SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Baker Mayfield’s two-week cram session after joining the Panthers included studying the playbook on a private plane with his dog and wife, and attending the throwing/bonding session organized by Christian McCaffrey and Sam Darnold.
Mayfield was warned about the summertime heat in Spartanburg, but the former Browns quarterback had to experience the South Carolina sauna firsthand.
“I’m pretty stupid for wearing a long sleeve and pants,” Mayfield said Wednesday following his first practice with the Panthers. “But I’m stubborn, so I had to learn for myself.”
Expect the 27-year-old Mayfield to be in short sleeves Thursday when he’ll take the first-team reps after working with the second team Wednesday. Darnold was with the ones on the first day, but Panthers coach Matt Rhule said the two would flip Thursday as he tries to give both an equal shot at winning the job.
And while most observers expect Mayfield to be the Week 1 starter against his former Cleveland team, it might be a while before anything’s official.
“I don’t have any timetable on it,” Rhule said, “and I don’t see it happening anytime soon.”
Baker Mayfield to Rashard Higgins, a familiar target. pic.twitter.com/2YdHrKb67s
— Joe Person (@josephperson) July 27, 2022
Mayfield and Darnold, taken first and third, respectively, in the 2018 draft, walked in together for Wednesday’s late-morning session. They were not the first quarterbacks on the field. That honor went to rookie Matt Corral, the third-round pick from Ole Miss who vowed this week he would try to grab the starting role “by any means necessary.”
Mayfield was greeted by shouts of “Baker!” as he and Darnold walked down the hill from the locker room at Wofford. (Darnold later drew laughter from reporters by saying he “heard a couple” fans yell his name, too.)
Both said it’s been nice having someone to share ideas with in a quarterbacks room that also includes P.J. Walker.
“It’s unique because we’re all pretty young. Sam and I are the oldest ones in the room and we’re only going into Year 5,” Mayfield said. “So we’re able to compete and kind of bounce ideas off of each other. Just the different systems that we’ve been in. Obviously, they’re learning this one for the first time, too. So compare it, contrast and just come up with ideas to see the most efficient way to run things and get this team winning.”
Mayfield looked healthy in his first practice since January surgery to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. But he also showed signs of rust after missing OTAs and minicamp while the trade talks between Cleveland and Carolina had stalled.
During seven-on-seven drills late in practice, Mayfield overshot an open Brandon Zylstra on a go route, then led second-year wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. a little too much on a crosser on the next play.
“I’m not excited about some of the throws accuracy-wise. I got a little greedy on one,” he said. “Gotta take care of the ball. There was some good, but just not enough of it.”
The greedy pass that Mayfield referenced came on one of the final plays of the 90-minute practice. The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner forced a deep throw to a well-covered Keith Kirkwood, and second-year cornerback Keith Taylor went up and picked it off. The ball seemed to get hung up in the wind, though Rhule also wondered whether Mayfield had a clean release.
“I don’t know if the ball came out of his hand right. It looked like it kind of got caught up in there,” Rhule said. “Really nice job by Keith. (A) 6-foot-4 corner, that’s your job — to go up and pluck the ball.”
Just about every pass Mayfield and Darnold make will be analyzed over the next few weeks, with both competing for a job for the first time since college. After transferring from Texas Tech to Oklahoma, Mayfield beat out Trevor Knight in 2015 and didn’t look back … until the Browns traded for Deshaun Watson this past offseason.
While Mayfield said it’s been different joining a new team, learning a new playbook and getting used to a stay-away training camp, the Panthers hope the competition will bring out the best of both him and Darnold.
Darnold was asked Wednesday if he felt the distribution of reps was fair.
“It’s not really if it’s fair. It’s more if it’s just. That’s kind of what we talked about in the meeting,” Darnold said. “I’m not looking at things like that. In this situation, I can’t look at how many reps I’m getting, how many reps is he getting? Is he going with the ones, am I going with the twos, things like that. I’ve just gotta make my reps count.”
Darnold had a good day Wednesday, especially in the red zone, where he threw touchdown passes to tight ends Tommy Tremble and Ian Thomas (and had a third TD dropped by Thomas in the back of the end zone). But Darnold also had a “silly error” on a scramble in the red zone, when linebacker Damien Wilson cut in front of the receiver but dropped the would-be interception.
Since they entered the league in 2018, no quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions than Mayfield (56) and Darnold (52). So taking care of the ball will be a theme at Wofford.
“There’s aggressiveness and then there’s carelessness. There’s a fine line between those and knowing when to take your shots, when you have a one-on-one. And not get too greedy, play in the flow of the game,” Mayfield said. “If you take care of the ball, most likely you’re gonna win games. That’s the main motto here.”
Added Rhule: “You want to eliminate careless mistakes, not doing your job, trying to do too much. But we want these guys to go play aggressive. They’re NFL quarterbacks.”
And while only one can be the Week 1 starter, there’s a good chance more than one will play this season. The Panthers’ sports science department gave Rhule a stat he shared with his players and the media: Only 12 of 32 teams in 2021 started the same quarterback for all 17 regular-season games. (Neither Darnold nor Mayfield played every game.)
In the meantime, let the QB battle rage on.
“It’s a great learning process for me to get to know these guys,” Mayfield said, “and really find out what everybody’s made of with this competition.”
What Mayfield found out Wednesday was the Spartanburg sun was no joke. Thursday’s forecast? More of the same.
“We had a lot of guys wearing hoods and long sleeves, and I addressed that a little bit,” Rhule said. “I can’t tell guys what to wear, but you might want to wear a T-shirt out here.”
(Photo of Baker Mayfield: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)