CINCINNATI — Earlier in the week, Baker Mayfield wondered if he would get another chance to play quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.
With the team’s largest halftime deficit in team history, a 35-0 deficit to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on Sunday, interim coach Steve Wilks finally turned his attention to the first pick of the 2018 draft, benching an ailing PJ Walker.
And it happened in Ohio State, where Mayfield began his career with the Cleveland Browns.
“Either you keep fighting and come out proud of what you put on tape, or you don’t,” Mayfield said after the 42-21 loss. And everyone notices that. That was a total loss.”
Mayfield, playing the San Francisco 49ers for the first time since a Week 5 loss, threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Tremble on his first drive to cut the lead to 35-7. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, his first results since a Week 4 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
They were just Mayfield’s fifth and sixth touchdown passes of the season against four interceptions. His 70% completion rate was by far the highest of the year, as was his 126.0 passer rating, though Mayfield noted the Bengals were playing back and playing softer covers with the big lead.
Was it enough to make Mayfield the starter for Thursday night’s prime-time game against the Atlanta Falcons?
“I can’t tell you that right now,” Wilks said after falling to 1-3 since replacing Matt Rhule, who was fired from a 4-1 start. “I’m not going to go into hypotheses. We need to watch the video and find out exactly where we are in all three stages and push the lads and the coaches and me to improve.”
Nor would Mayfield delve into hypotheses.
“It’s not my decision,” he said. “I want to win. Whatever role is decided, I will take it and I will do it extremely well.”
Mayfield was replaced by Walker in Week 6 after suffering a severe ankle sprain in the loss to the 49ers. He remained the backup despite being healthy enough to play the next two games and Sunday against the Bengals. That was partly because Walker was playing well, and partly because Mayfield’s 15.3 overall QBR in the first five games was the last in the NFL and the worst for a quarterback since ESPN started keeping the stats in 2006 to pursue.
But Mayfield kept his head in the game and prepared as if he was going to get another shot. He spent the first half of Sunday taking notes and studying videos on the sidelines.
When Wilks said he would play at halftime, Mayfield was ready — even for the boos from Cincinnati fans who had booed him for years while he was with the Browns.
“I’ve been here a few times,” Mayfield quipped. “This is the state of Ohio. They have good football fans.”
Walker had a disastrous first half against the Bengals, completing just 3 of 10 pass attempts for 9 yards with two interceptions. The Panthers were rushed 268 yards for 19 in the half, and the 35-point deficit was the largest for a first half in team history.
The previous record was a 32-point deficit to the New Orleans Saints on December 29, 2019.
Mayfield spoke about the “looming question” of what his future would hold at Carolina earlier in the week when starter Sam Darnold was activated from injured reserve in 2021 with Tuesday’s deadline. That would leave the Panthers with three quarterbacks in Walker, Mayfield, and Darnold, and teams rarely carry three quarterbacks with one other on the practice team.
Wilks has also previously said he wants to revisit Darnold before the season is over.
Setting Darnold up for a rematch against Atlanta, who beat Carolina 37-34 in overtime last week, in a short week would be difficult. So Wilks’ decision will likely come down to Mayfield or Walker.
The bigger question will come after the Atlanta game, when the team may have to pick two of the three quarterbacks and drop one. There was speculation before Sunday that it could be Mayfield.
When asked why he should remain the starter, Walker said: “I will continue to go out and work. I will continue to put the time and work into letting Coach Wilks make that decision. It’s not on me. You can’t do that on Baker either.”
Everyone agreed that this was a total loss. The Panthers were rushed 464 yards for 228 yards, gave up five rushing touchdowns after giving up just seven in their first eight games, and committed seven 50-yard penalties, four from the defense, for queuing for offside.
“It was flat out there today,” Walker said. “It was flat all around. All three phases. We have to keep getting better, let’s not be defined by this one game.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34965738/panthers-bench-struggling-pj-walker-baker-mayfield-vs-bengals Panthers’ Baker Mayfield replaces PJ Walker, tosses 2 TDs in loss