Carolina Panthers to stick with PJ Walker at QB vs. Falcons

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- PJ Walker will remain the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers for Thursday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons despite struggling with what he called "boneheaded mistakes" in the first half of Sunday's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Baker Mayfield will remain the backup.

Interim coach Steve Wilks made the announcement Monday afternoon, hours after the team activated quarterback Sam Darnold to the 53-man roster and less than 24 hours after a 42-21 loss at Cincinnati in which Walker was benched at halftime with Carolina trailing 35-0.

"I could bench everybody if we go off bad games,'' Wilks said. "We're going to rally behind PJ and definitely give him the things he needs from a game-plan standpoint so he can execute.''

Mayfield has served as the backup quarterback for the past three weeks since recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered in a Week 5 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Wilks declined to speculate on what the decision to stick with Walker means long term for Mayfield, the top pick of the 2018 NFL draft who was acquired in a July trade with the Cleveland Browns after Cleveland dealt for Deshaun Watson.

"Right now, we have no ambitions or conversations about trying to move anyone,'' Wilks said.

The team would like to get another look at Darnold this season, as he and Mayfield are in the final year of their rookie contracts. Darnold lost the starting job to Mayfield in training camp after an open competition, then suffered a high ankle sprain in the final preseason game that landed him on injured reserve.

But the decision to start Walker on Thursday over Mayfield, who started 1-4, increased the possibility the team might release Mayfield in the coming weeks.

Conditions of the trade could figure into that. The Panthers would owe Cleveland a 2024 fourth-round pick if Mayfield plays 70% of the offensive snaps, a fifth-rounder if he plays fewer. He has played 61.05%.

To those suggesting the decision to stick with Walker so Carolina (2-7) can get the top pick of the 2023 draft to select a franchise quarterback, Wilks said, "I would say trust the process. Trust my decision-making. That's what I would tell them. We all have bad games. PJ wasn't the only one.''

Wilks said the short week and Walker's performance in a 37-34 overtime loss to Atlanta two games ago played a factor in his decision. Walker completed 19 of 36 pass attempts for 316 yards and a touchdown, including a 62-yarder to tie the game at 34-34 with 12 seconds left in regulation at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Walker's performance that game didn't carry over into the first half against the Bengals. He completed only 3 of 10 pass attempts for 9 yards with two interceptions, giving him a 0.0 passer rating.

In the second half, Mayfield completed 16 of 20 pass attempts for 155 yards and two touchdowns, but that didn't get him the nod over Walker against an Atlanta team tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers atop the NFC South at 4-5.

Mayfield's 83.2 Total QBR against the Bengals was by far his best effort of the season. He had a 15.3 Total QBR, the worst since ESPN began tracking the number in 2006, the first five games.

Wilks said Mayfield handled the decision to stick with Walker just as well as he's handled being a healthy backup the past three games.

"We talked as men,'' Wilks said. "I told them exactly what I thought. I would say Baker is a competitor just like Sam. They all want to start. They all want to play. I know he's going to continue to be a pro, as he's been.''