How Mayfield Fits in McAdoo's Offense

Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - Matt Rhule's conquest to bring in every discarded first-round quarterback has led him to Baker Mayfield. A fallen star of a former first overall pick, Mayfield was finally let out of Cleveland and sent over to Carolina for a conditional fifth-round pick. On the surface, Mayfield is the most talented and arguably most accomplished passer that Rhule has been able to scrounge up, but a deeper dive into his fit with the offense suggests this is not a perfect marriage.

For all of Mayfield's historic success in Lincoln Riley's spread offense at Oklahoma, he has never been that quarterback in the NFL. Mayfield's first run of pro success was over the back half of his rookie season, in which Freddie Kitchens took over the offense and implemented more of an under-center, run-the-ball, play-action framework than Hue Jackson had going. The entire operation in Cleveland imploded the following season (not necessarily because of anything Mayfield did), but things turned around for the better in 2020 during Kevin Stefanski's first year as the head coach.

Stefanski prefers the under-center, run the ball, play-action framework as much as he can get away with it. In 2020 and 2021, the Browns ranked bottom-five in single-back formations while also ranking bottom-three in plays with at least three receivers, hovering in the low 40% range both years. Mayfield benefited greatly from heavier personnel, tighter formations, having a strong run game to limit his workload, and being able to rip it over the middle on play-action concepts.

Moreover, the Browns ranked 32nd and 29th in 2020 and 2021, respectively, in passing rate while ahead in games, as well as top-six in run rate on first down. Stefanski's offense was the perfect storm of factors to get the most out of Mayfield's accuracy and ample arm strength to the intermediate areas without taxing him too heavily with progressions, pocket management, or volume.

Take this throw against the Giants, for example. What Mayfield is being asked to process is pretty limited. After faking the hand-off (unconvincingly, I might add), Mayfield just has to check if the intermediate middle area has been cleared out by the play fake, and he can automatically gear up to throw the outside comeback route if the middle isn't open. The intermediate area is closed (thanks in part to the lazy play fake) so Mayfield flicks a dart into tight coverage to his right side and picks up a positive gain. It's not really Mayfield's wit or poise that does anything here, just his velocity and accuracy.

Here's another example. Mayfield gets the benefit of play-action to freeze the second-level defenders, and he only has to read half the field. There is no backside route he can turn to. That limits the offense in terms of its flexibility, but when the playcaller can scheme receivers open, as Stefanski can, it can be fine. In this instance, Mayfield sees the strong safety on his back foot thanks to the play fake and playing hard inside leverage with his back to the quarterback, giving Mayfield a clear and easy green light to throw the corner. Nothing leading up to the throw was particularly taxing for Mayfield, making it easy for him to feather the ball in perfectly (only for the receiver to somehow almost drop it).

 

Stefanski did well to get Mayfield out of the pocket and scheme up explosives too. In both of these examples, the Browns get Mayfield rolling out to his left out of play-action, only to stop and turn to automatically throw back to his right. There is no real process for Mayfield on plays like this; just sell the fake, time up his stop with the receiver's break, and deliver a good ball. Mayfield has no issue delivering accurate passes, so having Stefanski cut out the fat as often as possible and jump straight to the throwing part is a huge boon.

Stefanski's one concession on the other end of the schematic spectrum was empty formations. The Browns used empty formations on 9% of snaps in 2020 before bumping up a little to 12% in 2021. It seemed as though Stefanski's logic was, if they were going to commit to the pass, they might as well spread it all the way out and give Mayfield the clearest picture possible. The Browns finished fifth in DVOA out of empty in 2020 and 14th in 2021, the latter of which is impressive considering Mayfield clearly wasn't healthy last season.

The spacing in empty makes it tougher to disguise and execute everything a defense wants to do. The Cardinals do try to disguise their slot pressure on this play, but the formation being so wide means there is a ton of space in the intermediate area, especially if Arizona intended to rush with five. With the Cardinals starting in two-high and having their only two intermediate middle defenders coming from the line of scrimmage, it's tough to cover everything in time. In turn, Mayfield finds no issue sticking a throw in between the canyon of space between the two linebackers.

Of course, going empty comes with other drawbacks—static formations, five-man protections, non-receivers lining up at receiver—but all of those things were seen as necessary costs in order to do what Mayfield was most comfortable with as a dropback passer. If anything, perhaps the simplification of the protection plan and "pick a side" nature of passing concepts out of empty is what made it workable for Mayfield. He isn't the only quarterback like that either. The same argument could be made for Josh Allen; he's just a better talent so everything works at a higher level than it does for Mayfield.

