Baker Mayfield vs. Sam Darnold: Should Carolina Panthers’ Starting QB Job Mayfield Lose?

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SPARTANBURG, SC — Wide receiver Rashard Higgins clung to his 11-month-old son in the back of a golf cart while discussing the “open” competition between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold for the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback job.

He joked that young Sevin got his name — with a tweak to the spelling — because seven follows six, the consistent number for Mayfield, his teammate and friend in Cleveland the past four seasons.

In other words, if anyone has reason to pull for Mayfield, it’s Higgins.

But when asked who he thinks will start Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, the player nicknamed “Hollywood” didn’t clarify.

“Whoever makes that decision, it’s going to be a good one, so we’ll see,” he said with a smile.

That’s the company line.

Whether it’s Mayfield, acquired last month in a trade with the Browns, or Darnold, acquired last year in a trade with the New York Jets, the Panthers believe the competition between No. 1 and No. 3 overall in 2018 -the draft will make them better.

Whether you think the contest is truly “open” or whether it’s Mayfield’s job to lose — as many around the league believe — doesn’t matter, especially to third-year coach Matt Rhule, whose future may hinge on the outcome.

He says almost daily that this is not a one-day contest and will likely take time to decide.

“I’ve been on record with what I think,” said Rhule, who opened training camp and said performance will determine the outcome. “I just have to worry about the guys and hopefully they feel good about the way we’re doing it.”

They seem to, and so far neither has performed well enough to distance themselves from the other.

“Everything is extremely transparent,” Mayfield said. “They tell us together how they deal with it. It’s not told to one person and Sam hears other things. It’s right there in front of us, clear and concise.”

The pre-season competition schedule

You know the routine if you followed the first week of camp. Darnold works with the first team one day, while Mayfield works with the second. Next day flip-flop. Next, they share the time with the starters. It’s about as 50-50 as you can get.

As Rhule explained to his quarterbacks, “We can’t necessarily always be fair, but we have to be fair.”

Fans already have a favorite. Before the first practice, when Mayfield and Darnold walked together onto the Wofford College fields, the overwhelming chants were in Mayfield’s favor.

Since then, they’ve arrived separately, but Mayfield still gets more chants and louder ones.

So far, neither of them seems worried. Each is focused on getting to know offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system better and fixing flaws that have them competing for a job instead of owning one.

Rhule likes what he’s seen, especially from Mayfield after just two weeks in the system.

“We test guys every day,” he said. “His tests come back in the hundreds. He’s a professional pro.”

The missing link to becoming a candidate?

The last time the Panthers had such an audition was in 2003, when longtime backup Jake Delhomme was brought in to compete with veteran Rodney Peete. Peete started the opener, but Delhomme took over in the second half and led the team to the Super Bowl.

New Panthers guard Austin Corbett understands what it means to hold down the quarterback position after winning a Super Bowl last season with the Los Angeles Rams after they traded for Matthew Stafford. He also knows the potential in Mayfield, having played with the quarterback in Cleveland his first season and a half as a pro.

Corbett believes whoever emerges between Mayfield and Darnold has the potential to make Carolina a contender.

“Their level of competition is going to push each other to the next level of performance,” he said.

While he didn’t play favorites, Corbett said the energy Mayfield brings is “truly unmatched.”

“A real love of competition that he pours into everything,” he said. “He beats himself up over minor mistakes.”

Darnold, Corbett said, is more laid back. He rarely seems upset.

“But they’ve stuck together so far, helped each other and are fine together,” he said. “They just both want this team to be the most successful it can be.”

Red zone success key to boot?

Winning is what Rhule wants more than anything after going 5-11 and 5-12 in his first two seasons. Inconsistent quarterback play (2020 with Teddy Bridgewater and last season with Darnold and Cam Newton) is a big reason he hasn’t won.

Much of that discrepancy has been in the red zone, as just 42% of their red zone plays have been completed in two seasons under Rhule, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Mayfield looked to create the first separation of the game on Monday when he threw three touchdown passes to none to Darnold inside the 20s.

Mayfield continued to impress Tuesday with his willingness to take shots downfield, something Darnold hasn’t done well as a pro (his 27% completion rate on throws at least 20 yards downfield ranks last in the NFL over the past four seasons; Mayfield is 18th at 42 percent Mayfield’s 50-yard completion to Robbie Anderson drew applause from teammates and fans.

That Mayfield led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win in 2020 also lends him more credibility. Darnold has gone 6-17 the past two seasons and is 17-32 as a starter overall.

But so far in camp, Rhule has treated both quarterbacks like they’re 0-0, helping each other out in meetings and on the field.

“Obviously, we both want to be the starting quarterback for this team,” Darnold said. “It’s obvious. But at the end of the day, it’s not me or Baker who makes that decision.

“That kind of makes it easier for us to root for each other.”

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