Baker Mayfield insists this is not a “redemption year,” but he will make his first start at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers against the team that gave up on him.
The Panthers on Monday named Mayfield the starter for the Sept. 11 opener against the Cleveland Browns, who moved on from the first pick of the 2018 draft after trading with the Houston Texans for Deshaun Watson.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of attachment there,” Mayfield said of the Browns. “I’m not going to sit here and be a robot and say it doesn’t mean anything. It will.”
Watson will not play in the opener after being suspended by the NFL for the first 11 games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, so it will be Mayfield against Jacoby Brissett.
“I’m not going to premeditate anything,” Mayfield said when asked what could be expected from him in the opener. “Once I step inside the lines I’m a competitor.”
Mayfield won what the Panthers described as an open competition against 2021 starter Sam Darnold, although league sources said the job was his to lose all along.
Baker Mayfield in season openers
Baker Mayfield will try to lead his team to a win in a season opener for the first time in his career when he starts for the Panthers against the Browns. He started three season openers with the Browns, losing each one and throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes.
Total QBR 38
Team PPG 16.0
— ESPN Stats & Information
“When we started the process, we said we were looking at three things,” coach Matt Rhule said. “No. 1, mastery of the offense; No. 2, situational football excellence; and No. 3, moving the ball and getting guys involved.
“Baker has made a lot of improvement, a lot of growth in all three areas in a short amount of time.”
Rhule told each quarterback of his decision Monday morning. Darnold was one of the first to offer his support to Mayfield.
While admitting “it was tough” being told he’s a backup for the first time since college, Darnold said his goal remains to be a starter in the NFL.
“I’m not worried about what this means for the future,” Darnold said.
Rhule’s expectations for Mayfield are simple.
“We’re hoping that he moves the offense,” he said. “I don’t want to make it too simple, but he’s a guy that’s accurate. He’s a guy that’s smart, plays fast. He knows where to go with the ball. He’s still adjusting to our mechanics, our footwork.
“Making this move now gives him time to settle in with guys.”
Mayfield said last week during joint practices against the New England Patriots that he wasn’t worried about when the decision would be made.
“I’ve said it before, the locker room and the organization is going to go as the QB room goes, and as long as we’re leading correctly and we’re supporting each other, good things are going to happen,” Mayfield said. “So we’re not worried about when that’s going to happen, just trying to get better each day.”
Mayfield said he never lost confidence after Cleveland gave up on him.
“It’s not a redemption year,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of. I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody else. I’m just trying to lead this locker room the best I can and win a bunch of ballgames.”
Carolina hopes to get the 2020 version of Mayfield, who went 11-5 and won a playoff game for the Browns with 26 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner struggled to a 6-8 record last season with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while dealing with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder.
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Mayfield wasn’t ready to predict he could lead Carolina to the playoffs this season, but he reminded the Browns were 1-15 and 0-16 the two years before he arrived. They went 7-8-1 his rookie year, 6-10 his second year and made the playoffs in his third.
“We’re not going to put any expectations or things like that, looking into the future,” Mayfield said. “Speaking from my own experience, I’ve stepped into situations where they’ve won one game in two seasons prior to that.
“I’m not worried what’s happened previously. I always try to focus in the moment and try and get the best out of the guys around me.”
The Panthers began looking to upgrade at quarterback almost immediately after the 2021 season, when Darnold went 4-7 as the starter. They were among four teams aggressively going after Watson, who at the time had 24 lawsuits of sexual misconduct filed against him.
When Watson signed with the Browns, the Panthers explored the possibility of trading for Mayfield around the draft before adding Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral in the third round. The holdup was Cleveland’s unwillingness to pay the majority of Mayfield’s 2022 salary of $18.9 million.
That changed in early July when Cleveland agreed to pay $10.5 million of the contract, leaving the Panthers $4.58 million after Mayfield agreed to take a $3.5 million cut with the potential to earn that back in incentives.
Being named the starter is the first step in reaching those incentives, 70% of the snaps, according to a league source.
But Mayfield insists he’s not thinking about whether he can meet those incentives, be a long-term solution for the Panthers or if this will be a stepping-stone to a big pay day in free agency in 2023.
“Those things will happen when they’re supposed to,” said Mayfield, in the last year of his rookie deal. “I don’t play this game for money. Yes, it is my job. I love it. I’m extremely blessed and spoiled to do this.
“Right now, I’m on a one-year deal. Whatever happens is going to happen.”
Mayfield wasn’t handed the job immediately. He and Darnold split repetitions evenly through the first three weeks of training camp.
But as Mayfield quickly learned offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system, it became apparent he was going to win the job. Even McAdoo, who rated Mayfield the sixth-best quarterback in the 2018 draft and had questions about Mayfield’s ability to run a pro-style offense, was won over early.
“Baker, since he’s been here in the last two weeks, it’s been pretty impressive,” McAdoo said. “One of his strengths is command. He can lead a room, he can command a room, he can command an offense. He has a good presence about him. And, you know, he’s got a fire in his guts.”
Mayfield kept his flamboyant personality under control throughout camp, choosing his words carefully and talking with great respect for Darnold and the competition between them.
Wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who played the past four seasons in Cleveland with Mayfield, laughed early in camp at the thought that that would continue for long.
“He’s just holding it in right now,” Higgins said. “But when it comes out, it’s going to come out. May God be with you when it comes out.”
Mayfield admitted he’s held back some of his personality to focus on learning the offense and getting accustomed to his new team.
“I was still having fun with the guys, messing with people,” he said. “The hard part was getting everything down first for the personality stuff to come out. But the passion is going to come out regardless.
“I love playing football. I truly enjoy it. So that side of things always are going to come out.”
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