Despite trading for Baker Mayfield, Panthers' plan to return to playoffs remains murky

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·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5-min read
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If you are a Carolina Panthers fan, do you have a clear idea what your favorite team's plan is to get back to the postseason?

Because as an outsider, Carolina looks like a franchise adrift since David Tepper bought the team four years ago, and it's seemingly gotten worse since Matt Rhule became head coach in 2020.

The Panthers acquired Baker Mayfield from the Browns on Wednesday, a trade that had been bandied about for months and was finally consummated after Mayfield agreed to cut his salary by about $3.5 million and Cleveland agreed to pay over half of what was left.

Assuming Mayfield wins the job, he will be the seventh starting quarterback the Panthers have had during Tepper's tenure, and as of right now there's no guarantee Mayfield will remain the starter in 2023.

Lest we forget, at one point last year Tepper and Carolina were bullish on acquiring Deshaun Watson.

When Tepper took over, Cam Newton was the face of the franchise. After an injury in 2019 led to him missing most of the season, the Panthers unceremoniously cut Newton and parted ways with longtime head coach Ron Rivera.

Rhule was hired away from Baylor and with just one season of NFL coaching experience. General manager Marty Hurney was fired the next year and replaced with Scott Fitterer, who'd spent his career climbing the front office ranks with Seattle.

Under Rhule, Carolina has gone 5-11 and 5-12, while employing what can now be called a carousel of veteran quarterbacks. Those records have meant the Panthers have had a top-eight draft pick the following springs, but they haven't used either on a quarterback.

The 2022 QB class may not have been considered strong, but Mac Jones and Justin Fields were both on the board in 2021 when the Panthers were on the clock. Rhule is considered an offensive coach. He didn't see fit to draft and develop a player at the position?

And since we're talking about a carousel and Rhule doing what he can to keep his job, last season he fired his offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, and now has Ben McAdoo in that role.

(McAdoo, by the way, was not exactly a Mayfield fan when he was entering the NFL in 2018. Nor, for that matter, was he big on Sam Darnold, the quarterback the Panthers acquired last year. As of right now, McAdoo is charged with coaching both.)

David Tepper's ownership of the Carolina Panthers is only four years old, but there's been constant change. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
David Tepper's ownership of the Carolina Panthers is only four years old, but there's been constant change. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

In fewer than 30 months as head coach, Rhule has signed Teddy Bridgewater as a free agent for 2020; then in 2021 traded second-, fourth- and sixth-round picks for Darnold; picked up Darnold’s fifth-year guaranteed option; traded away Bridgewater; signed Matt Barkley and re-signed Newton; benched Darnold for P.J. Walker midway through last season; had Walker and Newton platoon; traded up to draft Matt Corral in the third round this year; and now has acquired Mayfield.

Over their first two years together, Rhule and Fitterer did little to improve a leaky offensive line, so no matter who was running the offense they weren’t put in the best position to succeed. Carolina did use the sixth pick this year on tackle Ikem Ekwonu from North Carolina State and signed free-agent guard Austin Corbett, so at minimum the line is being given attention.

Away from the football field, Tepper isn't making many friends either. Earlier this year he walked away from a development in Rock Hill, S.C. that would have been the Panthers' new team headquarters and practice facility — after ground had already been broken on the project — and then the company he created for the project, GT Real Estate, filed for bankruptcy.

If you guessed the whole ordeal is now working its way through the legal system, you'd be right.

Meanwhile, Charlotte FC, the MLS club Tepper owns that's currently playing its inaugural season, fired its head coach just 14 games into the campaign. There's also been a good deal of turnover in the executive ranks of Tepper Sports & Entertainment, the umbrella group for many of the billionaire's sports ventures.

Early in his time as owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft was mocked by local media for being too hands-on. There was a story that he attended Syracuse defensive back Tebucky Jones’ 1998 pre-draft workout with a stopwatch in hand, and Bill Parcells’ infamous “if they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries” line lingered after he left in 1997.

But Kraft learned: The football team needs to be run by football people.

Maybe Tepper chose the wrong football people on his first try. It happens. If he starts over after 2022, hopefully he knows enough to trust the people he hires to run the football side.

There really aren’t any shortcuts to NFL glory. Tepper’s bumpy beginning and Rhule’s constant changes are not, historically, the path to playoff wins and a shiny Lombardi Trophy.

As they welcome likely yet another starting quarterback, right now the Pathers don’t just seem to not have a plan. They just look lost.

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