain look, we’re going to take advantage of it.’’

Darnold was more interested in talking about what he did wrong than what he did right. There was plenty of that, particularly in the third quarter, when his two interceptions helped put Carolina in a 33-14 hole from which it couldn’t fully recover.

Both picks came from Trevon Diggs, who has at least one interception in each of the first four games. Darnold was 2-of-7 for 34 yards and those two interceptions on passes when Diggs was the nearest defender Sunday.

Darnold also struggled against the blitz.

In the first half, the Cowboys blitzed on only two of his 20 dropbacks, and he completed 12 of 16 attempts for 114 yards and rushed four times for 28 yards and two touchdowns.

In the second half, Dallas blitzed on three of the first six dropbacks and on 10 of 20 overall. Darnold went 4-of-7 for 100 yards, an interception and two sacks (plus a scramble), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“Just not good enough offensively,’’ Darnold said. “Execution wasn’t there.’’

Mistakes aside, Darnold’s rushing numbers are too good to ignore. They show you don’t have to be built like a tank like Newton or be super quick like Murray and RGIII to be effective as a runner.

You just have to be willing to take what the defense gives you, as Darnold did on both rushing touchdowns Sunday.

On the first, he faked a pitch to the right, the defense bit and left a wide-open lane for Darnold to score from the 1-yard line.

“Really creative use of his athleticism in the red zone,’’ FOX Sports analyst Greg Olsen said on the telecast. “For a guy that’s not really thought of highly as a runner, he’s very effective.’’

On the second, the back went in motion left. When the defense followed him, that left a gap up the middle that Darnold turned into an 11-yard quarterback draw.

That gave him an NFL-leading five rushing touchdowns, more than Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott or anyone else. Darnold has three more rushing touchdowns than Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is electrifying with his legs.

Only two Carolina players -- running back Stephen Davis in 2005 and Lamar Smith in 2002 -- had more rushing touchdowns through four games. They had six.

Had it not been for a horrific third quarter, during which Dallas went on a 20-0 run on the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense, the storyline would be about Darnold’s unexpected rise as a running threat.

Instead, the story is about Darnold’s struggles under duress, the offensive line giving up five sacks, and a Carolina defense that came into the game with an NFL-best 14 sacks and got none Sunday.

It’s about a team that has scored only seven points in the third quarter in four games while giving up 27.

It’s about how the Panthers will respond against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5 (Bank of America Stadium, 1 ET, FOX).

“I saw a lot of guys that were pissed off, but in a good way,’’ Darnold said. “We’ve got a bunch of good guys in that locker room. Resilient guys. That’s a great way to put it.

“You can either put your head down and sulk, or you can watch the tape, get better from it and continue to practice hard and practice well this whole next week getting ready for Philly.’’