CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers are turning to quarterback Baker Mayfield to lead their offense.
Coach Matt Rhule announced Monday that Mayfield will start Carolina's Sept. 11 regular-season opener against his former team, the Cleveland Browns — a decision that had been anticipated for several weeks.
Mayfield, acquired in a trade with the Browns earlier this offseason, beat out incumbent starter Sam Darnold for the starting quarterback job.
“When we started this process, we were looking at three things,” Rhule said. “Number one, mastery of the offense, number two, situational football excellence, and number three, moving the ball and getting guys involved. That’s been our focus all along. Baker has made a lot of improvement, a lot of growth in all three areas in a short amount of time.”
Mayfield was known as a fiery competitor during his four years with the Browns, and said Monday the chip on his shoulder “is back.”
“I feel extremely healthy, so I'm ready to go," Mayfield said. “I'm loving football again and a fresh start is great for everyone every once in awhile. I am just going to take this opportunity and make the most of it and not take it for granted.”
Rhule said he's been impressed with how quickly Mayfield has picked up new coordinator Ben McAdoo's offense after joining the team on July 6.
“It's not easy what he did — between the verbiage and the checks and all of the options that we give him. We think he's a really smart guy,” Rhule said. "As he stays in the offense he will grow and grow and grow and get better and better and better."
Both Mayfield and Darnold came into the league as the No. 1 and No. 3 overall picks in the 2018 draft, but Mayfield has enjoyed more success.
Mayfield is 29-30 as an NFL starter with 92 touchdown passes and 56 interceptions; Darnold is 17-32 as a starter with 54 TD passes and 52 INTs.
Mayfield led the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020 and a first-round playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But Mayfield struggled with a shoulder injury last year, and the Browns decided to go in a different direction by trading for controversial quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Cleveland's pursuit of Watson essentially marked the end of Mayfield's career in Cleveland.
“Obviously there is a lot of attachment there and I'm not going to sit here and be a robot and say that it doesn't mean anything. It will,” Mayfield said of the season opener against the Browns. “But right now all that matters is me continuing to improve until the regular season starts.”
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski didn't know Mayfield had been selected as Carolina's starter until being informed by a reporter.
“I didn’t see that,” Stefanski said. “I think we’ll wait to talk about Carolina until we get there. I’m still in the Week 3 of the preseason mode.”
Darnold's future as the starter in Carolina seemed on rocky ground when the Panthers tried to land Watson. When that fell through, the Panthers turned their attention to the disgruntled Mayfield.
A deal was brokered only after Cleveland agreed to pay $10.5 million of Mayfield's contract this season. The Panthers are paying him $4.8 million.
Rhule said he still has tremendous confidence in Darnold, and added that he handled the news like a professional.
Darnold said he felt as if he was given a fair chance to win the job.
“I really did go out there every day and give it my all, and it just didn't go my way,” Darnold said.
For Darnold, the decision leaves his career at a crossroads — although he said he's not going to dwell on that now.
“It's tough, I'm not going to lie,” Darnold said. “But it is what it is.”
But Darnold went to say, “I'm going to do everything I can to support Baker and get him ready to play a game.”
Rhule originally said the Panthers would keep three quarterbacks on the roster, but that was before rookie third-round draft pick Matt Corral suffered a Lisfranc ligament tear in his left foot in a preseason loss to the New England Patriots.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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