Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Baker Mayfield

Baker Mayfield
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

The craze over Baker Mayfield's record-breaking rookie campaign was rampant throughout the media this offseason. Everyone who could get in front of a microphone or onto Twitter was tossing their proverbial roses at the young quarterback -- and for good reason. In just half a season away from Hue Jackson, Mayfield nearly dragged the Browns to their first playoff bid in almost two decades and did so in convincing fashion. The 2018 first-overall pick led the league in passing DVOA from Week 10 onward.

Mayfield played with such swagger, savvy, and accuracy that Cleveland's front office decided to keep the gang together by retaining and promoting Freddie Kitchens from interim offensive coordinator to head coach. They also brought in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator and Air Raid aficionado Todd Monken to help foster a familiar offense for Mayfield. Odell Beckham Jr. was then acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Giants, signaling Cleveland's all-in mentality on their young offense.

Cleveland's plan has not panned out in 2019. Mayfield Mania feels like a distant memory as the Browns currently sit at 2-3 with convincing losses to the Titans and 49ers. The offense that was supposed to carry the team is ranked 29th in DVOA, in large part due to their 30th-ranked passing offense. Even our modest 11th-place projections for Cleveland's offense heading into the season have proven way, way off.

The hallmark of any top-notch offense is the ability to attack any section of the field at any time, but the Browns do not have that right now. While Mayfield has taken a step back in a handful of areas, no drop-off in his game is as stark as how bad he has become at throwing quick passes. As a result, the Browns' offense regularly ends up behind the sticks and is forced on third down into pure dropback concepts … which Mayfield is not particularly impressive at either.

 

These two charts compare Mayfield's completion percentage and depth of target density over the past two seasons. On top is 2018; on bottom is 2019. Mayfield was more or less an average quick-game passer as a rookie, but he was plenty serviceable enough to make it work, and it was not the core of Cleveland's offense. That is no longer the case in Mayfield's sophomore season. Not only has Mayfield's completion rate relative to average plummeted, but the Browns are throwing to the short area more often and Mayfield's average depth of target has dropped by over a full yard. The offense, for whatever reason, has come to embrace the one part of the field in which their quarterback has clearly regressed.

Why exactly Kitchens and his staff have chosen to emphasize the short area is difficult to parse. It's not so difficult to hone in on exactly how and why Mayfield is struggling there, however.

Mayfield is not a well-versed quick-game passer on non-RPO or play-action passes. On traditional dropback concepts that require sharp timing and careful ball placement, Mayfield consistently struggles to get the job done. Rarely does Mayfield hit the top of his dropback, identify the correct target in time, and make an accurate throw. He regularly plays gun-shy or unaware of where to go with the ball.

Here is a red zone clip from Cleveland's prime-time loss to Los Angeles. The Browns are running a standard concept in which the No. 3 receiver (innermost to trips) runs a vertical stem to clear out space for the No. 2 underneath. By and large, the quarterback should be looking to read whether or not a defender will follow (or wall off) underneath or not. As soon as the ball is snapped, safety Taylor Rapp (24) turns his back to the middle of the field and looks to carry No. 3 vertically. That should instantly signal to Mayfield that there is no immediate defender to handle the underneath slant route, but Mayfield never comes off of his first read. Jarvis Landry, the No. 2 on this play, was left wide open and was visibly frustrated when he saw the pass hit the crossbar.

In other instances, Mayfield simply refuses to make the throw. The route can be wide open and Mayfield can be squeaky-clean in the pocket, but he won't pull the trigger for whatever reason.

There is no reason for Mayfield not to throw the flat route here. The only reasonable explanation for Mayfield holstering this one is that he thought the outside cornerback (Anthony Averett, 34) was going to peel off the outside receiver and close on the flat, but with the way the cornerback turns his hips immediately to cut off an inside route from the receiver, it's highly unlikely he is looking to pass off a route to close on the flat. Mayfield should know the flat route is open enough for a completion. Whether or not Cleveland converts if Mayfield does make the throw is anyone's guess, but on third-and-6, he has to get the ball out.

via Gfycat

That being said, even when Mayfield does get the ball out, it tends not to be on time or accurate. In this example, Mayfield tries to throw the 8-yard out route, but wastes time by pumping the ball once before making the throw and places the ball well behind his target. The pump may have been warranted considering Mayfield appears to be baiting a defensive lineman into throwing his hands up early, but if Mayfield is going to do that, he must do a better job of resetting in the pocket and recalculating where the ball needs to go. Mayfield throws where the ball needed to be when he pumped the ball, not where it needed to be when he actually let it go.

via Gfycat

Mayfield has only executed well in the quick game on RPOs (run-pass options). RPOs give Mayfield clearer, more defined passing reads and force him to throw as soon as he finishes the fake handoff. The read and timing are less ambiguous; it just comes down to whether or not Mayfield sticks the throw. Mayfield's increased success with RPOs is not surprising given his time at Oklahoma, but it is concerning that he cannot seem to operate in the short area in any other way.

