Panthers start Baker Mayfield in preseason opening victory against the Commanders

Alex Brandon/AP

Baker Mayfield started for the Panthers and played one series in the team’s 23-21 victory against the Washington Commanders on Saturday at FedEx Field.

In his first preseason game, Mayfield completed 4 of 7 passes for 45 yards, leading a 54-yard, 13-play drive play that ended with a 41-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal.

Mayfield quarterbacked crisply, completing three of his first five passes to two different receivers. Carolina converted three third downs, two via short pitch-and-catches to slot receiver Shi Smith. The drive stalled near the 20-yard line after Mayfield botched a snap from center Pat Elflein.

Coming into the game, Panthers coach Matt Rhule said both Mayfield and Sam Darnold would only play one series and he stuck to that plan with Mayfield. His day was done after the team’s opening drive.

Darnold took over next and started with a short field after linebacker Cory Littleton forced Washington running back Antonio Gibson to fumble. Starting from the Commanders’ 18-yard line, all Darnold needed was three plays to score Carolina’s first touchdown of the preseason.

After the game Rhule said the team is still not ready to name a starter.

“No, that was just for today. So we’ll go back and look at this tape,” Rhule said. “Sam got us in the end zone. Baker led us down the field so looks like both guys played well in terms of production.

“We’ll go back and look and see where they are but that was just for today.”

Mayfield nearly threw a 40-yard touchdown to Robbie Anderson on his seventh play. He unloaded a deep post ball for Anderson off a play-action fake. The pass split the corner and safety in coverage. Anderson elevated and got two hands on the ball but could not complete the difficult catch.

Carolina’s first-team offense moved the ball with pace and urgency. Mayfield appeared comfortable at the line of scrimmage and in the pocket. Mayfield would’ve liked to finish his drive with a touchdown but said the botched snap which derailed his series was “100 percent” his fault.

As for learning offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense, Mayfield said he’s already come a long way in just three weeks.

“It’s a night and day difference. I’m a lot more comfortable now,” Mayfield said. “Coach McAdoo is gonna give us the keys to change things on the field. His saying is if he can’t trust us, then he can’t trust himself.”

Following Mayfield, Darnold threw the team’s lone passing touchdown.

Facing a first down, Darnold faked a handoff to Chuba Hubbard and dropped back deep in the pocket. With a pass rusher in his face, Darnold stood tall and released a lob pass intended for the back-left pylon. The pass fell directly into receiver Rashard Higgins’ hands for a touchdown. Higgins rolled out the red carpet for his signature “Hollywood” celebration.

Starting on such a short field gave Darnold a chance for a second series. But Darnold threw two incompletions and the team went three-and-out after he faced heavy pressure on both second and third down.

The Panthers offensive line rotated consistently throughout the afternoon. Mayfield was protected (from left to right) by Brady Christensen, Michael Jordan, Elflein, Austin Corbett and Taylor Moton. Rookie tackle Ikem Ekwonu made his preseason debut on the team’s second drive. He was at tackle while Christensen slid to left guard. Bradley Bozeman came in at center and Jordan moved to right guard. Swing tackle Cam Erving held down the right side.

After Darnold’s second series, veteran P.J. Walker played for most of the second and third quarters. He looked sharp against the Commanders’ second defense, completing 10 of 19 passes for 136 yards. Walker handled three drives. The first lasted 12 plays, gained 75 yards and ended with a 3-yard Spencer Brown rushing touchdown. On his next series, Walker completed two passes but took a deep sack that forced a 37-yard Gonzalez field goal.

Rookie Matt Corral did not enter the game until early in the fourth quarter. He completed his first NFL pass on a third-down throw to Keith Kirkwood that went for 11 yards. Corral finished with 11 yards on 1-of-9 passing. Trailing 21-20 with about two minutes to play, Corral led a game-winning drive capped by a 45-yard Gonzalez field goal. Corral did not complete a pass on the drive. Instead, Carolina benefited from multiple defensive penalties that pushed it into field-goal range.

In his NFL debut, Corral looked like a rookie.

“We just have to have better communication. Regardless of who’s out there, we always say, ‘We want complete, clear, concise and complete communication,’ ” Corral said. “We were just all over the place out there. And that’s all me.”

Gonzalez remains automatic for Carolina. He made kicks of 41, 37 and 45 yards plus two extra points. Rhule said he’s encouraged by the special teams performance as it was a point of emphasis this offseason to improve in the kicking and coverage game. Carolina wants its special teams to flip games for them. Rhule and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor accomplished that on Saturday.

“Special teams was a real bright spot leading up to that last field goal,” Rhule said.

Defensively, Carolina held Washington to six first-half points and forced two turnovers. Rookie linebacker Amare Barno recovered a fumble and forced an interception by pressuring Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Most of the starters only played a series or two before retiring. Brian Burns started at defensive end but only played four snaps. Henderson, Jeremy Chinn, Donte Jackson, and Xavier Woods all played two series.

Carolina rested a plethora of veterans including Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Shaq Thompson, Jaycee Horn, Keith Taylor Jr. Dennis Daley, Ian Thomas, Stephen Sullivan, Colin Thompson, Terrace Marshall Jr., Derrick Brown and Marquis Haynes.


Carolina is dealing with several nagging injuries across its roster. Here is an update on when certain key players are expected back.

Wide receiver Terrace Marshall could return to practice as early as this week. The team said he is progressing well after a lower-leg strain suffered two weeks ago.

Cornerback Keith Taylor should be available for joint practices against the Patriots next week. The cornerback has been out with a hamstring injury the past two weeks.

Tight end Ian Thomas will catch balls but likely not participate in team drills during practice. He is dealing with a rib injury after being tackled during a live session of practice last week.

Receiver C.J. Saunders is not expected to return for several weeks since injuring his calf late last week.

The team said defensive end Marquis Haynes wanted to play on Saturday but the team held him out for precautionary reasons. Haynes is recovering from a knee injury that was at first expected to be serious but was only a minor tweak.

DJ Moore has a minor shoulder ailment and did not play Saturday. The team expects him to be available for joint practices against the Patriots.

Derrick Brown was away from the team with an excused absence. Brown was also not at Fan Fest.