Wednesday, February 1 2023

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Yes, we knew this was probably coming, because the Carolina Panthers didn’t go and get Baker Mayfield with the idea of having him serve as their backup quarterback.

But that doesn’t matter.

Neither does it matter that the guy Mayfield beat out for the starting job, Sam Darnold, had the worst and second-worst passer rating in the NFL the past two seasons.

It is unimportant, at this precise moment in time, less than three weeks from a delicious Week 1 matchup between Mayfield’s Panthers and the Cleveland Browns, that he’s essentially a one-year rental, or that a chunk of his salary is being paid by those same Browns — his old employer.

By being named the Panthers’ starter to start a fresh week, Mayfield offered some hope to the team’s beleaguered fans: the team has the potential to get quite a bit better, and it’s certain to get a lot more interesting.

Mayfield isn’t Aaron Rodgers and he isn’t 2015 Cam Newton. According to the Browns, he isn’t good enough for them to have been able to resist the temptation of going after Deshaun Watson, regardless of the fallout that came with that decision.

But the Panthers and Mayfield are sort of an ideal fit. The team could use a jolt of energy to shake out of a four-year slumber with a combined record of 22-43.

Mayfield brings energy and attention, that much can be guaranteed. Don’t expect Carolina’s season to slip quietly into the night, not this year. It’s Baker Time, which means big talk, plenty of eyeballs, and a mass of divided opinion. 

“I was just trying to handle the hard part of getting everything down first before letting the personality and stuff come out,” Mayfield said, after landing the starting job. “But the passion’s going to come out, regardless, on the field, just because we’re competing.”

Baker Mayfield’s expectations with Panthers

The Carolina Panthers officially made Baker Mayfield their starting quarterback for their season-opener against the Cleveland Browns.

Everything feels in-your-face and immediate with Mayfield, who might as well be the poster boy for hot-take culture. The personality, loud and unapologetic, is never far from the surface. The detractors always seem to be hovering to pounce. Likewise, the reactions whenever he has a big game or throws a flashy TD have no shortage of feeling behind them.

Carolina is already embracing the new reality.

The QB battle between Mayfield and Darnold was largely a public relations exercise that amounted to a friendly, phony war. Provided Mayfield didn’t get hurt or perform abysmally, the job was going to be his.

Not everyone was sold on him coming in, with receiver Robbie Anderson and team legend turned analyst Steve Smith the most notable disapproving voices. But Mayfield’s spark has won Smith over, as evidenced by a television broadcast in which Smith labeled Mayfield as like “John Wayne” and compared Darnold to a “librarian.”

Mayfield’s insertion into the starting lineup makes things devilishly awkward for Cleveland — a fact not lost on anyone. Given the Browns’ current level of extreme unpopularity, tied to the Watson signing, Mayfield might — temporarily — be the most popular football player in America going into Week 1.

“We’ll wait to talk about Carolina until we get there,” Browns coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters. “I’m still in Week 3 of preseason mode.”

Uncomfortable much?

How will Baker Mayfield fare as Panthers’ QB1?

Colin Cowherd explains why Baker will not have the opportunity on the Panthers as he did for his former team.

Mayfield got jettisoned on the back of a 2021 campaign (his fourth in the NFL) where he played through a torn labrum and saw his productivity decline. The Browns, to oversimplify a complicated situation, went for Watson because they believed a superstar QB could propel them to a Super Bowl.

The Panthers are in a far different spot. Respectability, with some memorable moments tossed in, would be a welcome and necessarily uplifting step.

Mayfield will have some opportunities to make waves, and quickly. Beating the Browns in Week 1 would be the most obvious thrill, but the status of the NFC South confers a real chance for a shot at a wild-card spot, many observers believe. Who knows, Mayfield could even become a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

The New Orleans Saints are seen as primed for a decline without Sean Payton and the Atlanta Falcons are expected to be among the worst teams in football. Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are overwhelming favorites to win the division, but with Carolina staging five of their first seven games at home, a swift start could inject some momentum.

In other words, the Baker train could start rolling and begin to pick up speed. One way or another, it is going to be worth watching.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.

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