Matt Rhule’s seat is warm, and his quarterback room is full.
The latter is a good thing for the Panthers head coach. After spending the 2021 season battling through Sam Darnold’s struggles — both in performance and health — Rhule now has another option under center entering 2022.
Baker Mayfield arrived via trade as the ideal choice at quarterback, but Rhule’s staff isn’t just going to hand him the job. In fact, Rhule isn’t going to be the one anointing Mayfield the starter at all, at least not according to the coach.
“To me, my job is not to pick the starting quarterback,” Rhule said Monday. “The players will do that with the way they play. My job is to make sure that we have really good players in the room, which we do, and make sure that they have opportunities. So it’ll be a fun ride and when we know we’ll know.”
With the Mayfield trade, Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer have at least accomplished the player acquisition part of Rhule’s ideal scenario. Now, according to the coach, it’s up to the two to make Rhule’s decision for him with their training camp competition.
Once that’s settled, Rhule’s attention will shift toward finding the success that has eluded his Panthers for the majority of his tenure. Carolina showed glimpses of legitimate contention in 2021 via a 3-0 start to the campaign, but things quickly fell apart. The Panthers won just two of their final 14 games, ending the year with seven straight losses.
That won’t fly in 2022, but almost anything could be better than what the Panthers produced offensively last year. Carolina finished 30th in total offense, 29th in passing and 20th in rushing. Three different quarterbacks — Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker — attempted at least 65 passes, and none finished with a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio or cracked 60 in completion percentage.
This offense was also forced to find a way to move the football without its best weapon, running back Christian McCaffrey, who missed a significant amount of time for a second straight season due to injury. The Panthers are hoping that doesn’t happen a third time.
“This year, I expect to win. I want to win,” Rhule said. “I’ve never had, going into the season saying ‘Oh I want to win this many games and keep my job.’ I’m not doing that, man. I want to win at the highest level, just like Christian does, just like (linebacker) Shaq (Thompson) does, just like everybody in this organization does, and that’s why I woke up today ready to go, excited to go, excited to be here, and I like where we’re at.”
Mayfield should provide an upgrade. Even in an injury-riddled, distraction-filled season in Cleveland, Mayfield still finished with a 60.5 completion percentage and a 17-13 TD-INT ratio. The Browns only won eight games, but that was still three more than Carolina’s total.
Mayfield came at a cheap price: a 2024 conditional fifth-round pick. He has just one year left on his deal, but he has a point to prove and an enlarged chip on his shoulder. He’s also had an offseason to get healthy.
While Rhule said the players will make his decision under center for him, the answer already appears to be obvious — even if he won’t acknowledge it at this point.
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