If you’re looking for some reasons for hope — and really, what football fan isn’t at this time of year? — the Carolina Panthers provided several in their first preseason game Saturday.
New quarterback Baker Mayfield looked solid, starting the game and playing a single series that ended up netting three points in Carolina’s 23-21 win over Washington in Landover, Md.
The score wasn’t important. But Mayfield reminded everyone in this game that his arm can be a rocket launcher, and that is important.
Mayfield’s 40-yard deep-ball effort to Robbie Anderson, even though it was incomplete, was well-thrown and the kind of play that will make defensive coordinators put an extra safety deep. That in turn should give Christian McCaffrey (who didn’t play, and surely won’t all preseason) some extra room when it counts.
So that’s a good sign as the Panthers get ready to spend most of a week in the New England area, where they will have two joint practices against the Patriots on Tuesday and Wednesday and then play them in an exhibition in Massachusetts on Friday night.
The Panthers’ offensive line still is getting sorted out, but the protection seemed better. The first-team defense also looked like it knew what it was doing. The special-teams effort was improved, and placekicker Zane Gonzalez went 3-for-3 on field goals, including the 45-yard game-winner with 24 seconds left.
And in the continuing quarterback battle, it was Sam Darnold who threw the game’s only touchdown pass, taking advantage of a short field and floating an 8-yard pass beautifully to Rashard Higgins on a crossing route that ended up at the back left pylon.
Darnold played two series to Mayfield’s one, and on the second one the Panthers went 3-and-out and punted. He and Mayfield both had some good moments. PJ Walker was actually the Panthers’ leading passer, playing more than anyone else and throwing for 136 yards.
And Carolina rookie QB Matt Corral showed some spunk, only going 1-for-9 for 11 yards but somehow leading the Panthers to a game-winning field goal anyway in the final minutes without a single pass completion. It helped that Corral drew a 15-yard facemask penalty the hard way, getting his helmet ripped off in the middle of a play and continuing to scramble until the play was blown dead.
Head coach Matt Rhule was cagey after the game about whether Mayfield would start again in the second preseason game Friday, and Mayfield himself opined that it had just been “my turn to start.” But it’s becoming more apparent to close observers that Mayfield is going to start that opening-day game Sept. 11 against his old team, the Cleveland Browns, and Darnold is going to be the backup.
And that’s for the best, really. Darnold will be an extremely highly paid backup, but he won’t be a bad one. And Mayfield, now that he is starting to learn what he terms a “complicated” offense, will be a No. 1 QB who has enough juice to make things exciting.
Sam Howell and Matt Corral
Here are seven other things I noticed from this first preseason game:
▪ Former UNC star Sam Howell is Washington’s third-string quarterback but he had quite a debut, throwing for a game-high 145 yards and running for two fourth-quarter TDs as Washington briefly overcame a 20-6 deficit at the beginning of the period. Howell, who somehow dropped all the way to the fifth round in the 2022 NFL draft, looked like he belonged.
▪ Former Panther Joey Slye missed an extra point after Washington’s first touchdown, which was a familiar sight for Carolina fans. I was watching the game out of town and had to watch the Commanders’ TV feed, and the funniest reaction I heard to that miss came from Washington TV analyst Doc Walker.
Said Walker, disgustedly, after Slye botched the kick: “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
▪ Mayfield’s worst play was messing up a snap from center, which put the team behind the chains and short-circuited a potential touchdown drive. “Obviously, we’ve got to clean up the center and QB exchange, and that’s 100% my fault,” Mayfield said.
▪ Higgins showed a steady pair of hands in the game. The final wide receiver cuts are going to be among the Panthers’ toughest to make.
▪ Rookie defensive end Amare Barno had a nice game, recovering a fumble and helping to cause an interception with a good pass rush.
▪ Corral’s rookie debut was spotty, even though he technically did lead the team to the game-winning points. Playing with other reserves on offense, the Panthers had trouble with execution for much of Corral’s fourth quarter.
“Regardless of who’s out there, we always say we want to play completely clear and concise, with complete communication,” Corral said. “We were all over the place out there.”
▪ It was also interesting to hear Corral’s answer to the question of what getting ready for a game looks like, when he mentioned only one of the two quarterbacks in the starting competition.
“Talk to Baker,” Corral said of his preparation. “Be in Baker’s back pocket. Everything that I made a mistake on, what would Baker do in this position? Does that match what I would do? If not, what else would you do?”