How NFC Championship drop led to Panthers' Darnold-Arnold combo

A dropped pass in the end zone during the 2019 NFC Championship game haunted Dan Arnold for months, but now it is motivation, as he aims to be a reliable tight end for the Carolina Panthers. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Say it three times fast: Sam Darnold to Dan Arnold.

The tongue-twister of the Carolina Panthers quarterback-tight end combination has become a joke around training camp in that TV announcers will have a tougher time saying it than teammates and coaches.

Arnold laughed when asked if he could do it three times, as though it was a “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’’ challenge.

“I probably could not,’’ said Arnold, still laughing. “I would probably gum it up completely.’’

What Arnold, 26, hasn’t gummed up is an NFL career that could have ended in New Orleans after he let a touchdown pass slip through his hands in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game following the 2018 regular season.

That game is best remembered for the blatant pass interference no-call against the Los Angeles Rams inside the 20 in the final minutes of a 26-23 Saints loss.

But Arnold remembers it for a missed opportunity that made the former Division III wide receiver a target on social media; that impacted him so negatively, he wouldn’t look at the play for almost two months and almost gave up football.

“I had that moment in my life where I was like, ‘Is this something I want to continue doing?’" Arnold told ESPN.com. “Just from social media, you see all that stuff. People are hating you.

“But the most important thing I did in my mind was finally say, 'I’m going to watch this play, learn from it, see what I did wrong and I’m not going to let that define the rest of my career.' That was kind of like the flip."

It was at that moment Arnold decided, “I’m going to be a player in this league."

Now, the former undrafted player out of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville is on track to help Carolina re-establish tight end as viable in the offense. That hasn’t been the case completely since Greg Olsen’s last fully healthy season in 2016.

The Panthers got only 26 catches for 197 yards and one touchdown from tight ends all of last season.

“Darnold to Arnold, baby!’’ Darnold said when asked about the combination during Friday’s FanFest.

The combination has created a buzz around camp, and the Panthers are hopeful it will create a buzz around the NFL.

“You study young quarterbacks, they all kind of have a go-to receiver," coach Matt Rhule said. “Whenever they get in trouble, they just know to go to that person. And typically, a lot of these guys are big players."

Darnold didn’t have great success with the Jets' tight ends. He ranked 20th in the NFL the past three seasons with a 68.9 completion percentage to that position.

But that was much better than his overall completion percentage of 59.6, which was among the worst in the league, a figure Rhule wants to greatly improve.

“I wanted us to get someone that was in that 6-5 range, that you could see in the middle of the field, third down and red zone," Rhule said.

That is Arnold, 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, up from 220 when he entered the NFL, thanks to “thick peanut butter sandwiches and a glass of milk every night."

Arnold is here in part because tight end Ian Thomas never materialized as a receiver after being selected in the fourth round in 2018, in part because offensive coordinator Joe Brady developed a relationship with Arnold during their two seasons (2017-18) in New Orleans, and in part because of what Rhule saw in Arnold last season at Arizona.

The four catches for 39 yards in the 31-21 loss to Carolina provided Rhule with a glimpse of what Arnold could be.

Now Rhule gets a glimpse of that every day, witnessing the skills that helped Arnold set a UW-Platteville record his final season with 65 catches for 1,176 yards and 16 touchdowns.

“He’s definitely the brand of guy we want," Rhule said.

By brand, Rhule means a player who is mentally tough, who wasn’t just handed a job.

That’s Arnold. He went from Fargo, North Dakota, to a Division III school, where he was perhaps best known for winning three championships in the 110 meter hurdles, to the NFL as a tryout camp invitee, first with Kansas City and then New Orleans.

He then spent his first season (2017) on injured reserve.

“There is something about guys that came up the hard way," Rhule said. “People that have had to overcome adversity, they just kind of figure it out."

Don’t underestimate the impact of being reunited with Brady. The two were low in the hierarchy at New Orleans, so they spent a lot of time talking about football, life and proving themselves.

Arnold has spent similar quality time with Darnold in camp at Wofford College.

“Just being able to talk to him and shoot s--- with him during practices. How he saw things versus how other coaches saw them, just getting the intricate details of the offense, learning it from a guy who had to learn all of the details in a short amount of time,’’ Arnold said of Darnold. “He was able to explain it in a way you could pick it up really fast.’’

Arnold continued his growth at Arizona with advice from 11-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on creating mismatches and “how to stay in the game no matter what is going on.’’

His biggest weakness is blocking, and that’s something he’s working to improve.

But the miss of what arguably would have been a tough catch between two defenders in the NFC Championship Game is where it really started for Arnold.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to keep busting my butt and not let negative plays affect my game and keep moving forward,’" Arnold said. “That moment was what I needed to have to mature and start being an NFL player."