Panic Meter: Baker Mayfield Edition
Photo by David Richard/Associated Press
First of all, Browns fans: I feel you. Immediately following the season, Baker Mayfield's 2019 had me in a similar headspace that you've all settled into. I get it. There's a ton of cause for concern; the things Baker Mayfield did well (and, to be quite frank, at an elite level) are now sparse. The weaknesses he possessed as he entered the league are on full display. Things are not going well and I'm not going to write an article that focuses on excuses; but context is important. Context is why Sam Darnold still has a large following of believers. Context is why smart people (ahem) were able to identify Ronald Jones' breakout. And context is free of recency bias. Without further adieu, let's gauge the panic meter on Baker Mayfield.
The Strengths and Weakness: Pre-NFL
It's been three years, but it's important to remember what Baker was perceived to be good at and what he needed to improve upon. 2018 was only my second or third year truly analyzing film and I was (and always am) growing my football knowledge, but I recall my notes looking something like this:
He was small; most undersized quarterbacks struggle in the NFL.
His processor was not up to standard. The Swiss cheese defenses he faced in the Big 12 didn't tell the whole story with his processing ability and the mental side of his game.
He tried to play hero ball too much; he's always looking for the big play, instead of 'settling' for the sure thing.
He sails a lot of throws.
His arm strength was elite.
His mechanics, for all intents and purposes, were good. His footwork was okay.
His ball placement was absurdly good.
His playmaking ability was above average; broken plays typically led to positive plays with Baker.
Does any of that feel familiar? Most scouting reports you find now will look similar to this, with varying levels of confidence in Baker's mechanics and footwork. I'll be the first to admit that Baker Mayfield was my QB4 in the 2018 class. I had them Darnold, Allen, Rosen, Baker, Lamar. But the weaknesses didn't overpower the strengths; we knew what Baker Mayfield was coming into the league.
A big arm
A guy who would very likely throw a shit ton of interceptions because of his nose for big plays
A guy that possessed incredible accuracy
From Gunslinger to Game Manager
Photo by David Richard/Associated Press
It's no secret that Baker was given free reign under the tutelage of Gregg Williams in 2018. With Freddie Kitchens calling a brilliant offense and Williams coming in with solid gameplans, Baker Mayfield looked the part in his rookie year. There was no time to get in his head. The Browns called quick-hitting plays that were tailored to his strengths; Baker was under center in just 35% of his snaps as a starter in 2018. Baker was truly in an offense that was built around him.
We all know what happened in 2019; a lot of garbage with Freddie Kitchens seemingly unprepared and unable to inspire his guys to play well. I'm not saying you should throw out what happened in 2019; I am saying that Freddie Kitchens was incapable of being an NFL head coach.
So after that waste of a year, Kevin Stefanski was brought in. 6 games in, it looks like that was the right move. The Browns are 4-2, have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and have two top-10 talents at the running back position. It makes sense to rely on Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt; but it's coming at the expense of Baker Mayfield. His attempts per game are down from 33 to 28. His yards per attempt are down from 7.7 in his rookie season to 6.4 through 6 games this year. His air yards per attempt are down from 7.5 to 6.0. Common theme: down.
So, before we move forward, let's run this back. Baker Mayfield spent the entire offseason in his rookie year learning a Todd Haley-Hue Jackson offense. By Week 4, he was running a variation of Haley's offense, but with Freddie Kitchens at the helm. He then gets Freddie Kitchens as a head coach, who changes Haley's offense and runs his own. Freddie Kitchens is fired after one season and in comes Kevin Stefanski, who builds the offense around Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. That's a lot of change for a guy that already had issues with the mental side of the game. Again, this article isn't meant to give Baker Mayfield excuses. But not considering that he has had 4 head coaches and 3.5 schemes in 3 years is irresponsible.
What's Going Wrong?
