Not long ago, there was excitement over Baker Mayfield possibly reviving his career with the Carolina Panthers.
Four weeks into the season, head coach Matt Rhule was asked about his quarterback plans. He couldn't even fake his way through a confident answer.
"I think Baker's our quarterback," Rhule told the media via The Athletic and other outlets.
That comment was humorous, startling and most of all, illustrative.
Mayfield's continued decline has been one of the more stunning storylines of the 2022 NFL season. The Panthers traded for him when the Cleveland Browns gave up on him and got Deshaun Watson. It seemed like a good deal for the Panthers. They gave the Browns just a 2024 conditional fifth-round draft pick. Carolina is paying just $5 million of Mayfield's salary while Cleveland pays $10.5 million.
Now we better understand why the Browns weren't just giving away Mayfield, but paying a lot to be rid of him.
At the end of the 2018 season, you couldn't have predicted that Mayfield would be at these depths. He was the first overall pick of the 2018 draft after winning the Heisman Trophy, and then he set an NFL rookie record for touchdown passes in a season. He struggled in his second season with 21 interceptions, but then bounced back in Year 3. He had 26 touchdowns, eight interceptions, the Browns went 11-5 and won a playoff game. He looked good and was a star in television commercials you saw often. That was less than two years ago.
Any hope that his lost 2021 season was due to injuries has dissipated. Mayfield's play has deteriorated to a point in which the oft-maligned Sam Darnold, who is out due to a high ankle sprain, was trending on Twitter during the Panthers' 26-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. That's not good.
Sunday was a typical game for Mayfield this season. He had five passes batted down at the line. He made bad throws and decisions. Mayfield had just 197 yards on 36 attempts. It was awful, and the fourth straight time he hasn't played well.
It seems hard to believe but Darnold, who had just nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions last season, might be replacing Mayfield when he's healthy. When your coach says he "thinks" you're the quarterback going forward, you're in trouble.
Mayfield's passer rating of 75 this season is second-lowest among all QBs with at least 70 attempts. The lowest rating in that group belongs to Mitchell Trubisky, who was benched at halftime by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. He has been bad despite a supporting cast that includes good receivers in D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson, and all-world running back Christian McCaffrey.
Mayfield isn't throwing deep and he's not completing his short passes either. His average depth of target is 6.8, which is 28th among 31 quarterbacks with 100 dropbacks according to PFF. He's completing just 54.7 percent of his passes though, so being safe isn't helping there. Only Justin Fields has a lower completion percentage among starters. He has one "big-time throw," a PFF stat, in 118 attempts. That 0.8 percent is second-worst in the league (Matt Ryan is worst at 0.6 percent).
It's all falling apart. His height of 6-foot-1 was debated before the draft and it's an issue on all those batted passes. Mayfield always gives off the air of confidence but he doesn't seem to be playing with much confidence at all, judging by his lack of deep throws. His accuracy, a reason he went first overall, has waned. It's difficult to be traded in early July and be fully up to speed by the time the season starts, but it shouldn't be this bad.
Mayfield took a pay cut to go to the Panthers and will be a free agent after the season. He had a chance to show that 2021 was a miss due to injuries and reestablish himself as a definite starter in the NFL, whether in Carolina or elsewhere. Four games into the season, his success from 2018 and 2020 seems like a long time ago. Considering Carolina's next three games are against the strong defenses of the 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers, it could get worse. His free-agent market might be very thin in March. It's hard to believe if he keeps playing at this level that any team would sign him to be their starter, especially with a good quarterbacks class coming in next year's draft.
There's a lot of football to go and maybe Mayfield will turn things around. But he's probably lucky Darnold isn't available as an option for Rhule. Mayfield's play has fallen that far.
Here are the power rankings after Week 4 of the NFL season:
32. Houston Texans (0-3-1, Last Week: 31)
The Texans seem to be getting an answer on Davis Mills, and it's not a great one. He hasn't gotten better since last year's promising rookie season. Mills isn't terrible but he doesn't look like the type of quarterback who causes you to pass on a top prospect in the draft, and Houston is going to have a high draft pick.
31. Carolina Panthers (1-3, LW: 27)
One of the most amazing ongoing stats in the NFL is that under head coach Matt Rhule, the Panthers are 1-26 when their opponent scores 17 or more points including 24 losses in a row. That's unfathomable.
30. Washington Commanders (1-3, LW: 26)
Rookie running back Brian Robinson, who was shot in the leg in a robbery attempt before the season, was taken off the non-football injury list and head coach Ron Rivera said he's optimistic Robinson can play this weekend. For a Washington team that hasn't had a lot of positive news lately, that's great to hear.
