Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Baker Mayfield

Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

Comments

17 comments, Last at 26 Oct 2020, 12:11pm

1 Has there ever been a highly…

Has there ever been a highly regarded QB who then played great as a rookie before falling of a cliff? I guess RG3, but that was at least partially, if not mostly, because of an injury.

I'll hat tip to something Derrek mentioned. Good QBs know how to bend coverages through their eyes. Baker vs Pitt simply let the routes turn into pretzels.

15 But DYAR is a counting stat,…

In reply to by Aaron Schatz

But DYAR is a counting stat, so it has to also be put in some context.

FWIW, the team passing DVOA ranked 21st in 2018 and 19th in 2019.

It was 23rd this year, as noted in the article, but is slightly higher, at -0.2%, even after this past game (was 18th and significantly positive, I think +12?, going in.)

If he can't produce against CIN's bad defense today, it'll be time to start getting worried. 

3 Dieter Brock?There are a…

Dieter Brock?

There are a number of guys who faded badly after season 2 - Marcus Mariotas.

Dan Marino is kind of an interesting example of this. His second season was his only full season with an ANY/A higher than his rookie year. He was like the a-bomb version of a flash in the pan.

Charlie Batch and Mike Glennon had sort of samish to lesser followup seasons, but it was more of a slow slide than a cliff-type situation. Jameis Winston is what he was as a rookie, but moreso -- deeper routes, more TDs, more INTs, more sacks. Basically the same ANY/A and QBR.

It's almost like he sin-ate Ryan Fitzpatrick's variance.

8 I'm not sure what to think…

I'm not sure what to think of Baker Mayfield at this point.  When he was coming out of college, every analytics measurement indicated that he was a future superstar.  Then he set a rookie TD passing record.  He looked like he was heading for the Hall of Fame.  Since then ... disaster.  And that just doesn't make sense.  Most QBs show improvement as they age; they learn the nuances of the pro game, how to better read coverages, and so on.  Going backward like this is simply not normal.  On the other hand, there's no disputing that Baker has indeed gone backward, and in a big way.  WTF?

I've been in Baker's corner since the day he was drafted and I'm not giving up on him yet.  Let's keep in mind that he's been forced to operate under four different head coaches in less than three full seasons.  He's never had time to settle into an offense, never had time to really learn a system before being yanked away and given a new system.  It's almost like the Browns' organization has been determined to do everything possible to confuse him.  Stefanski will presumably be around for a while (though with the Browns you never know).  Let's give Baker time in Stefanski's system, and maybe the light will go on.

Like I said, I'm not ready to give up on Baker yet.  But I'll admit that, whereas at one point I was sure that he was going to be an NFL star for a long time, now I'm starting to have some serious doubts.  I do root for him, though.  He's a fiery guy and a good leader.  Of course, those traits don't matter if you keep missing open receivers and throwing pick-sixes.

11 I've said in another thread…

I've said in another thread that Mayfield was raised by wolves his first 2 years.....bickering, incompetent wolves.  Stefanski and his staff seem to know what they're about, so I'm personally reserving judgement until they have more time with him.  Mayfield reminds of early-career Brett Favre (I'm including his time with Atlanta).  Favre was a talented knucklehead until Mike Holmgren had a couple seasons to coach him up.  

13 I think the Favre comparison…

I think the Favre comparison might be a good one. In any case, he definitely took a step back in his second season as a starter ('93) - you can see now that he would have dropped from 10th-15th in DVOA/DYAR in '92 down to 24th in both categories in '93 - and as the story goes he almost got benched for Mark Brunell in '94. I can't remember that far back, but you can see from his game logs that he picked it up and played significantly better in the second half of 1994, and that led straight into his run of MVPs.

14 I remember specifically that…

I remember specifically that both his decision-making and footwork for insanely erratic in the '93 (and probably the first half of '94).  If you're interested, look at these highlights from the de-facto NFC Central championship game in '93, where Favre's 4 interceptions handed the Lions the game (and their last division title).  Look at the way Favre puts on a clinic in either throwing ill-advised passes into heavy traffic, or trying to throw while a defender is in the middle of sacking him:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuQ8rgyvhCQ&list=LL1GYB7HJgpRXtoCmZBmniDg&index=191

It took Holmgren and his staff quite a while to drill more consistent mechanics into his head, although the hero ball never quite went away (but he was so talented and the team around him was so good that it mostly worked out).  1995 was on of his best seasons, where he fully came into his own.

16 That was an entertaining…

That was an entertaining watch, I've seen the replay of the game the following week a handful of times but never thought to look for highlights of that one. Also entertained at the thought of what Holmgren's sideline reactions must have been after a few of those INTs.

My football watching memory really kicks in around '95-'96, when Favre had really already arrived. The story of that Packers era was kind of consolidated into a "slow, steady rise, then breakthrough" narrative, which was kind of true on the whole, but Favre was way more up and down in those early years than probably gets remembered. I wonder how today's larger and more intense media focus would deal with his early inconsistency/setbacks. (A young Favre would probably have run into a few issues with today's media environment off the field, too...)

17 "A young Favre would…

"A young Favre would probably have run into a few issues with today's media environment off the field, too..."

An old Favre already ran into trouble when he was with the Jets.  It's probably better for the world that camera phones were still more than a decade away when he was in his early 20s.

12 Hallmarks of a short QB...

The not hitting routes over the short middle are the hallmarks of a short QB.  I haven't seen Murray's passing chart, but I know Russel Wilson's.  To keep calling those plays when the QB may have a physical deficiency with them doesn't bode well for the quality of coaching.

4 He is what he is

Hate to jump to early conclusions, but as Denny Green might have said, for Baker, I think he is what we thought he was.  He has tools, but mind is not there.  This is exactly who he is going to be.

To be fair to him, you could have included a few clips from the Bengals game.  After that game, I was convinced Kevin S was a very good coach.  Put Baker in a place with a chance to succeed, good designed rollouts, etc, although in each case Baker performed well because his first read off the play design was there - and he hit it as he had to.  He didn't do anything difficult.  Unless he goes to QB school/classroom and works at it, I think he is who he is, and time to move on (maybe not today, but certainly before giving him another contract).

5 When I think of Baker…

When I think of Baker Mayfield I think of two players, Ryan tannehill and Blake bortles. Now tannehill was better than both of these players in Miami probably, Baker is likely between the two, but all three in some ways flattered enough but disappointed ultimately. And the reason I bring up these two names is they represent the blessing and curse of sticking with that quarterback. Sometimes they turn into really good quarterbacks and sometimes they drag your franchise into wasting additional years hoping for that player to become something that he's not. 

6 If you draft a QB that doesn't read the middle of the field...

You have to college up the offense.  A lot.  Heck, Russel Wilson is going to be a consensus 1st ballot HOF QB and for the first 4 years of his career he couldn't hit a pass over the short middle to save his life.  But Seattle ran a lot of Zone/Read and bubble screens.

The one lesson that coaches seem to fail at over and over again... build your offense for your QB, not the QB for the offense.