How Baker Mayfield won the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback job over Sam Darnold

The Sam Darnold experiment is officially over. The Carolina Panthers have named Baker Mayfield their starting quarterback entering the 2022 season.

It always seemed predestined that the Carolina Panthers would officially name Baker Mayfield as their starting quarterback. It wasn’t a surprise when the Panthers declared that Mayfield would be the regular-season starter on Monday.

Baker Mayfield named Panthers’ QB1

The fact that Mayfield, a former top overall pick of the Cleveland Browns and Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma, outperformed Sam Darnold cemented a relatively assured status when the Panthers traded a conditional 2024 fourth-round draft pick. Now, Mayfield ironically gets to begin the season against his old team, the Browns. Cleveland discarded him as their starter after a rocky season and replaced him, in a controversial trade, with three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The Browns are also paying $10.5 million of Mayfield’s fifth-year option salary, but it wasn’t a financial deal. The relationship between Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefanski had deteriorated, and ownership and general manager Andrew Berry were seeking an upgrade.

For his new NFL employer, Mayfield is just the best quarterback at this time. The Panthers need a resurgent season, especially for embattled head coach Matt Rhule, a fixture in hot-seat speculation.

“When we started this process, we were looking at three things,” Rhule said in an interview with the Panthers’ team website. “No. 1: mastery of the offense, No. 2: situational football excellence, and No. 3: moving the ball and getting guys involved. That’s been our focus all along. Baker has made a lot of improvement, a lot of growth in all three areas in a short amount of time.”

The Panthers move forward with Darnold as the backup, and they have P.J. Walker on the roster as a third QB.

“All along, we’ve felt like we need to have a really strong quarterback room and have every quarterback ready to play,” Rhule said. “The reality of this league is most teams will play multiple quarterbacks. Sam has worked incredibly hard, played really well for us during training camp, and will be ready to go if and when it’s needed.”

Mayfield started against the Washington Commanders in the first preseason game and completed 4 of 7 passes for 45 yards.

Mayfield was confident about his status

Mayfield has never sounded concerned about eventually being named QB1. And now he has.

“To be honest with you, I haven’t been worried about when the decision is going to be made or any of that, timeline-wise,” Mayfield said. “I just tried to put my head down and handle it one day at a time, and that’s been the mindset for both Sam and I.

“Just, how can we be playing the best ball at the end of camp and just handle it correctly? I’ve said it before: The locker room and the organization is going to go as the QB room goes. As long as we’re leading correctly, good things are going to happen. So, we’re not worried about when that’s going to happen, just trying to get better each day.”

Mayfield is 29-30 all-time as a starter. He started 59 of his 60 games for the Browns and completed 1,185 of 1,924 passes (61.6%) for 14,125 yards with 92 touchdowns and 56 interceptions. He ranks third in team history in passing yards and fourth in touchdown passes. Mayfield is the only player in Cleveland history to throw for 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.

Mayfield still has upside

Despite the narrative surrounding Mayfield and the warranted criticism of his play last season, he’s an immediate upgrade over Darnold. Mayfield has shown flashes of brilliance in the past and even led the Browns to their first playoff birth since 2002.

The injury to his non-throwing shoulder last season magnified some bad mechanical habits Mayfield has had since his time at Oklahoma, but he’d mostly been able to get away with them.

His play deteriorated over time, but he’s far from a lost cause. Properly rehabbing the shoulder and coming back at 100% will be important, but the injury could limit the work he can do in the offseason to correct his mechanical issues.

Nevertheless, the Panthers’ offense should be improved in 2022 to better match what is a young and talented defense. They added pieces to the offensive line, an issue that exacerbated Darnold’s problems as a passer last season. They have weapons on the outside and will hopefully have a fully healthy Christian McCaffrey for 2022.

How this move impacts Matt Rhule

This was a move made by Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer and Co. to save Rhule’s job and provide some hope for the future. After last season, there were rumblings as to how much longer he would survive as head coach, just two years after owner David Tepper signed him to a seven-year, $62 million contract and paid $6 million to Baylor to buy out Rhule’s contract.

Rhule is counting on Mayfield to lead the offense and possibly salvage his own job security.

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