It’s 8:05 PM on Wednesday, July 6th and I’m sitting in my car listening to the rain echo off my window pane. There’s heat lightning which lights up the sky like the 4th of July in brief flashes. Did I intend to contemplate my upcoming season as a Panthers fan, seat pushed back, feet on the dashboard while cool air blew on my face? No. The power had been out in my neighborhood for about 5 hours by that time and so desperate times called for desperate measures. It’s easy to be irritable; let’s face it losing your power in the summer is one of the worse things that can happen. No power means no air conditioning, no air conditioning means limited ways to keep cool and limited ways to keep cool means limited patience.
Panthers Twitter was particularly excitable on that Wednesday evening. Here in the greater Charlotte area we had a police chase that spanned two states, included three vehicles, and once the suspect was in custody news broke that Baker Mayfield was coming to the team. I had nothing but time as I sat in my car, fat rain drops rolling down the windows, and 90’s R&B pumping through the speakers. I turned it down slowly, deliberately, till it sounded more like a whisper than a LIVE show and I gathered my thoughts on the acquisition of Baker Mayfield. Buckle up, friends, it’s time to have this conversation-ready or not.
For me to articulate how I feel about this more recent trade, let me take you all back. The year is 2021 and we acquired Sam Darnold who at the time was considered a struggling quarterback with the New York Jets. We brought him to Carolina with cautious optimism. The Jets had hoped to kick off a new era by opening the door for Zach Wilson; what they ended up with was a great deal; for them-not the Panthers. Not only did “Gang Green” secure three draft picks (a second-round pick, fourth-rounder, and sixth-rounder) but the real kick in the ass was the Jets were completely off the hook with Darnold financially. Darnold is set to make just under $19 million in 2022 with Carolina and much of the struggles he’s faced in New York came back to haunt him in Charlotte. For a quarterback that was once mocked for his line about “seeing ghosts,” this wasn’t something that appealed to the fan base.
When Darnold first arrived in Charlotte; I was admittedly optimistic. What kind of Panthers fan would I be if I didn’t hope that the person being brought in to lead my team wasn’t successful? The track record of Adam Gase with grooming quarterbacks spoke for itself. Who was I to judge someone who came from the New York Jets of all places? As a Panthers fan who was raised in a Jets household, I understood Darnold‘s plight.
Was it not this very mentality of me always pulling for the underdog that led to me becoming a lifelong fan of the Carolina Panthers? Indeed, it was. The year was 1995 and the (winless at the time) Carolina Panthers were taking on the New York Jets. They won their first game with my 6-year-old eyes glued mesmerizingly to the television set. Had I not fallen in love with a team that was constantly fighting tooth and nail to be given any respect whatsoever in the NFL I wouldn’t be here writing this.
I am an eternal optimist in many ways, especially when it comes to my Panthers, despite my struggles with mental health- an oxymoron if you will. I never understood the mentality of disliking somebody before they even take a snap. I gave him an honest chance, I was open-minded to what he had the potential to bring here to the Carolinas. Looking back, seeing him pathetically draw the Panthers logo was probably an omen to this not being a long-term solution. Could you honestly blame anyone who had hope for Sam Darnold considering how unstable the quarterback position has been in Carolina since Cam Newton was first unceremoniously released?
I had hope and faith, and I don’t regret it. My optimism lasted until I saw Darnold get progressively worse every game. The problem with Sam Darnold is that he’s in his head way too much. He forces things that just aren’t there. He also forced me to hold my breath every time he released that damn ball. His footwork needed serious work and his decision-making skills under a skilled Defensive Line were about as formidable as a stacked deck of playing cards in the wind. I think it was then Panthers fans realized this man was not the answer. Finding a quarterback that works in your team’s unique system is a lot like what I would imagine online dating to be. Things could look really good on paper, but that doesn’t mean it translates well to the field. Do I think that we were catfished with Darnold? Not necessarily, his time with the Jets certainly indicated he was a project quarterback. I think the real question is: were the Panthers prepared to take on such a project? Again, I’m going to go with no.
Many factors contributed to Darnold’s lack of success here in Carolina; at least in this Fan’s humble opinion. An Offensive Coordinator who got fired mid-season and an Offensive Line that was subpar if I’m being generous. The loss of Christian McCaffrey and dropped balls by wide receivers certainly didn’t help matters. While Sam didn’t show enough for us to purely blame it on those factors; it would be remiss to not take them into account.
This brings us to the most recent development at the Quarterback position; acquiring Baker Mayfield from the Browns. Let me go on record stating I always liked and had great respect for Baker Mayfield. His ability to be drafted to an organization like the Cleveland Browns and make them somewhat relevant cannot go unnoticed. Anyone who wants to call Baker Mayfield dysfunctional should take into account that the whole Cleveland organization and front office are dysfunctional.
