Panthers' Baker Mayfield: From brink of stardom to brink of irrelevance

Baker Mayfield has shown leadership this season, as he has gone from potential NFL star to a backup with the Panthers. Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The visitor's locker room was eerily quiet as the Carolina Panthers processed their overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons 11 days ago. Players were devastated at going from the high of PJ Walker's 62-yard, game-tying touchdown that was called the "throw of the year'' by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to the low of failed opportunities to win on missed kicks by Eddy Pineiro.

Defensive end Brian Burns was so down he declined postgame interviews for the first time all season and canceled his Halloween plans the next day.

As Pineiro positioned himself against a cinder block wall to explain how he missed the winning 48-yard extra point with 12 seconds left in regulation (after a 15-yard celebration penalty) and a 32-yard field goal in overtime, a quarterback who didn't play a snap stood with several other teammates behind the sea of reporters surrounding the kicker to show support.

Baker Mayfield was hurting like everyone else, in some ways perhaps more. Two years removed from being on the brink of becoming a top-tier quarterback, he was on the brink of being irrelevant.

He'd lost his starting job to Walker, an undrafted player out of the XFL, and there have been no signs that Baker, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, will get it back.

Mayfield hadn't lost his ability to lead.

"What Baker is having to deal with ... being healthy and a backup, is not an easy thing,'' veteran long-snapper JJ Jansen said as he recalled Mayfield's support of Pineiro. "When I tell you he's been as good of a leader as we've had on this team, going through everything that he's gone through, he's been as good as anybody on the team.''

This is Mayfield today.

This is the Mayfield who has been there when you peel back the brash persona that defined his career until now.

Not many have seen him exposed like this.

"I came here to win,'' said Mayfield, who will remain the backup for Thursday night's rematch with Atlanta (despite Walker's disastrous first half in Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals). "I've played a lot of ball and I've gone through a lot of different things. We're in this for the same reasons. We all want to win. Why not use my experience and leadership to do that?''

TWO YEARS AGO, Mayfield led the Cleveland Browns to an 11-5 regular-season record and a playoff win. He was being compared by analysts to some of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league.

Then after the 2021 season, in which Mayfield struggled, the Browns traded for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, and Mayfield asked for a trade.

Now Mayfield, whose 15.3 Total Quarterback Rating this season is the lowest since ESPN began tracking the number in 2006, is unsure of his NFL future as he approaches the end of the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. It's almost surreal hearing him talk about it.

"I don't know if he'll ever get another chance, but I'm telling you, somebody has missed the boat on him,'' a source close to Mayfield said. "Is he top 10 in the NFL? I don't know. But I promise you he's top half from an ability standpoint.''

Multiple league executive sources told ESPN the market for Mayfield during the offseason will be minimal barring an amazing turnaround in the second half of this season. They say the 27-year-old won't get more than a prove-it, one-year deal in the $5 million to $7 million range.

A personnel source said there's also a chance the Panthers (2-7) release Mayfield in the coming weeks if Walker bounces back from Sunday's outing -- 3-of-10 passing for 9 yards, two interceptions and a 0.0 passer rating in the first half before being benched for Mayfield -- against Atlanta (4-5). Or even if Walker doesn't bounce back.

There is incentive for Carolina to keep Mayfield on the bench. The 2024 conditional pick sent to the Browns when the Panthers acquired Mayfield in July goes from a fourth- to a fifth-rounder if Mayfield doesn't play 70% of the snaps. He's currently around 60%.

Interim coach Steve Wilks said he wants to get a look at last season's starter Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, to see how he performs in offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system. Darnold on Monday came off injured reserve as he works his way back from a high left ankle sprain.

Then there's the conversation nobody in the organization wants to have about tanking for the first pick in 2023 to draft a franchise quarterback.

So while Mayfield will be Walker's backup against Atlanta, there's a chance he will be inactive the following week against the Baltimore Ravens with Darnold elevated to the backup role.

