LANDOVER, Md. – In one of the few starting quarterback battles this NFL preseason, the Carolina Panthers presented the first installment of Mayfield vs. Darnold – the showdown of former 2018 top draft picks in search of redemption with their second pro team.
The “showdown” was more so a sampling, however, as each played sparingly in Carolina’s 23-21 victory. One 12-play series for Baker Mayfield. Six plays over two possessions for Sam Darnold. A 3-for-4 success rate on third downs and a field goal drive for Mayfield. A three-play, 19-yard touchdown drive first for Darnold, and a three-and-out after that.
Now, the Panthers return to Charlotte where practices and evaluations will continue for some undetermined window of time as coach Matt Rhule declined to reveal when the competition will end.
Officially, the Panthers have a quarterback quandary on their hands. But in reality, they do not.
Mayfield gives them the best chance to win, and the sooner Rhule settles on him as his starter, the better – both so Mayfield can get as much time with the starters as possible rather than rotating between first and second team rounds with Darnold, and so Rhule can have the best shot at saving his job after two double-digit loss campaigns.
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Mayfield and Darnold share a number of commonalities entering their fifth NFL seasons. The Cleveland Browns drafted Mayfield first overall in 2018 with hope that he could end years of suffering and transform them into contenders. Two picks later, the New York Jets selected Darnold with the same hopes.
Each endured organizational dysfunction and regime changes. Each got traded to Carolina (Darnold in 2021, Mayfield this summer) and hope a second chance revives their careers.
The similarities end there, however, and when it comes to talent, intangibles and bodies of work, Mayfield holds a healthy edge over Darnold, and that’s why he should – and likely will – open the 2022 season as the Panthers’ starter.
The Browns may have unceremoniously sent Mayfield packing, finally finding a trade partner in early July – four months after they traded for Deshaun Watson and awarded him a record $230 million contract just months after declaring ‘Baker’s our guy.’ And Mayfield drew criticisms while battling inconsistencies during the 2021 season.
But he deserved better.
He is indeed a proven starter in this league. Meanwhile, Darnold thus far appears best suited as a backup.
Mayfield may rub people the wrong way with his surly, and sometimes cocky, demeanor. And sure, he’s undersized (very generously listed at 6-foot-1), and he lacks the mind-bending wizardly ways of Patrick Mahomes, or jaw-dropping athleticism of Lamar Jackson. But Mayfield does possess the physical tools, confidence and grit required to succeed as an NFL starter.
His 2021 numbers were certainly pedestrian: 3,010 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while going 6-8 in the 14 games in which he played. But the amount of pain that Mayfield dealt with while playing with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder – which required offseason surgery – should not be overlooked.
And neither should the way that Mayfield came in as a rookie and despite playing for two different offensive coordinators and two different head coaches still managed to win six games, the most Cleveland had won in four seasons. Armed two years later with a smart head coach and talented supporting cast, Mayfield led the Browns to an 11-5 record – their first winning season in 13 years, and their first playoff appearance in 18 seasons. That same 2020 campaign, Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory (48-37 over Pittsburgh) since 1994.
So, there’s no question Mayfield can play, even if the Browns did feel like it was better to sell their souls for Watson.
Darnold, on the other hand, has yet to prove himself as the answer in the NFL. Few quarterbacks would have had a chance to succeed while playing under Adam Gase as Darnold did his second and third seasons in New York. But some of his missteps are his fault, and many of the same struggles followed him to Carolina where in 11 starts last season, he managed just nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions and a lowly 71.9 passer rating.
It’s unfair to pin all of the Panthers’ offensive struggles on Darnold. Injury to Christian McCaffrey certainly made life much more challenging. However, Darnold's turnover woes, struggles with decision-making and lack of poise certainly helped place the Panthers in this desperate position. Had he played better, the Panthers would have never acquired Mayfield.
Now entering Year 3, Rhule owns a 10-23 record and in his two previous seasons, his offenses have ranked among the worst in the league. Rhule knows he can’t endure another double-digit loss season marked by offensive ineptitude, and that’s why he pulled the trigger on the Mayfield deal. Although the coach hasn’t publicly said so, this should be Mayfield’s job to lose.
Rhule on Saturday praised the play of both quarterbacks. He liked the rhythm with which Mayfield directed the offense on his sole possession. (Rhule pointed out that had a receiver not run the wrong route, Mayfield’s scoring drive possibly could have ended in a touchdown rather than a field goal.) The coach liked how Darnold hung tough under pressure and completed a touchdown pass after the defense produced a turnover in Washington territory.
But the coach would prefer to drag the suspense out further.
“I thought both guys played well in terms of production, but (Mayfield starting) was just for today,” Rhule said. “We’ll go back and look at this tape … and see where they are.”
Mayfield said Rhule hasn’t told either quarterback when to expect to learn their fate, and so for now, he’s just focused on individual and collective improvement.
“My mentality is just, put your head down and try to improve each day,” he said. “The best man’s going to win, but also, we’re trying to make this team better and that’s the biggest part of it. Our QB room has handled it extremely well, and we’re going to continue to do that to show leadership. It’s all about winning, and the QB room is about that, too.”
Mayfield is saying and doing the right things thus far, and soon, Rhule should as well and name him the starter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carolina Panthers' Baker Mayfield is answer over Sam Darnold for QB