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Ever since David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers, the team has been on a mission to find a franchise quarterback.
In 2020, the Panthers tried to land Teddy Bridgewater, who finished 17th in the league in passing yards, 24th in touchdown passes and 22nd in passer rating. Won four of his 15 starts.
After that failed experiment, the Panthers acquired Sam Darnold from the New York Jets. Darnold was 28th in passing yards, tied for 31st in touchdown passes (nine) and 30th in passer rating after playing just 11 games. And he won four races.
Post that failed experiment, the Panthers acquired Baker Mayfield, the former No. 1 overall pick who led the Cleveland Browns to their first postseason win since 1994. But after five weeks, Mayfield’s experiment may be the biggest failure everyone – and it’s time for The Panthers to face that sad reality.
Entering Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, Mayfield’s 54.7 completion percentage ranked 31st in the NFL. His 747 passing yards ranked 24th. His 6.4 yards per attempt ranked 27th.
Mayfield had thrown just four touchdown passes against three interceptions and had a lower passer rating than the Falcons’ Marcus Mariota. And Davis Mills of the Texans. And Daniel Jones of the Giants. And Jacoby Brissett, the man who replaced him (temporarily at least) in Cleveland.
To his credit, Mayfield didn’t deflect responsibility for his dismal play in the first month of the season.
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“I pride myself on being a guy that elevates the guys around him and being able to lead at an extremely high level,” Mayfield told reporters last Wednesday. “And obviously, that hasn’t happened yet. So I’m working really hard on it. And it starts with doing my job to the best of my ability and going from there. Yes, I bear a lot of responsibility for that, and I will do so consistently.”
Mayfield also expressed confidence that he will rebound in short order.
I have experience in being able to bounce back, being able to handle things the right way and leading,” he said. “For me, we’re going to be fine.”
That confidence lasted until about 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon.
Yes, it came against arguably the best defense in the entire NFL. But Mayfield was once again terrible Sunday against the 49ers. The problems that have plagued him all season surfaced once again.
Mayfield’s accuracy was spotty – he completed just 20 of his 36 pass attempts for 215 yards. The signal-caller also failed to throw a touchdown pass and threw a pick on a play where Niners cornerback Emmanuel Moseley appeared to be his intended target.
Either that, or Mayfield thinks Christian McCaffrey is nine feet tall. For the record, it isn’t.
Mayfield’s passer rating for the game was a dismal 61.7. Per StatMuse, Mayfield now holds the lowest passer rating of any qualifying quarterback in the NFL. Lower than all those generals mentioned before. Lower even than Justin Fields of the Bears.
It’s not like Mayfield doesn’t have weapons in wide receivers DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson. McCaffrey is one of the best pass-catching backs in the game. Carolina’s offensive line isn’t great (27th in the NFL per Pro Football Focus), but every team below it has a quarterback who plays better than Mayfield.
Two of those quarterbacks are Jones and Zach Wilson. Seriously.
After the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4, Rhule was evasive when asked if he might consider making a change under center.
“At the end of the day, I’m in the headphones, I see things, I know that it’s never just one person here, one person there, it’s a lot of different things, so I’ll try to give you a very well thought out answer after watching the tapes,” Rhule said.
“All that being said, I think we can play better than that. I just feel like we have to expect more from all of us as an offense, and it starts with me first. Offensively, we have to score more points. . . . So, yeah, we have to to fix it, but as far as one person is concerned, I just don’t think it’s right to talk about it right now.”
A week and another bad loss later, it’s time to start talking about it now.
It is not that this is an aberration or a new phenomenon. It follows a poor 2021 season in Cleveland in which Mayfield completed just 60 percent of his passes, threw 13 interceptions and posted an 83.1 passer rating that looks great compared to this year’s mark. Granted, he played through a partially torn labrum on his left shoulder.
However, Mayfield has regressed across the board this year. He’s become an inaccurate one-read general who panics if that primary read is covered and powers fly to places they most definitely shouldn’t go.
Say what you want about how the Cleveland Browns did it, but with each passing week, it’s becoming more and more apparent why Cleveland didn’t want to re-sign Mayfield.
This isn’t just about Mayfield’s game. Rhule is on thin ice as Carolina’s coach, as beat writers are already speculating that he could be fired at any moment. If Rhule wants to save his job (even temporarily), he needs to show a willingness to turn things around.
Rhule has even taken an out here. After giving way to backup PJ Walker late in Sunday’s loss, Mayfield went down in the postgame presser with a boot. Speaking to reporters, Mayfield downplayed the injury.
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“I have a walking boot, my foot is not cut,” Mayfield said. “I’ll be fine.”
Mayfield might be OK, but the Panthers won’t be if they start against the Rams in Week 6. The injury allows Rhule to pull Mayfield for reasons other than he stinks.
Darnold isn’t going to magically fix things. In fact, last week Rhule indicated he’s “not close” to returning from his sprained ankle while also offering (gulp) an endorsement for Mayfield.
“Baker is our quarterback,” Rhule said. “We have to keep finding ways to help him.”
Rhule needs to worry less about helping Mayfield and more about helping the other 10 players in Carolina’s offense. And the reality is that right now, Walker is doing that more than Mayfield.
The last thing the Panthers wanted in 2022 was another failed experiment with a veteran quarterback. Another lost season. Another year of double digit losses.
But there it is. Mayfield is not the answer under center. He’s not even a borderline NFL player.
The sooner the Panthers admit that and make a change, the better off they’ll be — and the sooner they can focus on the quarterback class in the 2023 draft.