"It's too bad what's happened to Baker,'' said Drew Stanton, who was Mayfield's backup in Cleveland from 2018 to 2019. "If you're not the starting quarterback, you're kind of forgotten about. And the last set impression that he has right now is that QBR. That's what people have an image of right now. He knows that.''

STANTON STARTED 17 games in 13 NFL seasons after being a second-round pick out of Michigan State by the Detroit Lions in 2008. He didn't play a down during the 2011-13 seasons for the Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals.

So he understands what it's like to go from starter to not seeing the field.

He doesn't see that for Mayfield.

"I still think everything is in front of him,'' said Stanton, who keeps close contact with Mayfield. "Unfortunately, when you go into a difficult situation like was set up this year in Carolina, you don't know what you're going to get.''

Stanton is referring to Mayfield getting traded to Carolina in July while players were on break and starting training camp from scratch with a new offensive coordinator and teammates.

That coach Matt Rhule was on a short leash with owner David Tepper, who fired Rhule after a 1-4 start, didn't help.

"Every time I talk to him, my message is to maintain, stay the same and be ready to go back in, because you never know, especially in that type of operation, when an opportunity will present itself,'' Stanton said.

That opportunity presented itself Sunday when Mayfield started the second half with Carolina trailing 35-0. He completed 14 of 20 pass attempts for 155 yards and two touchdowns. He led three scoring drives.

But that wasn't enough to get the job back.

That Mayfield hasn't publicly gone off on Carolina management as he did with Cleveland, when he asked for a trade after the Browns began their pursuit of Watson in the spring, doesn't surprise those close to him.

"The perception of him that's out there, especially with what was coming out of Cleveland, wasn't who he is,'' Stanton said. "There's not really much you can do if you respond to some of the comments that were said about him being immature or a bad teammate.

"People love being his teammate, and that's the true measure of who he is.''

Carolina players have seen that side of Mayfield, as he has embraced running the scout team the past three weeks while healthy.

"He's not putting himself over the team,'' Jansen said.

They also realize not being the starter eats at him despite his team-first approach.

"I mean, you can just tell,'' Walker said. "It's tough. It ain't always about body language, but as a competitor, I'm sure he's sick.''

RHULE'S HOPE WAS the Panthers got the 2020 version of Mayfield, not the 2021 version who was plagued by an injured non-throwing shoulder.

Rhule was impressed with the way Mayfield quickly grasped McAdoo's offense and won the open competition with Darnold for the starting job.

But to truly understand why Mayfield hasn't lived up to 2020 expectations one needs to go back to 2019 under then-Browns coach Freddie Kitchens. Mayfield threw 21 interceptions to 22 touchdown passes during that 6-10 season.

The turnovers played a major factor in the team's struggles and the firing of Kitchens after one season in favor of former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski.

Dig deeper and you'll find Mayfield's completion percentage to wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry was 58%. His completion percentage to everyone else was 67%.

You'll also find 15 of Mayfield's 21 interceptions were targeted at Beckham or Landry, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and 10 of his 22 touchdowns went to them.

That's significant because Beckham and Landry were limited in practice by injuries most of that season, so Mayfield never got the time needed to develop a chemistry with them, said a source close to Mayfield.

"When you have a guy like Odell that is so dynamic and can do so many different things, and he's not necessarily just going to follow exactly what it says in the framework of the route because he understands how to get open, guys like that take a little time to get used to,'' Stanton said. "Everybody was trying to figure out a way to get it to work.''

There also was pressure on the staff to make sure Beckham and Landry were targeted by Mayfield, according to a coaching source close to the situation.

The source said after the Browns beat Baltimore 40-25 in Week 4, there were some in the organization who wanted to know why Beckham didn't have more than two catches.

"That's a little insight to the pressure that he was under as far as not only succeeding, but how you succeeded in Cleveland,'' the source said. "That held back his growth. But am I a believer in Baker Mayfield? You're damn right I am. One hundred percent.