As far as what Baker brings to Carolina and how he stacks up against the incumbent Quarterback, Sam Darnold, the numbers speak for themselves:
Completion Percentage: 61.6% (Baker) vs. 59.8% (Sam)
Passing Yards: 14,125 (Baker) vs. 10,624 (Sam)
Touchdowns: 92 (Baker) vs. 54 (Sam)
Rate: 87.8 (Baker) vs. 76.9 (Sam)
4th Quarter Comebacks: 6 (Baker) vs 3 (Sam)
Game Winning Drives: 7 (Baker) vs 4 (Sam)
Sacks: 134 (Baker) vs 133 (Sam) *Yes, Baker has gotten hit as much as Sam and doesn’t see ghosts*
Inceptions: 56 (Baker) vs. 53 (Sam) *Note that Baker played 10 more games than Sam which is why his number is higher*
With the Panthers selection of Quarterback, Matt Corral, out of Ole Miss it is clear that they plan to give the young rookie the keys to the kingdom one day. As I mentioned to a friend earlier today, I am hopeful that Baker Mayfield has success here in Carolina and can stay on long term because it can only serve to benefit Matt Corral’s development and readiness to compete when the time comes for him to inherit the team and become the new face of the organization. With Darnold’s contract set to expire after this season, once he collects his $19 million the Panthers are off the hook with no further obligations to him. Having someone with proven playoff experience under his belt in Baker Mayfield to mentor Matt Corral would be much more of an invaluable asset than someone such as Darnold being charged with that responsibility on top of his struggles.
Those who are bemoaning ‘why not start Corral now?’ should know, that’s not how winning organizations do it. There’s a reason that the Jets keep utilizing draft picks to pick a new Quarterback every 4 to 5 years. When you throw a rookie the wolves by having them start day one it’s a recipe for disaster. Even the elite Quarterback known as Tom Brady was once a rookie and backup to Drew Bledsoe for a year. It wasn’t until the incumbent Quarterback Bledsoe was injured in the second game of the 2001 season where he suffered from internal bleeding after a hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, that Brady took over in that game — and for the next two decades.
What fans of the game don’t realize is the speed of the game going from college to the NFL level is a huge leap for any new rookie to adjust to. The ability to learn and experience those growing pains under a veteran is a huge asset to any player but especially to one who will be called to lead, inspire and rally their teammates around them. Sam Darnold is a prime example of the product that just being tossed into the starting role can cause when not properly mentored. Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, and many others gained experience in a backup role before being thrust into the leadership role and I do believe they were better for it in terms of sustained success. Granted, there are exceptions to this, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are examples of such instances where they came in on day 1 and adjusted beautifully to the starter role. These instances are rare and take a special kind of person and a particular set of circumstances to succeed.
Matt Corral can only grow in his confidence, leadership abilities, and skills by learning under a veteran like Baker Mayfield (who bare in mind played with an injured shoulder last year). There are zero reasons for Panthers fans to be salty and as Edgar Salmingo Jr put it, “For a cheaper contract and a conditional (2024) 5th round pick, how could you not take a chance on Baker Mayfield? Even if he is terrible, he ends up costing minimal cap space and nothing in draft assets”. I couldn’t have said this better myself, not to mention Joe Person’s report added that Baker Mayfield would take $3.5M cut off the $18.8M guaranteed salary, which tells me not only was he hell-bent on getting the fuck out of Cleveland he likely feels like he’s got a lot to prove. Although Mayfield can earn the money back if he hits certain incentives, I think his main motivation will be making the Browns regret the way he was dumped quite unceremoniously in favor of DeShaun Watson, a man with questionable off-field conduct.
Furthermore, after the atrocious Darnold Deal, the Panthers created a low-risk, high-reward situation in the Baker Mayfield deal. The Browns will pay Baker Mayfield $10.5 million this season, which means they trimmed over $8 million in cash and salary-cap space. The Panthers will pay Mayfield only $5 million with Mayfield agreeing to trim the $3.5 million off his base salary. How can anyone be upset with this? With the offloading of Darnold after this 2022 season that will leave an open slot for higher compensation to Mayfield IF he proves it to the team that he’s worth it.
In sum, the Quarterback Carousel is exhausting for many of us fans. Not having a consistent face at the Quarterback position since Cam Newton was unceremoniously released has done serious damage to the morale of the fanbase. Come what may; I will support this team and their decision to bring in whoever they feel can help us win. I’m not sure about many of you, but I’m sick and tired of losing. Will Baker Mayfield be the answer for the next few years to grow and mentor the future heir to the Franchise Matt Corral? That remains to be seen but I sleep well at night knowing my rookie Quarterback won’t be tossed into a situation he is ill-prepared to take on quite yet. For me, that is enough. For now. As Steve Smith said, “if you go with your team you got to roll with them”. Much like Agent 89, I am rolling with the Panthers now and forever. On that note, go Baker and Keep Pounding!