The great Carolina Panthers quarterback battle of 2022 could be reaching its climax this week.
That’s the opinion of Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive who has overseen his share of quarterback competitions and may just have an ear inside the quarterback room with the Panthers.
Lombardi began his NFL career as a scout for the Super Bowl teams of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s and eventually became one of the key decision-makers for several NFL franchises. He was general manager and vice president of the Cleveland Browns, director of pro personnel with the Eagles and a senior personnel executive with the Raiders. Lombardi also worked on the New England Patriots coaching staff, earning another Super Bowl ring in 2014.
He’s been a member of the media since 2015, but he has two sons on current NFL coaching staffs, including Matt Lombardi, the assistant quarterbacks coach for the Carolina Panthers.
Lombardi spoke to the North State Journal at length about the Panthers, and, while he wouldn’t divulge any of what Matt and his bosses in Carolina might be thinking, the elder Lombardi is more than qualified to break down a quarterback competition.
“You had the preseason game against Washington (last weekend),” he said, “and then you’ve got a week of practice with New England, which will be critical.”
The Panthers and Patriots are holding joint practices in advance of Friday’s second preseason game. It gives the coaching staffs and the front office a chance to see the players against unfamiliar foes, rather than the same teammates they’ve been working against for weeks or months.
“Those practices will probably determine who’s the starting quarterback for the Panthers,” Lombardi declared.
The competition has been fairly even so far. Sam Darnold had an early advantage on the strength of his time in the Panthers’ offense. Darnold started the opener for Carolina last season and 11 games in all during a season plagued by injury and inconsistency. The Panthers hired Ben McAdoo to be their offensive coordinator in the offseason, which hit the reset button on any edge in experience Darnold might hold. Still, the incumbent spent the entire offseason learning McAdoo’s system, while his competitor — former Browns starter and top pick Baker Mayfield — didn’t join the Panthers until just over a month ago.
Mayfield seemed to struggle with the new system and its terminology at the start of training camp but within a week seemed to have it mastered. That doesn’t surprise Lombardi.
“It’s a little bit like language, right?” he said. “If you’ve been calling something in Italian and then you go to China, and you’ve got to learn Chinese, it’s a little different. Or maybe it’s like Italian and Spanish. There’s some differences, but there’s similarities, too. So the terminology is important, and once you do that, it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK. You guys are calling this Cadillac and we called it 25X.’ That’s when you can start processing all that information. They’re both smart. Both the quarterbacks are smart. Sam has been in the system since March, so, obviously, he knows it. But one thing about Baker Mayfield: He’s smart. Baker will learn it. It’s not going to be hard for him.”
By the second week of camp, Mayfield seemed to pull ahead, leading to rumors — since denied — that the Panthers were shopping Darnold. As a former personnel executive, Lombardi thinks that would have been an extreme way to conclude the quarterback derby.
“I think there’s room for both of them,” he said. “If they fit on the (salary) cap now, why wouldn’t they fit on the cap later? And one thing we know about the National Football League is sometimes you need two quarterbacks. Sometimes it’s hard (having just one). I’m not sure that whatever decision is made now is going to be the one that’s going to be the perfect decision in October.”
And regardless of what decision is made, Lombardi urges patience.
“You can’t begin with the end in mind,” he said. “If you do, you’re going to make a bad decision. You open it (the starting job) and, with coaches, every day is an action item — they change their minds every day. ‘Oh, this guy’s the best!’ and the next day it’s, ‘No, this guy is.’
“So you’ve ultimately got to have some form of a guideline. And when you do that, then the practices and all the other things really start to manifest itself with a method to determine who the starting quarterback is going to be. I think it’s super early. You know fans want a quick answer, and there’s no quick answer. You’ve just got to give it time. The situations are going to determine the timeline.”
This week’s situation, however, might just be one to watch closely.