PANTHERS PREVIEW: With new quarterback facing former team in the opener, will 2022 season turn out differently than 2021?
By Richard Walker
The Carolina Panthers will start a new era on Sunday with a fiery quarterback playing against his former team.
It also happened last year when Sam Darnold started at quarterback for the Panthers when they opened the 2021 season with a 19-14 victory over the New York Jets just months after Carolina acquired Darnold from the Jets in a trade.
Even as Darnold guided the Panthers to a 3-0 start, injuries and poor play derailed the season that would finish with a 5-12 record and a fourth straight losing season.
It marked the first season that Panthers have had four straight losing seasons and has raised pressure on third-year head coach Matt Rhule.
Will this year somehow be different?
Baker Mayfield certainly hopes so.
Carolina will open the season in a game called the “Baker Bowl,” when its hosts Mayfield’s old team, the Cleveland Browns, at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mayfield admitted the Browns’ decision to choose another quarterback over him came “abruptly and unexpectedly.”
Mayfield’s career path was altered forever on March 18 when the Browns traded for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, a former Clemson national champoinship quarterback, and then gave him a five-year, $230 million contract despite ongoing legal issues; Eventually, Watson would be suspended for the first 11 games of the season and won’t play in Charlotte on Sunday.
The outcome left Mayfield twisting in the wind as the Browns didn’t require he attend any of their offseason workouts while they shopped him for trade until dealing him to Charlotte on July 6.
Mayfield says he’s happy to be with the Panthers and after a training camp competition with Darnold, he was named starting quarterback. Mayfield hopes he can re-establish himself as a NFL franchise quarterback.
“We’re here now,” Mayfield said. “Everything happens for a reason and I’m rolling with the punches.”
A preferred walk-on at Texas Tech, Mayfield earned the starting quarterback to become the first non-scholarship true freshman starter in a FBS opener in 2013. After being Big XII Conference offensive player of the year in 2013, he announced he was leaving the program due to “miscommunication” with the coaching staff and transferred to Oklahoma.
At Oklahoma, Mayfield sat out the 2014 season as an intra-conference transfer before winning the starting quarterback job in 2015 preseason camp. In three seasons, he started 39 of 40 games at Oklahoma over three seasons from 2015 to 2017.
In 2017, he was a runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy and became the first former walk-on to do so.
He then became the top pick in the NFL Draft and made 61 starts in 62 games for the Browns in four seasons that was highlighted by Cleveland’s 48-37 playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers; The victory was the Browns’ first postseason win since 1994 and first road postseason win since 2019.
But last year the Browns went 8-9 as Mayfield endured an injury-plagued season in which he was 6-8 in his 14 starts and played the last 13 games with a left shoulder injury that would end his season following shoulder surgery on Jan. 5.
Therefore, it’s no shock that Mayfield will be literally and figuratively playing with a chip on his shoulder
So it’s likely Mayfield will be playing with revenge on his mind when the Panthers open the season against Cleveland on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo says the veteran quarterback knows what’s at stake – and it’s not just a personal grudge.
“Just in conversations with Baker it has been, ‘Let’s just focus on the particulars of preparing to play a game,’” McAdoo said. “We all understand this is a professional environment, not a personal environment.”
After going 5-12 last season with second-most turnovers in the league wrecking their 3-0 start, Carolina hopes Mayfield will lessen mistakes while also making plays that can take advantage of playmaking skill players like running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver D.J. Moore.
Or, as McAdoo put it: “We can’t be chasing perfect plays. We have to keep ourselves out of the bad ones.”
Both teams enter the contest with disappointing struggles in season-openers – Cleveland is 1-21-1 in season openers since 1999 and Carolina 11-16 is all-time in season openers and home openers.
While Mayfield will draw much of the attention, there will be a lot of focus on two other Panthers’ offensive players – rookie left tackle Ickey Ekwonu and veteran running back Christian McCaffrey.
Ekwonu was the No. 6 overall pick in April’s NFL draft and ie expected to be lined up opposite All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett; Garrett has 58 1-2 sacks in five pro seasons including a career-high 16 last season.
McCaffrey is coming off two injury-plagued seasons after a 2019 season in which became the third player in NFL history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season.
Here’s the full Carolina Panthers schedule for the 2022 season:
Aug. 13 at Washington (W 23-21)
Aug. 19 at New England (L 10-20)
Aug. 26 Buffalo (W 21-0)
Week 1, Sept. 11, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 2, Sept. 18, at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.
Week 3, Sept. 25, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 4, Oct. 2, Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 5, Oct. 9, San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Week 6, Oct. 16, at L.A. Rams, 4:05 p.m.
Week 7, Oct. 23, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 8, Oct. 30, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 9, Nov. 6, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 10, Nov. 9, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 11, Nov. 20, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 12, Nov. 27, Denver, 1 p.m.
Week 13, Dec. 4, BYE
Week 14, Dec. 11, at Seattle, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15, Dec. 18, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 16, Dec. 24, Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 17, Jan. 1, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 18, Jan. 7 or 8, at New Orleans, TBD