From the second the Carolina traded for Baker Mayfield, it was clear to everyone he was going to be the starter. Apparently this was lost on the Panthers. Now, after almost two months of procrastination the team named Mayfield their Week 1 starter, and in doing so lost valuable time they can’t get back.
The issue stems from a familiar refrain during the Matt Rhule era: A lack of honesty towards fans and the media. Since the head coach arrived there’s been a common thread of not honestly explaining the team’s personnel decisions, even when they’re so obvious that subterfuge would be pointless. This happened when Marty Hurney was general manager, and has continued since Scott Fitterer took the helm.
Quarterback is the core issue here, and it’s marred the Panthers since parting ways with Cam Newton (the first time) in 2019. Carolina has been throwing everything at the wall and hoping something sticks, and the decision to trade for Mayfield, less than a year after committing to Sam Darnold is simply a continuation of the trend.
There was never any doubt that Mayfield was going to be the best quarterback on the roster. That’s not exactly saying much, but it’s true — such is the situation the Panthers put themselves in. However, the team was adamant that a QB competition was taking place, giving Mayfield and Darnold equal first team snaps in training camp, despite it becoming clear immediately that Baker was the better player.
The problem is that this had a knock on effect down the rest of the roster. With Mayfield and Darnold trading off snaps with the first and second teams respectively, it left the other two quarterbacks on the roster, Matt Corral and P.J. Walker, to have their own pretend QB competition for the third string slot.
Just as Mayfield was always going to be the No. 1, everyone knew that Corral would be either the backup or, at worst, the No. 3. That’s what happens when you take a quarterback with a pick in the early rounds of the draft. Especially one you’ve talked up as being a potential face of the franchise. Walker has been a good hand for the Panthers, and but he’s never been in the team’s future plans — and he’s a free agent after 2022.
So, by pretending there was a competition between Mayfield and Darnold, then pretending there was another between Corral and Walker — all it really did was take away any opportunity for development from Corral. While Desmond Ridder and Malik Willis were running with regular season starters, Corral was left with fringe offensive linemen and receivers both in camp, and preseason. It meant he never really had a chance to develop a rapport with the team’s best players, and outside of one day in camp where he worked with the second team, any other chance to get better was wasted.
Now those opportunities are totally out the window. Corral will miss the entire 2022 season with a Lisfranc injury. While that couldn’t have been anticipated, the Panthers could have done so much more to get a better look at their rookie quarterback before losing him. It’s another avoidable misstep at the position by a team that finally felt like it was putting it together.
What makes this so difficult is that the season now feels like a lose-lose proposition. If Mayfield plays lights out and leads the Panthers to playoffs they’re going to feel obligated to extend him — especially with so little data on Corral. If the team stinks again, and finds itself drafting in the Top 10 again they now have a scenario where they’re picking high in a QB rich draft, without having any idea if Corral is a good passer.
All it took was being honest and doing the obvious. Name Mayfield the starter almost immediately after trading for him, knowing Darnold would be the backup. Then, instead of this pointless back-and-forth the team could have given Matt Corral plenty of chances to showcase his talents, just as the other rookies have had — but they didn’t.
The Panthers just can’t get out of their own way when it comes to quarterbacks, but all that could be forgiven by fans if it results in a winning season and playoff success. If that doesn’t happen then the seats in Charlotte have never been hotter.