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.
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.
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.
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.