CHARLOTTE — If the Panthers wanted to play it safe, they could have given this decision more time to develop.
But if the Panthers truly wanted to play it safe, trading for Baker Mayfield probably wouldn't have been part of the plan anyway.
On Monday, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule announced Mayfield as the starting quarterback for the regular season opener, less than a month removed from Mayfield's first on-field work with his new teammates and 20 days before they'll play a game that will count. He'll now start Friday's preseason finale against the Bills and spend the rest of the time developing more chemistry and settling into a new home.
The move might have been widely anticipated from the outside, especially as Mayfield began looking more and more comfortable with the first offense after the first two weeks of training camp. But they also wanted him to prove himself while coming to a new environment and meeting new players and coaches during training camp.
They found out quickly he didn't lack for confidence, taking shots downfield and making fun of teammates like linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Donte Jackson for their trash-talking abilities, and even getting the quiet ones like wide receiver DJ Moore to join in.
His confidence can make him a target. It also earns him a following.
"Good days, bad days, you're going to hear Baker," Jackson said with a laugh during camp. "We like it. He definitely brings the best out of the defense and the offense. He's got guys who never really say nothing saying stuff, like DJ. But yeah, he's an intense guy. Every day you want to go out and pick him off 12 times so you can shut him up. He's a competitor, and that's what we do. We're trying to bring the best out of each other.
"We're not submitting to being a team that's looked down upon. So whatever it takes to bring out the best in each other, that's what we're going to do."
If you've picked up anything about Mayfield, from watching him walk on at Oklahoma and lead the Sooners with his signature swagger and flag-planting style, it's that he's willing to bet on himself in hopes of big returns.
And the stage he's walking onto is set for him to do it again.
Of course, Monday's decision adds a little spice to the Sept. 11 opener against the Browns, from whom the Panthers acquired Mayfield in a July trade.
But because it's Mayfield, this one was probably always going to have a little extra kick.
Whether it was waking up "feeling dangerous" or leading the Browns to their first playoff win in a generation, Mayfield always added something extra to the proceedings in Cleveland. The former Heisman Trophy winner and former No. 1 overall pick was outstanding in 2020, creating a stir by leading them to the playoffs and their first postseason win since 1994.
Injuries set him back last year, and the Browns were willing to part with him after making the Deshaun Watson deal. The Panthers gave them a conditional fifth-round pick in 2024 in exchange for Mayfield. That pick could become a fourth-rounder in 2024 if he starts most of the season (around 70 percent of the snaps, or roughly 12 games). It's a modest price for a player with some solid recent work and something to prove.
Even with this part of the equation settled, the Panthers are still far from finished with the roster math. At the beginning of camp, the plan was to keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, so third-rounder Matt Corral would have time to grow into the league at a more comfortable pace. Now with Corral likely out for the year with a foot injury, that part is again in doubt, as they've generally kept just two quarterbacks.
And with Sam Darnold in the second spot now, they have something of a known commodity in reserve.
Rhule said he remained confident in having last year's starter around, and Darnold has been a part of what he referred to as "a healthy competition." During camp, when Mayfield made a play, Darnold would be celebrating it alongside teammates, never letting what could have been an awkward situation get that way.
Like Darnold and PJ Walker, Mayfield is also in the final year of his contract, so he has some personal motivation to play well this year also. The Panthers have held off thinking about long-term plans there (beyond drafting Corral in the third round this year), so this season will be an important one in many regards.
But Mayfield's also walking into a job with a solid chance for some early returns. The Panthers revamped their offensive line this year, drafting a couple, including first-round left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, and signing some veteran free agents to add to the competitiveness of a group that stayed in flux in 2021. Mayfield also has solid skill position weapons in Christian McCaffrey, Moore, and Robbie Anderson and was able to develop a rapport with them during camp.
Now, they get to work together on a daily basis with the uncertainty removed, knowing what they have to work on for the long year ahead.
It's far from a sure thing; that much is clear. Mayfield has led a team to the playoffs, but he's also thrown his share of interceptions (56 in four years). But he's also capable of making big plays (92 touchdown passes in those same four years). Early in training camp, when he threw up a YOLO pass to Anderson for a 60-yard score, it was a hint of the possibilities.
That's what this decision gives the Panthers — a chance on a guy who has a playoff win on his resume. He's done it for Cleveland, and the Browns were a lot longer between postseason wins than the Panthers are now.
Sometimes when it's third-and-long, you run a draw play and then punt and hope that the defense gets a stop.
And sometimes, you go long and hope for a big play.
View photos of Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield at training camp and in preseason games at Washington, New England and against Buffalo.