CINCINNATI — Baker Mayfield wondered earlier in the week whether he would get another shot to play quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.
Facing the largest halftime deficit in team history, down 35-0 to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paycor Stadium, interim coach Steve Wilks finally turned to the first pick of the 2018 draft and benched a struggling PJ Walker.
And it happened in the state of Ohio, where Mayfield began his career with the Cleveland Browns.
“You either keep fighting and come out of this thing proud of what you put on tape or you don’t,” Mayfield said after the 42-21 loss. “Obviously, things didn’t go our way today. And that falls on everybody. This was a full-blown loss.”
Mayfield, playing for the first time since a Week 5 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Tremble on his first drive to cut the lead to 35-7. He finished having completed 14 of 20 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, his first scores since a Week 4 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
It was only the fifth and sixth touchdown passes of the season for Mayfield against four interceptions. His 70% completion percentage was by far his highest of the year, as was his 126.0 passer rating, although Mayfield noted the Bengals were playing back and playing softer coverages with the big lead.
Was it enough to make Mayfield the starter for Thursday night’s prime-time game against the Atlanta Falcons?
“I couldn’t tell you right now,” Wilks said after falling to 1-3 since replacing Matt Rhule, who was fired after a 1-4 start. “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. We’ve got to watch the tape and figure out exactly where we are in all three phases and get guys to step up, as well as coaches and myself.”
Mayfield wouldn’t get into hypotheticals, either.
“It’s not my decision,” he said. “I want to win. Whatever role that is decided to be, I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it extremely well.”
Mayfield was replaced by Walker in Week 6 after suffering a high 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. This was in part because Walker was playing well and in part because Mayfield’s 15.3 Total QBR the first five games was last in the NFL and the worst for a quarterback since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006.
But Mayfield kept his head in the game and prepared as though he would get another shot. He spent the first half Sunday taking notes on the sideline and studying video.
So when Wilks said at halftime he would play, Mayfield was ready — even for the boos from Cincinnati fans who booed him for years while he was with the Browns.
“I’ve been here a few times,” Mayfield quipped. “That’s the state of Ohio. They have good football fans.”
Walker had a disastrous first half against the Bengals, completing only 3 of 10 pass attempts for 9 yards with two interceptions. The Panthers were outgained 268 yards to 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 Dec. 29, 2019.
Mayfield talked earlier in the week about the “looming question” of what his future would be at Carolina when 2021 starter Sam Darnold was activated from injured reserve with the Tuesday deadline coming up. That would leave the Panthers with three quarterbacks in Walker, Mayfield and Darnold, and teams seldom carry three quarterbacks with another on the practice squad.
Wilks also has said previously he wanted to get another look at Darnold before the season is over.
Getting Darnold ready for a rematch against Atlanta, which beat Carolina 37-34 in overtime last week, on a short week would be tough. So Wilks’ decision likely will come down to Mayfield or Walker.
The bigger question will come after the Atlanta game when the team may have to choose two of the three quarterbacks and cut one. Before Sunday, there was speculation that could be Mayfield.
Asked to state his case for remaining the starter, Walker said: “I’m going to continue to go out there and work. I’ll continue to put the time in, the work in, and let Coach Wilks make that decision. That ain’t on me. That ain’t on Baker, either.”
That this was a full-blown loss was something everyone could agree on. The Panthers were outgained 464 yards to 228, gave up five rushing touchdowns after giving up only seven in the first eight games and committed seven penalties for 50 yards, four by the defense for lining up offsides.
“It was flat out there today,” Walker said. “It was flat all around. All three phase. We’ve got to continue to get better, don’t let this one game define us.”