Mayfield could be successful with all of that framework again. It's clear that last year's struggles were at least partly injury-related and that a clean bill of health should return him to about league-average, maybe better. The problem in Carolina is that offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo doesn't look like the same natural fit for Mayfield that Stefanski was.

For one, McAdoo may not have been excited about bringing in Mayfield to begin with, if his old takes are to be trusted. During the runup to the 2018 draft , McAdoo ranked Mayfield as the sixth-best quarterback in the class, citing Mayfield's height, middling athletic profile, and lack of pro-style experience. Of course, that means he had guys like Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Mason Rudolph ahead of Mayfield, which nobody would say now, but McAdoo's ranking and commentary back then probably still holds weight considering Mayfield has never really broken into the upper echelon of quarterback play to disprove McAdoo's concerns. That's not to say McAdoo is going to sabotage Mayfield; just that the pairing may not be particularly inspiring for him.

The differences start with personnel deployment. In three of his four seasons as the Giants offensive coordinator or head coach, McAdoo's offense used three-plus receivers on at least 80% of snaps and even led the league in 2016 at 94%. The lone exception was McAdoo's final year, 2017, in which that figure fell to 62% as the team let Victor Cruz leave in free agency and lost both Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall due to injury for most of the year. It's hard to imagine McAdoo would have let his three-plus-receiver usage fall that far if the wideout room had been healthy given his history.

McAdoo's personnel preferences extend into formational tendencies. His preference for three-plus receivers often meant a single back in the backfield—his offenses ranked first and fourth, respectively, in single-bacck usage in 2016 and 2017. McAdoo doesn't use fullbacks, split-back shotgun formations, or tight ends in the backfield very often. He mostly abandoned those ideas altogether after 2015. McAdoo instead prefers to be in the shotgun, spread things out a bit, and hammer the short to intermediate passing game with true dropback passing. All of that is a stark contrast to Stefanski's general philosophies.

McAdoo also tended not to favor play-action. From 2015 to 2017, McAdoo's play-action rates were 17% (23rd), 15% (29th), and 21% (21st), respectively. Some of that is because the Giants were often behind on the scoreboard, but in 2016 specifically, the Giants ranked third in defensive DVOA and kept the offense in decent positions to stick to their game plan.

Funny enough, for all the spread and dropback tendencies, McAdoo wasn't a fan of empty formations in New York. Maybe that was an Eli Manning problem, but his 2015 Giants used empty about 6% of the time, good for 19th in the NFL, before back-to-back last-place finishes in 2016 and 2017 with a roughly 2% usage rate. Again, that's a far cry from all the empty Stefanski was willing to call to widen everything out to the highest degree to accommodate Mayfield.

Something is going to have to give. Either McAdoo's offense won't look much like his old offenses did, or Mayfield will need to become a significantly better dropback passer and take on a bigger workload than ever before. We can assume McAdoo will make some tweaks to accommodate his quarterback, but there is little reason to believe McAdoo will blend the two styles perfectly or adapt to Mayfield entirely.

In the event McAdoo does change his stripes, it's hard to imagine he can match Stefanski's standard. Stefanski had years of experience coaching and calling Mayfield's preferred style before they worked together. McAdoo was a Mike McCarthy disciple before becoming a playcaller on his own, and all of his offenses in New York very much felt like a watered-down version of McCarthy's stuff (or the Eli Manning variant of it, whatever you want to call it). Few coaches are sharp and experienced enough to comfortably call a new style of offense basically overnight, and nothing about McAdoo's past suggests he is one of those guys.

For all of the concerns laid out in this piece, the Panthers offense will probably be OK. Mayfield is a clear upgrade over Sam Darnold, the receiver group is solid, and the offensive line should be some degree better than it was a year ago. They can be a watchable group, and going from horrific to watchable would be grounds for excitement in most other cases. "Watchable" likely won't be enough to save Rhule's or anyone else's job, though. It's a stretch to think this quarterback-offensive coordinator marriage could be enough to propel the offense into the top-third of the league unless one of them turns into a different (and better) version of themselves than they have ever been, but that's what the team is betting on happening. That's possible—it always is—but nobody outside of Charlotte should hold their breath for it.

Comments

11 comments, Last at 21 Jul 2022, 9:41pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jul 14, 2022 - 11:33am

McAdoo instead prefers to be in the shotgun, spread things out a bit, and hammer the short to intermediate passing game with true dropback passing. 

He drops back from the shotgun?

Mayfield's Oklahoma offense was basically a run-heavy shotgun 11. While he's basically never run this in the pros, it sounds compatible with what McAdoo does.

\for all Barry Sanders was identified with the run&shoot, his best year was when the Lions paired him with a fullback and a tight-end in a 21, more like he had at Oklahoma State.

