Freddie Kitchens was an unmitigated disaster as the Cleveland Browns head coach last season. The offense was ill-conceived in every way imaginable and the team only stumbled to seven wins through the sheer amount of talent on the roster, a roster that very well could have won 10 or more games.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield took on the brunt of Kitchens' ineptitude by way of incoherent offensive gameplanning. Also, the offensive line was about as useful as a wet paper towel, so Mayfield did not even have much time to operate within the already shaky offensive structure.
Between all the surrounding factors, there was an argument to be made that Mayfield's sophomore slump was not his fault. Young players need ground to stand on, and Mayfield had none. Firing Kitchens in favor of former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was supposed to rectify that and breathe new life into Mayfield, resurrecting him back to the form he showed as a rookie. Through six games, Mayfield has not returned to his stellar 2018 form. If anything, he has gotten worse.
It is not as though Stefanski has not done his job, either. The offense has proven quite lethal when it can stay on pace with the run game and use play-action and rollouts as crutches in the passing game. When some of that goes away, however, and Mayfield is forced to be a traditional dropback quarterback, there is not a lick of progress to be found between his Oklahoma days and now. More specifically, Mayfield struggles seeing the middle of the field from traditional dropback sets.
From the trips side, Cleveland's No. 3 (innermost) and No. 2 (middle) receivers are running a seam-bender/5-and-in combination. This combination works similar to the drive concept, which features a 10- or 12-yard square-in with a shallow crosser underneath. Ideally, the quarterback should be looking to the seam-bender first, make a decision based on the linebackers, then immediately move his eyes down to the 5-and-in if necessary. Mayfield does not handle it that way after reading the bender, though. Rather than moving on to the underneath route, Mayfield flops his feet around, frantically scans the right side of the field, then finally draws his eyes back to the underneath route before realizing he is late. By the time Mayfield gets to the underneath route, he has to backpedal to his left to keep up with the receiver flying across the field, ultimately delivering a late ball for an incompletion.
To some degree, this is still a drop by the receiver. It was a catchable pass. However, the end result being a somewhat catchable ball with a defender nearby does not mean Mayfield's process was acceptable. Mayfield needed to throw this route as soon as the receiver crossed the first linebacker's face. Instead, Mayfield threw it so late in the down that the weak linebacker was able to nail down on it as the ball arrived. Mayfield took a play that should have been easy to execute and made it a contested reception with zero potential room to run after the catch.
Below is another high-low stress that Mayfield botched against the Colts. This time, the issue is not that Mayfield is late getting to the underneath throw, but that he is too hung up on throwing the seam. Perhaps the added pressure of a pass-rusher in his face sped up his process, but this is still a mistake no less.
In all honesty, it is difficult to figure out exactly what was going on in Mayfield's brain here. That said, it is possible that Mayfield was taking cues from how Indy had played some previous high-low concepts, like the previous clip. In the first clip of this piece, Indy's strong linebacker set himself at a certain depth, stayed square, and looked to re-route the tight end down the seam to pass him off to the safety. Mayfield may have been assuming the linebacker would do the same here. Instead, on this play, the strong linebacker opens his hips and shoulders while gaining depth. He is not looking to re-route and pass it off. Mayfield threw the ball a hair early due to the incoming pressure, allowing the linebacker to turn and undercut it for an easy interception.
None of what the Colts did with their coverages here was all that tricky. They do make a late rotation in the second clip, but with how wide the field safety was and how deep the boundary safety started, calling that a "rotation" is generous.
When defenses start playing games against Mayfield, the third-year quarterback looks even worse. Mayfield plays as if he forgets that coverages are allowed to change post-snap. Mayfield too often assumes or misunderstands something pre-snap and forgets how things can change as he drops back.
Right at the beginning of the clip, there is a safety walked up over the tight end on the offense's right-hand side. The tight end then motions across to create a trips set to the left. Indy's safety does not follow, though, and instead settles right about where he started. News flash, Baker: that man is blitzing! There is, of course, the slight chance that the safety is feigning blitz only to drop into the hook, but part of the purpose of motioning this tight end across is to identify a potential blitz like this, and Mayfield just ignores the signs. Mayfield does not end up looking to the tight end to the left, who now can only be covered by a defender dropping off the line of scrimmage, which is a very tough task. He instead throws the hitch on the sticks for an incompletion, forcing a Browns punt.
And now for Mayfield's obvious blunder versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is clear as day that this is a horrific play, but it is still worth exploring what Mayfield may have been thinking. Once again, the Browns motion a tight end across the formation. Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton (28) follows the tight end across and immediately flies to the flat to match the tight end's route once the ball is snapped. Since Mayfield saw two-high safeties before the motion and snap, he made the assumption that the left hash area would be open so long as Hilton vacated it. Mayfield had not at all considered that the Steelers could drop a "rat/robber" down into the hook area post-snap, even though this is something the Steelers do relentlessly. Mayfield made a cheap assumption, did not check the area post-snap whatsoever, and paid for his blind throw.
In fairness to Mayfield, not everything he does is a train wreck. He still executes relatively well within Stefanski's play-action concepts and has been accurate throwing in one-on-one situations on the sideline, be that fades or 10-yard outs or what have you. The season is almost two months in and Stefanski still has the training wheels on for Mayfield, though, in large part because of how ineffective the quarterback has been when asked to be a real dropback passer.
There is also the caveat that these Shanahan-esque systems can take time for quarterbacks to settle into. Matt Ryan famously faltered in 2015 with Kyle Shanahan before putting up one of the best passing seasons ever in 2016. Likewise, Aaron Rodgers did not look like himself in his first season under Matt LaFleur last year, but has emerged as a star again in 2020. Mayfield was never on par with either of those quarterbacks, but the hope is that perhaps the Stefanski-Mayfield marriage just needs a bit more time.
Who knows how much time Stefanski has left to give at this point, though. Sure, the Browns are 4-2, but Mayfield ranks 25th in DYAR while the Browns passing offense overall ranks 23rd. The run game is excellent, the receiver corps is talented, the offensive line is somewhat improved, and Stefanski has done his part to get guys open. It is now on Mayfield to turn things up a notch before things sour for good.