CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Baker Mayfield didn’t get his revenge against the Cleveland Browns thanks in part to what Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey referred to as “horrid” roughing the passer penalty on defensive end Brian Burns, but he came close.
After looking dreadful for almost three quarters, Mayfield led the Panthers to 17 fourth-quarter points and the lead before the Browns spoiled his revenge party with a 58-yard field goal by rookie kicker Cade York with eight seconds left.
The game-winning drive was aided by a roughing the passer penalty on the first play that gave Cleveland a first down at its own 40. Head referee Brad Rogers said the call was made because there was “forcible contact to the head and neck area.”
McCaffrey saw it differently.
“It was a horrid call,” he said.
The 26-24 loss left Mayfield 0-4 in NFL openers, including 0-3 with the Browns.
“Everybody made this game out to be the Super Bowl,” Mayfield said. “But despite what everybody is going to make of this, there’s 16 more games. The Super Bowl is not until February.”
Mayfield shouldered much of the responsibility for this loss because of a slow start by him and the offense. He was 10-for-19 for 101 yards with four balls tipped at the line of scrimmage, an interception and two sacks in the first half. He also muffed a snap in the shotgun.
He finished with five tipped passes at the line, a trend that began in Cleveland where his 44 passes batted down at the line from 2018-2021 were the most in the NFL.
“I have to do a better job of finding angles and windows to throw it, and we’ve got to get their hands down,” Mayfield said. “But this team fought. That’s why this is so disappointing.”
Mayfield’s only big play in the half was a 50-yard completion to tight end Ian Thomas, who was wide open down the middle of the field.
It got so bad that he was booed for the first time after being forced to throw the ball away under pressure to end the fifth of his seven possessions.
There also were boos as the Panthers left for the locker room at halftime down 17-7. It was so bad that Quincy Avery, the personal passing coach for suspended Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, tweeted: “That’s the Baker we know and love.”
Mayfield finally showed some of the energy the Panthers were looking for out of him late in the third quarter and early into the fourth quarter with a touchdown drive he capped with a 7-yard scramble up the middle.
He then showed some of the emotion he has throughout his career, slamming the ball into the padded stadium wall after cutting the lead to 20-14.
“He’s the ultimate fighter,” offensive guard Brady Christensen said of Mayfield.
After a Cleveland field goal, Mayfield threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Robbie Anderson to trim the lead to 23-21 with 6:02 remaining.
He then led Carolina to a go-ahead field goal with just over one minute to play, setting the stage for York’s game winner that left York celebrating and Mayfield disappointed.
“I usually say I don’t celebrate kicks,” York said. “That one was a little bit different.”
Mayfield finished 16-for-27 for 235 yards.
“I thought Baker stood in there and took all the bullets and gave the plays that gave us a chance to win,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said.
The Browns gave up on Mayfield after the 2021 season in which he went 6-8 while battling with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. They traded for Watson during the offseason, prompting Mayfield to ask for a trade from the team that made him the first pick of the 2018 draft.
He underwent what Carolina called an “open” competition with 2021 starter Sam Darnold for the starting job, although league sources said it was Mayfield’s job to lose all along. He officially was named the starter on Aug. 22.
He never made a big deal about facing his former team before Sunday, saying it’s a “good storyline” but he was focused on doing his job.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of attachment there,” Mayfield said of the Browns after being named the Panthers’ starter. “I’m not going to sit here and be a robot and say it doesn’t mean anything. It will.”
But it wasn’t an emotional day in the sense past so-called revenge games have been for Mayfield in the NFL and college.
“It’s always good to see familiar faces,” Mayfield said. “Emotional? I wouldn’t put too much into that. We didn’t finish, mostly because we didn’t start fast.”
It was all hugs and smiles for Mayfield before kickoff as he greeted many of his former teammates, coaches and executives.
There were more hugs and fewer smiles after the game.
“A lot of anticipation,” Mayfield said. “We’re going to flush this. We’re going to be better from it.”
ESPN’s Jake Trotter contributed to this report.