SPARTANBURG, South Carolina. Receiver Rashard Higgins held tight to his 11-month-old son in the back seat of a golf cart as he discussed an “open” contest between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold for the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback spot.

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He joked that the young Sevin got his name—corrected for spelling—because seven follows six, the uniform number of Mayfield, his teammate and friend in Cleveland for the past four seasons.

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In other words, if anyone has a reason to reach out for Mayfield, it’s Higgins.

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But when asked who he thought would start the first week against the Cleveland Browns, the player nicknamed “Hollywood” wasn’t clear.

“Whoever makes this decision will be a good one, so we’ll see,” he said with a smile.

This is the line of the company.

Whether it’s Mayfield, acquired last month in a trade with the Browns, or Darnold, acquired last year in a trade with the New York Jets, the Panthers believe that competing between the Nos. 1 and 3 overall in the 2018 draft will make them better. .

Whether you think the competition is truly “open” or whether it’s Mayfield’s job to lose, as many in the league believe, is irrelevant, especially to third-year coach Matt Rule, whose future may depend on the outcome.

He states almost every day that this is not a one day competition and it will probably take time to make a decision.

“I’ve been on the record about what I think,” said Rule, who opened the training camp, saying the result will decide the result. “I just have to worry about the guys and hopefully they’re happy with the way we’re doing it.”

It seems, and so far, none of them have shown themselves well enough to distance themselves from the other.

“Everything is extremely transparent,” Mayfield said. “They tell us together how they deal with it. It’s not said to one person and Sam hears other things. It’s right in front of us, clear and concise.”

Pre-season plan

You know the routine if you followed the first week of camp. Darnold works with the first team for one day and Mayfield works with the second. They turn over the next day. The next time they shared time with the starters. It’s about as 50-50 as you can get.

As Rule explained to his quarterbacks, “We can’t always be fair, but we have to be fair.”

The fans already have a favorite. Before the first practice, when Mayfield and Darnold walked together to the fields of Wofford College, the overwhelming chant was in Mayfield’s favor.

Since then, they have arrived separately, but Mayfield is still chanting more and louder.

At the moment, none of them are concerned. They each focus on better understanding offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system and fixing the flaws that have them competing for the job instead of owning it.

Rule likes what he saw, especially Mayfield after two weeks in the system.

“We check on the guys every day,” he said. “His tests are coming back by the hundreds. He’s a professional.”

The missing link to become a contender?

The last time the Panthers had such an audition was in 2003, when Jake Delhomme, a longtime understudy, was brought in to compete against veteran Rodney Peet. Pete started the first leg, but Delhomme took over in the second half and led the team to the Super Bowl.

Panthers new quarterback Austin Corbett understands what it means to solidify a quarterback position by winning the Super Bowl last season with the Los Angeles Rams after they traded for Matthew Stafford. He also knows Mayfield’s potential, having played with the Cleveland quarterback in his first season and a half as a pro.

Corbett believes that whoever comes between Mayfield and Darnold could make Carolina a rival.

“The level of their competition will push each other to the next level of performance,” he said.

Although Corbett is not the favorite, he said Mayfield’s energy is “really unmatched”.

“The real love of competition that he pours into everything,” he said. “He berates himself for small mistakes.”

Darnold, according to Corbett, is more laid back. He rarely appears upset.

“But so far, they got along with each other, helped each other and got along great,” he said. “They just both want this team to be as successful as possible.”

Is success in the red zone the key to getting started?

Winning is what Rule wants more than anything after going 5-11 and 5-12 in his first two seasons. The quarterback’s erratic performance (in 2020 with Teddy Bridgewater and last season with Darnold and Cam Newton) is the main reason he didn’t win.

Most of that disparity has been in the red zone, as only 42% of their red zone games were passing games in two seasons under Rule, who is ranked 31st in the NFL. Mayfield appeared to create the first division in Monday’s battle when he threw three touchdown passes to Darnold within 20.

On Tuesday, Mayfield continued to impress with his willingness to take outfield shots, which Darnold didn’t do well as a pro (his 27% of completed shots from at least 20 yards outfield ranks last in the NFL in the last four seasons; Mayfield is 18th place). by 42%). Mayfield’s 50-yard completion to Robbie Anderson drew applause from teammates and fans.

That Mayfield led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win in 2020 also gives him more credibility. For the past two seasons, Darnold has gone 6-17 and is 17-32 overall.

But so far in camp, Rule has treated both quarterbacks like they’re 0-0 and they help each other in meetings and on the field.

“Obviously we both want to be the starting quarterback for this team,” Darnold said. “It is obvious. But in the end, it’s not me or Baker who makes that decision.

“That way, it’s easier for us to cheer for each other.”