A common response may be to simply run more RPOs, but that is not feasible for a few reasons. For one, Cleveland already use RPOs fairly often. Unless you want them to be a full-blown college offense (a bad one, truthfully), they should not be running more RPOs. Additionally, while RPOs do present conflict for the defense, there are plenty of situations where defenses do not have to respect the run option, especially if the offense is behind the sticks or behind on the scoreboard. A full, quality passing game must have a functional standard quick game, and at some point the onus has to be on Mayfield to execute on those concepts.

Where it may be fairer to criticize the play calling over the player is with respect to Cleveland's intermediate passing game. To reference the completion percentage and depth of target charts from earlier, the Browns' passing offense has come to throw fewer passes between the 10- to 20-yard area despite Mayfield improving his accuracy to that portion of the field. Kitchens and his staff ought to be looking for every opportunity to create favorable opportunities between 11 and 20 yards, especially over the middle, similar to what Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have mastered for their respective quarterbacks.

For Cleveland and Mayfield, specifically, that means fewer pure dropback concepts with that intermediate area in mind and more play-action concepts that target the intermediate area between the numbers. Mayfield has proven to be hesitant over the middle of the field when left to his own devices on pure dropbacks, but he can put throws on a dot when throwing off of play-action.

 

Mayfield has shown hesitancy on these kinds of plays all season. In the first play, Mayfield stares down the deep curl route from No. 1 to the trips set (the outside wide receiver) before shying away from the throw for no reason and bailing out of the pocket. The second play works out almost the exact same way, except the route Mayfield misses is over the hash instead of near the painted numbers. Mayfield could and should have thrown to the tight end in front of the end zone as soon as he cleared the linebacker, but the quarterback instead panicked and bailed (to his right, again) to throw the ball away. Two perfectly good opportunities wasted for no good reason.

The same is not at all true when Mayfield is operating out of play-action. It's generally accepted that play-action is the "optimal" way to pass and most teams would benefit from more of it, but Mayfield in particular becomes a different quarterback on play-action concepts. Similar to the effects of using RPOs, play-action passing tends to simplify and/or limit the options for a quarterback. Mayfield fares well when the play boils down to getting through a maximum of two progressions and just letting it rip.

 

 

via Gfycat

Though these plays are not identical, they all function around the general idea of displacing second-level defenders with run action and throwing to the areas they vacated. The only one of these plays in which Mayfield even looks at anyone other than the player he throws to is the last one. In the last clip, Mayfield peeks to the isolated comeback toward the left sideline after he finishes the fake handoff. Mayfield is not reading a coverage here so much as he is gauging where one receiver is relative to one defender -- it's not particularly complicated. When Mayfield realizes the receiver is covered securely by the cornerback, he instantly turns to the middle of the field to fire, almost without thinking. It's as if Mayfield blindly trusted that the route would be open and let it rip, which is exactly the kind of instant trigger we see in McVay's and Shanahan's offenses.

If anecdotal evidence were not convincing enough of Mayfield's play-action splits, Football Outsiders' charting data bears the same results. Cleveland runs play-action at about an average rate at 23% (subscription required), but their offense is 13th in yards per pass play on play-action while they are 29th on all other pass plays. That is the fourth-largest drop off from play-action to standard passing in the league.

Cleveland's putrid passing epidemic is two-fold. Mayfield is struggling in the area in which Kitchens has done his best to create advantages (dropback passes), while Kitchens is not doing enough to cater to Mayfield's strength (play-action passes). Kitchens' faults are likely more fixable as it should not derail Cleveland's offensive identity to sprinkle in a handful of extra play-action passes per game. As for Mayfield's individual struggles, however, it's tough to envision a scenario where he suddenly learns how to operate in the quick game. Maybe he can improve over the offseason, but doing so on the fly in just his second season is probably wishful thinking. The answer may simply be to move away from quick-game concepts as much as possible.

Mayfield's dry spell to open the season is not grounds to call him a bust. It would be foolish to use these five games to erase everything Mayfield did as a rookie. The five games can, however, be used to gain a better understanding of what Mayfield can and cannot handle right now. Mayfield is not Drew Brees or Russell Wilson, and that is OK. Mayfield still has plenty of strengths to draw from and the offense clearly has room to work around those strengths better than they have. Whether Kitchens and his staff can make that turnaround this season remains to be seen.

Comments

10 comments, Last at 10 Oct 2019, 10:06pm

1 Baker Mayfield’s future

Great article. I’ve been wondering what the heck is wrong with Baker. This provides an answer. I must admit that I’ve begun to worry about him, and I’m not the only one. On Cleveland.com they ran a poll about him, listing various options, and only about 5 percent of respondents voted for the “he will be fine” option. There were a lot more votes for the “defenses have figured him out” option. People are starting to give up on him. I’m not one of them. I believed in him coming out of college and I believe in him now. But this sure has been a prolonged and unsettling slump.