29. Chicago Bears (2-2, LW: 28)
Justin Fields has 34 completions in four games. Through Sunday's game, 16 quarterbacks had 88 or more completions this season. With that as the backdrop, here was Fields' reaction to a question following Sunday's loss:
— Josh Frydman (@Josh_Frydman) October 2, 2022
Yep, nothing wrong with the passing game at all. Darn stats.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3, LW: 25)
The Steelers are making the switch to rookie QB Kenny Pickett. Better late than never, I guess. Pickett looked like a rookie thrown in at halftime for his debut, with some nice plays and a few mistakes. But it's not like the Steelers had much to lose. The only problem is the next five games Pickett and the Steelers play the Bills, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Eagles and Saints. It could be a rough road for a while.
27. New York Jets (2-2, LW: 32)
Zach Wilson wasn't good for most of Sunday's game, but he had a few brief flashes and then came through with the game-winning drive when he needed it. The last part is enough for the Jets to be happy with how Wilson's first game back went. There have to be positive steps this season and Sunday's final drive was one.
26. Seattle Seahawks (2-2, LW: 30)
Geno Smith has two straight 300-yard games and a 108 passer rating. Is he the next unlikely late-career breakout? It's OK to be skeptical but this is going better than anyone would have guessed, Seahawks included.
25. New England Patriots (1-3, LW: 21)
The Patriots' play-calling against Green Bay was too conservative, especially when they had the ball over midfield in overtime, but it's tough when you have a rookie playing quarterback only because of two injuries ahead of him. Rookie Bailey Zappe might end up getting more starts at quarterback if Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer aren't ready (and maybe even if Hoyer is ready).
24. Detroit Lions (1-3, LW: 19)
The Lions' defense is dreadful. The Seahawks aren't good on offense and they rang up 555 yards. Head coach Dan Campbell said he won't make a move with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, but it will be unavoidable if the defense keeps playing like this. The offense, on the other hand, is legit if it can put up 45 points without D'Andre Swift, Amon-Ra St. Brown and D.J. Chark. The good offense/bad defense combo has led to some wild shootouts.
23. Atlanta Falcons (2-2, LW: 29)
The Falcons need more than seven completions to keep winning. That's all they got Sunday. But they are .500, which is good considering they were close to winning in each of their two losses. I don't know if the Falcons can sustain this, but they're finding a way. They have to go forward the next few weeks without Cordarrelle Patterson, who went on IR with a knee injury, which puts even more pressure on the passing game to get better.
22. New York Giants (3-1, LW: 24)
Kenny Golladay has two catches for 22 yards this season, and that all came in the opener. He has played 51 snaps without a catch in the past two games. Golladay's $21.15 million salary-cap hit this season is No. 1 among wide receivers according to Spotrac. That signing is already historically bad.
21. Las Vegas Raiders (1-3, LW: 23)
Josh Jacobs had 144 yards rushing and Davante Adams had 101 yards receiving in Sunday's win. Maxx Crosby had four tackles for loss, including two sacks. The Raiders need their top-end talent to get on a nice roll like this. The stars just haven't all played well together at the same time yet, but it's early in the season and Sunday's win over the Broncos was a massively important one.
20. Indianapolis Colts (1-2-1, LW: 13)
Jonathan Taylor hasn't been ruled out of Thursday's game, but he has an ankle injury and a short turnaround. If Taylor can't play or is less than 100 percent, the Colts' offense will struggle. And it's hard to imagine this team struggling much more than it has. Then again, Taylor hasn't done much either this season. It's all a mess for Indianapolis.
19. New Orleans Saints (1-3, LW: 18)
Andy Dalton doesn't bring much upside to the table anymore, but he won't throw the Saints out of games either. If the wind is blowing a little differently on Sunday in London, Wil Lutz's 61-yard kick goes through and the Saints take a good Vikings team to overtime. So there might not be a great reason to rush Jameis Winston back.
18. Arizona Cardinals (2-2, LW: 22)
The Cardinals ran more with Kyler Murray (12 rush attempts) and they won. Go figure. The biggest question is whether the defense turned a corner after struggling most of the first three weeks, or they just happened to draw the team whose quarterback is Baker Mayfield?
17. Denver Broncos (2-2, LW: 14)
Any strides the offense finally made — and there were some as Russell Wilson looked comfortable for the first time all season — were washed away with the news running back Javonte Williams has a torn ACL and will miss the rest of the season. It's hard to believe Denver's coaches have a lot of faith in Melvin Gordon after he lost another fumble Sunday, one that was returned for a key touchdown. Injuries are piling up in Denver.
16. Cleveland Browns (2-2, LW: 11)
Thankfully Myles Garrett didn't sustain any serious injuries in a car accident. From a football perspective the Browns need Garrett back soon. They don't have much margin for error, and they missed his playmaking on Sunday in a loss to the Falcons.
