Baker Mayfield knows what you’re thinking, because he’s thinking it himself.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Mayfield said of the Panthers’ offensive struggles through four games. “I have to improve. I have to be better. A lot of this is on me. I understand that, and I’ll take that and roll with it.”
The first step in fixing a problem is usually admitting that you have a problem, and Mayfield knows that he and the Panther offense have several. Carolina is 1-3. Its defense has kept the team in every game, only for its offense to fail, time and again.
In a revealing news conference Wednesday, Mayfield repeatedly fell on the sword for the team’s performance so far.
“It’s time for our offense to actually play well,” Mayfield said, “instead of just relying on our defense and special teams to save us and bail us out. ... We continually put them in bad positions, field-position wise. ... They’ve played a lot more snaps than we have, because we’re not consistently controlling the ball. Time of possession — we’re not doing that. So we’re making it extremely hard for them to do their jobs at a high level. So we have to own it. We just have to be better as an offense.”
Offensively, the Panthers don’t lead the NFL in any category except batted-down balls (Mayfield has 11). They rank near the bottom in just about everything else.
In total yardage gained, the Panthers are 32nd out of 32 NFL teams. Same thing with first downs: Carolina is 32nd. Same thing with third-down conversion percentage: Carolina is 32nd.
“We just haven’t been good enough,” Mayfield said. “There’s no excuse. We just haven’t been good enough, and we have to fix it.”
It gets no easier this week, as Carolina plays a San Francisco team that leads the NFL in scoring defense and a bunch of other defensive categories. In a 24-9 win over the defending Super Bowl champion L.A. Rams on Monday night, the 49ers smothered a much better offense than Carolina’s. San Francisco’s defense allowed only three field goals, scored on a pick-6 interception and sacked Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford seven times. By the end of the game, Stafford looked completely shaken.
“They do what they do at an extremely high level,” Mayfield said of the 49ers. “They’ve never been the most complex schematically, because they just line up and beat you. They flat-out beat you.”
This doesn’t sound like a recipe for success for an offense that badly needs to score some points. One of the most damning stats of the coach Matt Rhule era is that Carolina is 1-26 under Rhule when allowing 17 or more points — the Panthers have just never been able to outscore anybody.
How fair is it that the quarterback shoulders most of the blame anytime an offense is under-performing like this?
“Completely fair,” Mayfield said. “I’ll take that any day of the week. ... I pride myself on being a guy that elevates the guys around him, and being able to lead at an extremely high level. And obviously that has not happened yet.”
Rhule would probably argue that Mayfield is not completely at fault for what’s going on. Rhule said Wednesday that he thought the offensive line was playing well, leaving a clear assumption that Carolina’s skill-position offensive players also need to shoulder some of the blame.
“I mean there have been some third-down (passes) that have hit guys in the hands,” Rhule said. “It’s about, on offense, every guy taking responsibility for himself.”
I would also ladle a dollop of blame on new Carolina offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, whose offensive system so far has been an absolute dud.
Certainly, Carolina’s wide receivers haven’t played well most of the year, either with No. 1 wide receiver DJ Moore — who has reached at least 1,100 receiving yards the past three seasons — on pace for only 587. Robbie Anderson and Mayfield hooked up for a 75-yard pass in Week 1, but in the past three weeks he hasn’t reached 75 yards combined. It’s not all batted-down passes or badly-thrown passes, either — Mayfield has been plagued by a few key drops, too, and Carolina rarely seems to come up with contested catches. (There isn’t much chance of a change at the position, either, given that Sam Darnold is still several weeks away from playing.)
As Mayfield also pointed out Wednesday, the Panthers are only four games into a 17-game schedule. Mayfield has showed what Rhule called “elite” resiliency throughout his career, dating from college when he came from nowhere to win the Heisman Trophy and, for a while, in Cleveland when he led the Browns to a rare playoff win.
“I have experienced being able to bounce back being able to handle things the right way,” Mayfield said. “So. ... we’ll be just fine.”
That’s the hope anyway, although it’s hard to see much light in the Panthers’ tunnel right now. A 1-3 record could easily turn into 1-6 with likely playoff teams San Francisco, the Rams and Tampa Bay on the schedule over the next three weeks.
Rhule? He’s coaching for his job. Mayfield? His contract runs out after this season, so he’s playing not only for now, but for his next deal.
If it doesn’t start going any better, Rhule will be a college head coach in 2023 and Mayfield will be a backup quarterback somewhere in the NFL. The Panthers claim they can fix it. They’d better.