3 Regarding the “defenses have…

Regarding the “defenses have figured him out” part, one thing I would've liked to see in this article is whether there has been any difference in his play this year compared to last year. His stats are worse, but is it because defenses are playing him differently, his protection has gotten worse, or he's simply less decisive and accurate with the same coverages and protection?

4 Robert Mays posted an…

Robert Mays posted an article in the Ringer.com very similar to this one that may partially answer your question. 

Mays says mostly the same things as Derrik, except he's also pointing the finger at sloppy execution by Mayfield's offensive teammates and poor play design by Kitchens.

Anyway, Mays also pointed out the fact that defenses have noticed his tendency to drift to the right when facing pressure (real or imagined), and are starting to plan for it.  There was a gif where the 49ers had their left DT looping out to the left, where he was waiting to harass Mayfield as he bailed out of the pocket to his right.

8 Maybe this is a cop out, but…

Maybe this is a cop out, but it's a bit of everything. The protection has taken a step back (though it's not as awful as many seem to believe). Baker himself has become more prone to holding the ball when he shouldn't. If defenses are doing anything "new" to him, it's probably using creepers often and effectively, which you can read more about here (I linked this in last week's piece as well): https://ftw.usatoday.com/2019/06/lsu-creeper-simulated-pressure-dave-aranda-nflpass-rush-coverage 

5 Great Piece

No feedback, nice work. Like many I have been seeking answers to "what is up with Baker" outside of the talking heads world, and inside objective reality. Keep up the good work.

6 Couldn't have said it better

"Rarely does Mayfield hit the top of his dropback, identify the correct target in time, and make an accurate throw. He regularly plays gun-shy or unaware of where to go with the ball."
I don't think I could have said this any better. I went through the coach's film from the 49ers game and there were only 3 instances I could see where Baker threw on time accurately, to the correct target. He seems to be staring at the rush a lot or just poorly reading the defense. Mayfield also doesn't appear to know how to move INSIDE the pocket. The second there is pressure, he rolls right instead of simply shifting his feet. This means that when his receivers are open, he is in no position to throw to them.

One thing that I thought was interesting from the 49ers game is that I only saw ONE instance where Mayfield was throwing the ball with less than 6 yards to go. Maybe more short, easy completions is what this offense needs.

10 Great article.Regarding the…

Great article.

Regarding the change in target length, how much of that is playcalling, and how much is it Mayfield opting to check down?

With all the talk about his timing and simplifying reads, I kept thinking of how Colinsworth was so obsessed with his splits when holding the ball less and more than 2 seconds. We all snarked about how, yes, his first read should get wide open quickly, but he does seem to really struggle when he has to read anything more complicated than that, and/or make something happen from nothing. One thing I've seen him do that wasn't mentioned, is every once in awhile he'll try to GUN IT with all his might, taking a big step and snapping in half at the waist trying to throw it 200mph, and it sails on him. He seems to do it when he's frustrated. I remember he did it on a throw to a wide open Beckham on the sideline early in the 49ers game and airmailed it way over his head (which, you know, he's Beckham, that's not an easy feat). It might be an inexperience or age issue (although he is 24.5 years old now since he was essentially a 5th year senior when drafted), but I wonder if it's just that he can't read - or see - the field, and so when he happens across an open guy he panics and rushes it, "I must get the ball there NOW, before defenders reappear!" He wouldn't be the first guy whose field of vision narrows when stressed, although that's not a great trait for a QB to have, especially one with a season of starting experience already.

The elephant in the room is his height. These problems - poor reading, bad timing and overthrowing - are consistent with just not seeing the field well, physically, and his well-publicized tendency to drift right might be him trying to get a better view. Regarding the obvious comparisons, Mayfield obviously doesn't have anything like Wilson's skillset, and IMVHO Brees has a much better arm, changing how defenses must defend him (plus, he spent his college years on a 2nd tier team in a tough conference, so he developed/proved his ability to beat defenses when he didn't have a massive talent advantage). Even last year, when he was "better," his INT% was still pretty high, and anecdotally he seemed to make a lot of questionable decisions, which I'd attributed to aggressiveness and trying to make something happen with a bad team, but I now suspect might have just been mistakes. I can't easily find his splits for shotgun vs. dropback, but I'd wager he's much better from shotgun, because he can see better in the moments after the snap.

So, I'm not sure staying in the pocket and moving better within is the right prescription, although he definitely does need to get better at that. I might actually try some designed rollouts, both to simplify his reads and to get him a better look at the field. And hopefully let some longer pass plays develop, because he does seem to be good at those 15-20 yarders.

But at the end of the day, I'm worried that if it's really that he hasn't figured out how to overcome his height disadvantage by now (besides just being on a team with way better players than the opponent), he never will (again, he's 24.5 years old, more than two full years older than Darnold, and actually more than 8 months older than *Myles Garrett*).

EDIT: Sorry for the essay lol.