Baker Mayfield, Panthers open against Browns

Carolina’s new starting quarterback will make his debut against his old team

Quarerback Baker Mayfield will be front and center when the Panthers face his old team, the Cleveland Browns, in Sunday's season-opening game at Bank of America Stadium. (Rusty Jones / AP Photo)

Forget the butcher and candlestick maker. The Panthers’ season-opening game Sunday at Bank of America Stadium will be all about the Baker.

The focus is always on the new quarterback in town, especially when that player is both a former Heisman Trophy winner and first overall draft pick. But the light shining on Baker Mayfield will be as bright as a thousand suns when Carolina hosts the Cleveland Browns in his first start.

That’s because not only will the fiery Mayfield be looking to resurrect his career with the Panthers, but his first chance to show he’s the answer to Carolina’s years-long quarterback problem will come against the team that discarded him.

“I’m not going to sit here and be a robot and tell you it doesn’t mean anything,” Mayfield said in the lead-up to Sunday’s game. “It will.”

Despite making the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades in 2020 with Mayfield leading the offense, the Browns made a blockbuster trade for Deshaun Watson this past offseason. At the time, Watson’s future in the NFL was uncertain because of ongoing legal issues stemming from accusations by more than two dozen women that he sexually harassed and abused them.

After the Watson trade, Mayfield was left in limbo for nearly 12 weeks until Carolina acquired him for a conditional fifth-round pick in early July.

It’s the latest in a string of attempts by the Panthers’ ownership and front office to solve the team’s quarterback problems that started with a shoulder injury to Cam Newton — himself a former Heisman winner and No. 1 pick — in 2017 and saw the team use two third-round picks on quarterbacks and cycle through Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Darnold and Newton again before acquiring Mayfield.

While Watson won’t play for Cleveland — he was suspended 11 games and fined $5 million after an agreement between the league and the players association; he also sat out all last season — Mayfield will after beating out the since-injured Darnold for the starting job in training camp.

“We’re hoping that he’s a guy that moves the offense,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said of Mayfield winning the starting job. “He’s accurate. He’s smart. He plays fast. He knows where to go with the ball. … At the end of the day, we feel like Baker’s made a lot of progress in a short amount of time.”

The third-year coach is certainly hoping Mayfield is the answer. While the 27-year-old is getting all the attention, it’s also a pivotal year for Rhule. He is 10-23 since he left Baylor and signed a seven-year, $62 million contract to replace Ron Rivera on the Panthers’ sideline.

While Rhule certainly warrants criticism for the decisions made at quarterback in his first two seasons, he can’t be faulted for the injuries suffered by star running back Christian McCaffrey.

The 2017 eighth overall pick became one of the league’s most dangerous players in his first three professional seasons, totaling more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage and signing a four-year, $64 million contract that has since been restructured to provide Carolina with cap relief.

In Rhule’s two seasons with Carolina, McCaffrey has played just 10 games with under 1,200 yards and just eight touchdowns. Comparatively, McCaffrey had 15 rushing touchdowns alone in 2019. While Mayfield will be important to both the Panthers’ and Rhule’s future, a bounce back season from McCaffrey — who didn’t play in any preseason games in an effort to keep him as healthy as possible — will rise all ships if he can stay on the field.

“I’m not spending my time worrying about, ‘Hey, will Christian get hurt?’” Rhule said last month. ”We are thinking about Christian in one way only — and that’s attack.”

That attack should be bolstered by a rebuilt offensive line that includes rookie tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who was selected sixth overall out of NC State in April.

All that leads into Sunday.

Another former Wolfpack player, quarterback Jacoby Brissett, will run the Browns offense in Watson’s absence. Brissett is certainly capable, especially if Nick Chubb can get the Cleveland running game headed in the right direction against a Carolina defense that ranked 18th against the run last year.

But one can’t help but feel it will come down to Mayfield and whether the ax he has to grind against the Browns is sharp enough to start the Baker era with a win.

“It’s pretty plain and simple,” Mayfield said. “I’m competitive. I wanna win.”