"There's also some work that needs to be done.''

FLASH FORWARD TO the 2020 season under Stefanski. The Browns drafted left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. with the No. 10 pick and beefed up the offensive line to provide more protection after Mayfield was sacked 40 times in 2019.

Stefanski introduced Mayfield to more of a dink-and-dunk system based on high-percentage passes and built a power running game behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to take the pressure off of his quarterback, who had a reputation for being most effective throwing deep.

Mayfield responded with 26 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He had two 1,000-yard receivers in Beckham and Landry and a 1,000-yard rusher in Chubb. His Total QBR was 90.7 off play-action passes, second best in the NFL to the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers. Mayfield had 13 touchdowns to one interception off play-action passes.

Mayfield also averaged 10.5 yards per attempt off designated rollouts in 2020 and 8.2 yards per attempt outside the pocket, both second best in the NFL to Watson, then with the Texans.

The Browns were run heavy with the fourth-highest designated rush percentage (45%) in the league and the fourth-highest quarterback under center percentage (58%). They ranked first in the NFL in using two tight ends on the field (33 plays per game). Those tight ends had a combined 70 catches and seven touchdowns.

The Panthers haven't use Mayfield schematically like Stefanski did. In Mayfield's five starts, they ranked 26th in rush percentage (33%) through Week 5, 14th in quarterback under center (41%) and 22nd with 14 plays per game with two tight ends. Tight ends had only 14 catches (2.8 per game) in Mayfield's five starts.

As a result, Mayfield had a 50.5 Total QBR on play-action, which ranked 22nd, and only seven designed rollouts for an average of 6.0 yards per pass, which ranked 17th.

This all with Christian McCaffrey, arguably the best dual-threat running back in the NFL, before the Panthers traded him to the San Francisco 49ers.

"Baker's at his best when he's on the move and moving in the pocket,'' Stanton said. "Ben McAdoo likes a quick passing game, he likes to get the ball out, he likes to take pressure off the offensive line.''

As poorly as Mayfield performed in his system, McAdoo won't say Mayfield failed.

"Baker has not failed. Baker got injured,'' he said, referring to Mayfield's ankle injury in the fifth game of his 1-4 start. "Really, those questions are better for coach than they are for me. He has final say on everything.

"But Baker is tremendous for us. He had moments of playing well before the injury.''

NOBODY APPEARED MORE excited for Walker than Mayfield after Walker's game-tying touchdown against Atlanta that had a 12% chance of being completed, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He rushed to Walker and began kissing his teammate's helmet.

But the moment in the locker room with Pineiro showed even more about Mayfield's character.

"You could see the look on Eddy's face right after the first miss,'' Mayfield recalled. "He never wanted to be in that position but, unfortunately, he was. So I was there to let him know we have his back, just to be there for him.''

Mayfield demonstrated even more character when the conversation turned to his situation.

"What's lost in this whole thing is how hard it's been for Sam,'' Mayfield said of Darnold, the 2021 starter Mayfield was brought in to replace. "It's been difficult for all of us ... but we support each other.''

Darnold, 4-7 as the starter last season, says Mayfield has been nothing but supportive of him.

That's the side of Mayfield few saw when he was the starter at Cleveland or even in college at Oklahoma -- the side without the chip on his shoulder that he never really had to show because he'd never been in this position before.

"There's an element to Baker that he likes to poke and prod with you guys in the media,'' Jansen said. "He's been nothing but a great teammate here.''

That's why those close to Mayfield believe he'll survive this fall from stardom if put in the right situation, which won't be with Carolina. As much as team officials have been impressed by Mayfield's professionalism as the backup, they don't look at him as the long-term solution.

"I'm really proud of the way he's handling himself, because it's not like he's doing it for the camera, that he's blowing a bunch of hot air,'' Stanton said. "That's who he is.''