15. Tennessee Titans (2-2, LW: 20)
Mike Vrabel is a really good head coach. The Titans were in trouble at 0-2, but rebounded really well. Derrick Henry looks like he's still capable of carrying an offense. The defense made enough plays on Sunday. Jacksonville is the best team in that division at the moment, but the Titans have the best coach.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (2-2, LW: 17)
It was good to see Austin Ekeler have a big game. He had more than 100 total yards and three touchdowns. With the Chargers' injury issues, they'll need their remaining stars to play their best and Ekeler is high on that list.
13. Cincinnati Bengals (2-2, LW: 15)
It feels like there's an explosion coming for the offense. Joe Mixon hasn't had a big game yet. Ja'Marr Chase has been good but not great. Joe Burrow's numbers are way down across the board from last season. Playing at Baltimore on Sunday will be a huge turning point in Cincinnati's season.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2, LW: 10)
You've have liked to have seen the Jaguars play better after taking a 14-0 lead, but the Eagles are simply better than them. The Eagles are better than most teams. The Jaguars are fine, and I'd pick them to win the AFC South based on what we've seen.
11. Minnesota Vikings (3-1, LW: 9)
The Vikings didn't look great in London, but Justin Jefferson made the plays when he had to. In a league that has just about every team trending toward the middle it's not bad to be 3-1, even with some ugly wins.
10. Los Angeles Rams (2-2, LW: 6)
Cooper Kupp is an amazing player. The Rams need their offense to be more than Kupp. Allen Robinson being a ghost through four games is killing their offense.
9. San Francisco 49ers (2-2, LW: 16)
That was an absolutely dominant performance by the 49ers' defense. San Francisco has the best defense in the NFL. And coordinator DeMeco Ryans is probably going to be a head coach at this time next year.
8. Dallas Cowboys (3-1, LW: 12)
The Cowboys are 3-0 since Dak Prescott got hurt. No, this is not a "Cooper Rush should be the QB" statement, because that's nonsensical. But it probably paves the way for Rush to have a long career as an expensive backup, and it's setting Dallas up very well for when Prescott returns. The Eagles are fantastic but the NFC East race isn't over.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2, LW: 7)
Maybe Sunday night was just a matter of the Buccaneers not being good enough to compete with the Chiefs. That's fine but it's not what Tampa Bay wanted this season. Injuries have been an excuse but the Bucs had most of their players back Sunday. It seems like everything is going to be a challenge for Tampa this season.
6. Baltimore Ravens (2-2, LW: 8)
I get why John Harbaugh went for it instead of kicking a field goal in the fourth quarter on Sunday, but he should have taken the points. Then again, it's hard to believe three points there was going to be enough to beat the Bills in regulation. It wasn't an easy spot. The Ravens are still a very good team, one that will be even better with J.K. Dobbins reemerging to help Lamar Jackson in the run game. They just couldn't hold off the Bills after taking a 20-3 lead, which isn't ideal but not the end of the world. Let's see what happens Sunday night against the Bengals.
5. Miami Dolphins (3-1, LW: 4)
It's not the most important angle of the Tua Tagovailoa injury, but the Dolphins still have games to play and will do so for at least one week without their quarterback. Miami played hard in that loss to Cincinnati, so maybe it'll be fine. But there's a lot of pressure on Teddy Bridgewater to keep things on track until Tagovailoa returns. Miami doesn't want to look up and their 3-0 start has been given away.
4. Green Bay Packers (3-1, LW: 5)
In a perfect world the Packers put away the Patriots much sooner than they did, and the same goes for the Buccaneers game the week before. For now, this offense isn't capable of that. But at least the Packers didn't lose at home to a Patriots team down to a third-string rookie quarterback, which was in play for a while Sunday.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (3-1, LW: 3)
The Bills play at the Chiefs in two weeks. That will be the most important game of the regular season, because neither team wants to go on the road to face the other in January. Kansas City is excellent again, mostly because they have the best quarterback in the game. Sunday night was a reminder that head coach Andy Reid and Mahomes are going to maximize whatever they have to work with.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (4-0, LW: 2)
There are no 0-4 teams in the NFL. There's only one 4-0 team. When they were behind 14-0 to the Jaguars and rallied to take the lead back before halftime, it said a lot about this Eagles team. They're here to stay this season.
1. Buffalo Bills (3-1, LW: 1)
The Bills weren't at their best Sunday, but still beat a tough Ravens team in Baltimore after falling behind 20-3. That says a lot about where they are right now. We're still waiting to see if the Bills can be a championship team, and a win like the one they got Sunday after facing plenty of adversity starts to lay that foundation.