During training camp when Baker Mayfield was battling Sam Darnold for the Panthers’ starting quarterback job, longtime NFL executive Michael Lombardi shared his thoughts, which proved to be prescient.
“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,” he said.
It’s October, and Darnold, sent to injured reserve with a training camp injury, is eligible to return to the active roster. That means that there will be a strong temptation to revisit the decision that gave Mayfield the job.
Four games into the season, the Panthers are 1-3, and Mayfield has not inspired confidence. His QBR rating is 15.3, according to ESPN, which ranks at the bottom of the NFL and would need to nearly double to pull out of the last spot. He’s completing just over half of his passes, which is the lowest rate of his career. His touchdown percentage, yards per pass and yards per completion are all the worst of his career.
“I know it wasn’t good enough and I know the numbers aren’t what they need to be in a lot of different areas,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. “I have to really though, even as I said to the team, go back and really look and see why is this happening, why are we not playing better than this. I know we have the personnel on offense to make plays and it’s just not coming together the way it needs to.”
Mayfield may have bottomed out against the Cardinals on Sunday, producing two turnovers, two punts and a turnover on downs in Carolina’s first five offensive possessions. The Arizona defensive line also batted down several of his passes, and he left the home field to boos on several occasions.
Despite the struggles, Rhule said he never considered replacing Mayfield.
“I didn’t think about that today,” he said. “I was just kind of in the moment, like, ‘Hey, go to the next drive.’ Trying to again, get down there, score a touchdown, go for two, thinking ‘Hey, let’s kick it deep and play defense.’ So, hoping that we could make something happen.”
Despite leading the game into the second half, the Panthers abandoned the run early, only giving the ball to star running back Christian McCaffrey for eight carries and producing a very imbalanced 36-to-13 pass/run mix.
Mayfield may not have been put in the best position to succeed, but he shied away from placing blame.
“I am not going to fall for that trap,” he said. “We have plays to be made. We have to find ways to complete the ball. We had a good game plan, we just didn’t execute it. … It’s everybody. That goes for the run game as well. When we’re not running the ball well, that goes on everybody. Like I said, have to look at the tape. Have to look to see if we were detailed enough but I know there were definitely plays to be made there that we didn’t.”
While things haven’t gone as planned, Mayfield tried to downplay how bad it’s been.
“Obviously, I am frustrated with the fact that we are 1-3,” he said. “That’s it though. We are four weeks into the year. We can sit here and let you guys pile on us or we are going to come together as a locker room. That is exactly how we are going to handle it. We are going to figure it out. And when we win, it’ll still be just us in the locker room and that’s really all I care about. … This is a four-game stretch that everybody wanted to have more success, including us. It is frustrating, we are frustrated, but it’s not the end of the world. We can still turn this thing around. We are four games into the year, we are going to be just fine.”
After the loss to the Cardinals, Rhule and Mayfield both proclaimed that they needed to watch tape before evaluating Sunday’s performance. On Monday, Rhule gave his quarterback the shakiest vote of confidence ever, proclaiming that Mayfield was still QB1 because Darnold isn’t ready to return.
“I think Baker’s our quarterback,” Rhule said. “We have to continue to find ways to help him. … Sam is not cleared right now.”
For better or worse, Mayfield is still starting quarterback for the Panthers, but as Lombardi pointed out before any decisions were made, that status is a temporary one.