Did Panthers make right call acquiring Mayfield instead of Garoppolo?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After failing to acquire Deshaun Watson, the Carolina Panthers had two offseason trade options to find a starting quarterback: Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo.

They went with Mayfield because the Cleveland Browns agreed to pay $10.5 million of the quarterback’s 2022 salary and Mayfield agreed to take a $3.5 million pay cut, leaving only a conditional fifth-round pick as the other part of the deal.

The San Francisco 49ers, according to a team source with knowledge of the terms, wanted two third-round picks. Carolina also would have been responsible for about $22 million in salary for a quarterback who was coming off of shoulder surgery and was set to be Trey Lance’s backup, before Lance's season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 pushed Garoppolo back into the starting role.

Considering they are 1-3 heading into Sunday’s game (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) against the Garoppolo-led San Francisco 49ers (2-2) and Mayfield has put up career lows in every major statistical category, did the Panthers make the right move?

While several current and former NFL executives said there is not a substantial difference in the quarterbacks, one emphatically said outside of salary concerns, “Jimmy G. No contest.’’

Statistically, neither quarterback had eye-popping career numbers to suggest he could win games on his own.

But ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Troy Aikman pointed out a glaring stat following San Francisco’s 24-9 win Monday over the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.

“All Jimmy G has done is won,’’ he said.

Garoppolo is 34-15 as a starter for the 49ers and New England Patriots. Mayfield is 30-33, including this season's start with Carolina.

Mayfield won a lot at Oklahoma (39-9), but that has translated into only one winning season (11-5, 2020) and one playoff win in the NFL. That the first pick of the 2018 draft joined a Cleveland team that had a single win in the two seasons before he arrived has to be considered.

Garoppolo has been on far more successful organizations. He has also been successful, leading the 49ers to two NFC Championships and a trip to Super Bowl LIV after the 2019 season.

He might have a Super Bowl ring had the 49ers not given up three fourth-quarter touchdowns to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in a 31-20 loss.

Nevertheless, two NFL executives had a hard time distinguishing between the quarterbacks, noting both need a strong running game and defense to succeed.

Garoppolo has both with San Francisco this season. The 49ers rank ninth in rushing (135.3 yards per game), and their defense is tied with the Buffalo Bills for first in total defense and is first in average points allowed (11.5).

Carolina ranks 24th in rushing (96.3 YPG), 18th in total defense and 14th in points allowed (21.3).

“If you put Baker on San Francisco, he would have had similar success,’’ one executive said.

Stats suggest Garoppolo could have benefited the Panthers after the way general manager Scott Fitterer focused on rebuilding the defense, offensive line and special teams.

Carolina needed a quarterback to manage games, not lose them.

Mayfield’s 15.3 Total QBR is the second worst by any quarterback in the first four games of a season since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006. Since 2018, Mayfield has 33 games with a sub-50 QBR, the most by any starting quarterback over that span, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Game management is what Garoppolo has done for the 49ers this season, throwing three touchdowns to one interception and completing 61% of his passes. That’s what he’s done his entire career, throwing 74 touchdowns to 39 interceptions and completing 67.4% of his passes.

“He’s not careless with the ball,’’ Carolina edge rusher Brian Burns said. “For the most part, he makes good decisions.’’

Mayfield never has been that consistent outside of his 2020 season. That’s been magnified this season as he’s thrown three interceptions to four touchdowns and completed a career-low 54.7% of his passes.

He also has fumbled six times, losing one, and has a league-high 11 passes batted down at the line.

Garoppolo has only one fumble and five passes batted down at the line (tied for second fewest in the league).

Mayfield says it’s “completely fair’’ to blame him for Carolina’s offense, the worst in the NFL, with only 262.3 yards per game.

He’s also not feeling sorry for himself.

“Nobody’s happy where we’re at,’’ he said. “You can either harp on it, or look at the tape, fix it and get better.’’

Rhule wouldn’t go into why the Panthers chose Mayfield over Garoppolo, saying he doesn’t talk about players under contract with other teams.

Presumably money was a factor. The Panthers didn’t want to invest a lot in a player to compete with 2021 starter Sam Darnold for the starting job with Darnold already guaranteed $18.9 million this season.

Money likely wouldn't have been a factor with Garoppolo, since any team that acquired him would have restructured his contract as the 49ers ultimately did.

But Rhule did acknowledge Mayfield has to improve for the Panthers to turn things around. He noted third-down and batted-down passes as crucial areas.

There were warning signs for both before the trade. Mayfield had a third-down passer rating of 73.7 with 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in four years with the Browns.

That’s dipped to 46.0 this season with one touchdown and two interceptions, a big reason the Panthers rank last in third-down conversion rate (25.3%).

Garoppolo had a third-down passer rating of 94.9 from 2014-2021 with 24 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. He’s at 90.7 in three games this season with one touchdown and no interceptions.

The warning signs were glaring on batted down passes. Mayfield came into the season with an NFL-high 43 since 2018. He now has 54, including five in Sunday’s 26-16 loss to Arizona that gave Carolina 10 losses in their past 11 games.

Even with five this season, Garoppolo has only 19 for is NFL career that began in 2014.

“If you have a drill for me [to fix it], let me know,’’ Mayfield told a reporter on Wednesday.

When asked after the Arizona loss if he’s being put in the best situation to be successful, Mayfield didn’t bite.

“Yeah, I’m not going to fall for that trap,’’ he said. “We have plays to be made. We have to find ways to complete the ball. We had a good game plan. We just didn’t execute it.’’

Only time will tell if the Panthers executed the best game plan in choosing Mayfield over Garoppolo.

Mayfield's future and Rhule’s job may depend on it.