Points: 0

#2 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jul 14, 2022 - 1:45pm

Maybe his opinion has changed but Mcadoo didn't like Baker coming out. Robby had to make up crap about Darnold (who he left) to explain away the whole IG Baker comment.

Sometimes it's alright not to send any asset, especially when multiple people in the org don't care for a guy that we can all see is up and down and got dumped for a  serial assaulter.

But you do you Carolina. Good luck. I'm sure this 9-8 season will surely help in the long and short term.  

Points: 0

#3 by Caw Caw // Jul 14, 2022 - 3:52pm

Isn't McAdoo's whole scheme basically "if we line up the exact same way every play, the enemy won't know what we're doing"? Hard to imagine him lasting the season, especially if he butts heads with Baker.

Points: 0

#4 by KnotMe // Jul 14, 2022 - 4:09pm

If your choosing between your coach (McAdoo) and QB(Baker)....dunno who wins that one. yee gawds. 

Points: 0

#5 by theTDC // Jul 14, 2022 - 11:55pm

Am I the only one who thinks this could end up as the steal of the century thus far? Baker Mayfield wasn't the best first overall QB ever, but he was deserving. His college tape left off the charts, at least to my unexpert eyes. His rookie season was fantastic. And yet, the Panthers get him for aging backup QB draft capital.

I guess the contract is the sticker, but even still if you have the cap space you pull the trigger. Worst case scenario you've got 10 mil of dead space and are out a fifth round pick. Best case scenario you've found a top 10 QB for a fifth rounder, and aren't even paying all his salary.

Points: 0

#6 by KnotMe // Jul 15, 2022 - 9:58am

You probably are. His best years were average at best, so it's hard to see Mayfield turning into an elite QB.  Possible I suppose(anything is possible), but it would be a pretty epic story at this point. I feel like they would have been better off just grabbing any QB they could or even giving Cam another chance. (he's toast but he's entertaining). I feel like Mayfield mostly just takes them out of the running to draft a better one and the chance he figures into their future is so tiny it doesn't seem worth it. YMMV
 

Points: 0

#7 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jul 15, 2022 - 10:11am

Certainly is alone on that. He's (relatively) cheap this year (I would argue it be better spent on a similar paid Myles Jack or Zach Ertz). But just like with the Darnold trade, even if he's good, you're immediately paying him market rate (but at least Darnold had a 5YO, if it came to that).

Not much upside to this in reality. Does anyone see Baker taking this team any further than he did the Browns? I don't. 

But the answer is Corral! Don't let that future third you used to jump up 43 spots go straight to sunk cost 2.5 months after drafting him. What possibly could you have learned about him that made you think Baker was the answer? Has training camp even started?

Points: 0

#8 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jul 15, 2022 - 10:32am

Unexpected, perhaps, but it's not completely silly season.

Brees wasn't Brees until he got to NO, and SD was a great QB situation. It took Gannon forever to figure it out -- Mayfield is considerably better than early Gannon. He's also done better than early Young did.

Frankly, Carolina would probably be happy with Cleveland Testaverde-levels of performance. He's still on a bad team with a malfunctioning front office, but it's perhaps less toxic than Cleveland. I'd look at Gannon and Testaverde as comps. Both had rough career starts in bad situations, then worked their way to above-average QBs. Gannon eventually caught fire when he finally got on a good roster with the right coach.

Points: 0

#9 by Pat // Jul 15, 2022 - 10:37am

so it's hard to see Mayfield turning into an elite QB.

Even if he does, he's not under contract with the Panthers after this year and they're such an incredibly poorly run franchise if Mayfield has any brains he'd jump ship in a heartbeat. 

Points: 0

#10 by KnotMe // Jul 15, 2022 - 4:25pm

Well, if he unexpectedly has success, he could very well want to stay in the environment where it happened. The bad case is if he puts up like 600 DYAR, which is like high average and a bit above his career high. Aside making it hard to draft another QB, they then have a difficult decision on whether or not to extend him. He improved, but still isn't great so....do you hope he improves again or was it just a career year? Yuck.

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#11 by Spanosian Magn… // Jul 21, 2022 - 9:41pm

"steal of the century" is too bold for my taste, but I will say that something unusual (special?) about Mayfield is that the things that he's good at - namely, throwing intermediate-distance passes from roll outs, especially over the middle - he is really, really good at. It's a "stronger" strength than anything, say, Kirk Cousins does, even if Cousins is the better QB overall. Of course his weaknesses are more pronounced too, but if I were going to bet on a QB breaking out and becoming excellent all of a sudden, I'd bet on one with a genuinely elite skill. He has that.

Points: 0

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