Photo from Getty Images
A lot. Everyone wants to pin the Week 6 Minkah pick-six up on the board of "told-you-so" takes. There's no excuse for that throw. Not seeing the All-Pro safety lurking in the middle of the field is quite literally, a rookie mistake. Baker Mayfield truly only has two things that are working against him right now (even if they are debatably the only two important things a quarterback should possess, but I digress):
His mental processing
Baker is now taking snaps from under center in 62% of the Browns plays, something that is incredibly foreign to him. He's never done it; even with Freddie Kitchens, the inverse was true. It's affecting his ability to get through his reads. It's affecting his ability to place the football, too. The phrase "the game needs to slow down" has never been truer for a young quarterback. Kevin Stefanski has been vocal about simplifying the reads for Baker; while most Cleveland media read that as "Stefanski doesn't think Baker can process a defense," I think the more accurate way to decipher that is "Stefanski understood and understands there will be a learning curve." Here are two plays from the Week 6 matchup against Pittsburgh; one in shotgun and one under center:
Baker's reads take him straight to Rashard Higgins standing wide open in the back of the end zone. His footwork on his drop is outstanding, he keeps his eyes up field, and he finds the blown coverage. This, not-so coincidentally, was one of his only clean pockets on Sunday. Here's the full play:
On this under-center play, Baker get his eyes up to his first read fairly slowly, looks like he's losing his balance at all times during his dropback, and ultimately has weight shifted too far backward before releasing a fairly inaccurate ball about five yards downfield for a D'Ernest Johnson drop. His dropback looks extremely awkward, and you can tell he's not comfortable doing two things at the same time: dropping back and getting through his reads. The full play:
Here's a clip from Baker's first game back in 2018:
Boom, boom. Quickly reads the defense, makes a decision, throws with incredible accuracy, and picks up 29 yards.
Browns fans: I'm not trying to upset you here, but this is the offense that Baker Mayfield was drafted to run. But am I panicking on his ability to run a primarily-under-center scheme?
Why You Should Stay Optimistic
No. I'm not panicking. We're in Week 6 of the shortened-offseason, first year of Kevin Stefanski's offense. If you take game action and weigh it against a season that consisted of preseason games, we're technically *checks notes* at Week 1 (if you incorporate the shortened training camp, as well). I charted all of the quarterbacks in new schemes this year (10 total), and Baker Mayfield is above average, with respect to those quarterbacks, in:
Defense-adjusted Value Over Average
He has actually decreased his INT% thus far, though very nominally (from 3.7% to 3.5%). His TD% is the best of his career at 5.9%. His QBR of 64.9 through six weeks is a full 11 points higher than his career high. I know it's a small sample, but his current 16-game pace is:
2920 yards, 27 touchdowns, 16 interceptions.
Sure, the yardage is low, but that's what you'll see in an offense tailored to running backs - the Browns are passing on less than 50% of plays - and in a young quarterback's first season within it.
He's also lethal when he gets out of the pocket, especially when he's rolling to his left. Kevin Stefanski is a brilliant coach and he knows this. The long-developing plays just weren't there against Pittsburgh, because the Steelers have arguably the best defensive line in the NFL. Baker's next five games are against:
Cincinnati Bengals (18th-worst pass defense)
Las Vegas Raiders (5th-worst)
Houston Texans (3rd-worst)
Philadelphia Eagles (7th-best)
Jacksonville Jaguars (13th-worst)
Assuming that Baker comes back healthy this week against the Cincinnati Bengals, I fully expect him to bounce back and be what Kevin Stefanski wants him to be. I also expect him to show a little bit of the Oklahoma Sooner Baker Mayfield in a couple of these games.
Baker Mayfield has certainly struggled for a lot of the last two years. His inability to read complex defenses like the Baltimore Ravens' and Pittsburgh Steelers' is concerning at this stage in his career. But statistics - and even tape - without context is irrelevant (cue Jalen Reagor truthers). He's currently at the earliest stages of learning an extremely foreign offense to him, and he's performing above average in several important statistics among his new-scheme running peers. If we're talking fantasy, Baker Mayfield is pretty much chalked. We've seen a large enough sample that implies limitations on Baker's ceiling. But if we're talking real football - the football that matters most to Cleveland Browns fans - Baker Mayfield is going to be fine.
It's going to be okay. And if you're calling for Case Keenum, why don't you toss on some Cody Kessler tape and stop saying things.
Panic Meter: Not That Worried