Panthers have to hope ‘crazy’ year at QB puts them in line to draft one in 2023


A day after Sam Darnold learned he had reclaimed the Panthers’ starting quarterback job, the guy who replaced him with the Jets found out he was getting benched.

Zach Wilson is out in New York, and Mike White will start Sunday against Chicago. Baker Mayfield is out in Carolina, and Darnold will start Sunday against Denver.

Time is a flat circle.

“It’s a crazy year, to be honest with you,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “I think there’s a lot of things throughout the league that have been a little bit strange. But this quarterback room’s handled it as well as possible. We’re doing what we’re told and supporting each other.”

It’s been particularly absurd for the Panthers, who are on their third starting quarterback and second head coach with six games still on the schedule. Many of the same people couldn’t wait for the Panthers to move on from Darnold after a disappointing 2021 (when he was among the lowest-rated quarterbacks in the league) now are willing to see what Darnold can do behind an improved offensive line.

Darnold, who went 4-7 as a starter last year, took no particular satisfaction in seeing Wilson — the No. 2 pick in 2021 — sent to the bench in New York.

“I’m not really paying too much attention to what’s going on over there. But I did see it,” Darnold said. “Obviously, it’s a crazy business. But we’re really focused on the task at hand right now, which is playing a really good Broncos team.”

Darnold lost a quarterback competition during training camp that was stacked heavily in Mayfield’s favor, considering that former coach Matt Rhule was the main driver for bringing Mayfield to Charlotte.

Darnold hasn’t played since August when a Bills defensive lineman landed on his left ankle during the final preseason game. Darnold was carted off the field at Bank of America Stadium, began the season on injured reserve and has been practicing for the past month.

Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks could have put Darnold in against the Ravens last week when Mayfield failed to move the offense during a 13-3 loss. But Wilks wanted Darnold to have a full week of practice as the starter after such a long layoff.

“I think the skill set is there,” Wilks said. “I wanted to give him that opportunity to see what he could go out and do.”

Depending on what Darnold does, it’s likely this won’t be the Panthers’ last quarterback change this season. P.J. Walker, who’s 2-3 as a starter this year and 4-3 in three seasons with the Panthers, is recovering from a high ankle sprain and could be ready after next week’s bye.

“I’m gonna cross that bridge when it happens,” Wilks said. “When that opportunity comes and presents itself, we’ll deal with it then.”

Wilks finds himself in a situation that’s similar to his one-year stint as Arizona’s coach in 2018, when he was stuck with a quarterback (in Josh Rosen) that he didn’t choose. Wilks was the Panthers’ secondary coach in April when Rhule and general manager Scott Fitterer started talking to the Browns about Mayfield during the draft. Darnold and Walker were already on the roster.

Wilks has now started all three of them, though his decision to go with Mayfield last week was out of necessity, because Walker was hurt and Wilks wasn’t sure Darnold was fully back to speed.

Mayfield spoke Wednesday like a guy who thinks he might have played his last game in a Panthers uniform. But given how this season has unfolded, who the hell knows?

“I think there’s a lot of things up in the air for the future here,” he said. “So I don’t really know. I’m doing what I can, what I can control. I know how my teammates feel about me and how I’ve handled things here. So I can leave here with my head held high, and understand I did everything I could.”

All of this feels like a prelude to the Panthers next spring using a first-round draft pick on a quarterback for the first time since taking Cam Newton first overall in 2011. Cam’s come and gone twice since then, and the Panthers have thrown a bunch of QBs against the wall in recent years, hoping one would stick.

One of those guys — Kyle Allen, who won his first five games for the Panthers — is replacing Davis Mills as the starter this week in Houston. The Texans (1-8-1) are No. 1 in the draft order, just ahead of the Panthers (3-8).

Time is a flat circle.

“Playing quarterback in the NFL is a tough job, but it’s the best job in the world,” Darnold said. “To be able to come out here and do it every single day, you don’t take it for granted at all, or at least I don’t.”

A loss to the Broncos (3-7) on Sunday would assure the Panthers of their fifth consecutive losing season since David Tepper bought the team in 2018. Tepper has talked about the importance of finding a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Maybe Bryce Young is that guy. Or C.J. Stroud. Or Will Levis.

The Panthers have the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the league. But any wins in the final month and a half will be a loss in terms of draft positioning.

That’s the situation Darnold is stepping back into. Congrats, Sam, the job’s all yours — at least until the quarterback carousel spins again.

(Photo of Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)


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