On Baker Mayfield and cloudy futures

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In my spare time, I coach baseball.

Before you get too excited, I coach at the youth level. I do not have some secret life moonlighting as some upper-tier baseball coach. But I am happy that I get to coach my son and his youth baseball team, and I have been coaching him in the sport since his first season playing T-Ball.

After his 10U team lost in a championship series in the summer, the team made the leap to the next level, a 12U division, for the fall season. Now the youngest team in the league, the players are learning things like leads, balks, the infield fly rule, dropped third strikes, and more. The adjustment has been tough at times, but they are getting better each week and beyond that, they are enjoying the process.

Of course, the kids on the team know what I do for a living, and for many ten-year-old kids talking about football is something that they love to do. The future of the game, I think, is in good hands. Which is why I was amused when, during a discussion of Baker Mayfield recently before a game, our starting shortstop said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Baker Mayfield? He stinks. I like his commercials though, they’re pretty funny.”

The nuance of youth.

But is our shortstop right? Do the Cleveland Browns have a Mayfield problem right now? In getting ready for this piece I took a spin through the Browns’ media landscape and, it seems they might. So let’s dive into the Mayfield situation, looking at what he does well, the concerns and ultimately what might happen in Cleveland.

The blueprint for quarterback development?

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

We start, as it seems we often do with the NFL these days, in Los Angeles.

Following the decision to draft Jared Goff with the first-overall selection in the 2016 NFL draft, the Rams limped to a 4-12 record under first head coach Jeff Fisher, and then interim coach John Fassel. Goff started seven games as a rookie quarterback, losing all seven and throwing seven interceptions, along with just five touchdown passes.

He was doomed to be a bust.

But the organization had an idea. They hired Sean McVay, a young offensive coach as their new head coach. It was something of a surprise, after all McVay was just 31 at the time and while he had three seasons as an offensive coordinator under his belt in Washington, this seemed like a huge leap in his career.

The results were immediate. The Rams won the NFC West in 2017 with an 11-5 record, and while they lost in the Wild Card round, you could see the improvement on the offensive side of the football. Particularly with Goff, who completed 62.1% of his passes for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns, against just seven interceptions. He posted an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.72, light years ahead of the 2.82 mark he posted as a rookie and to this date his single-season high.

He even made the Pro Bowl, for what that is worth.

The following year? The Rams finished 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl. They lost, but during the season Goff completed 64.9% of his passes for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns, and that touchdown mark remains a career-high. He made another Super Bowl.

It seemed that the Rams had found a blueprint for quarterback development. Hire an offensive-minded head coach to mold your young quarterback. That model was soon followed by other teams. The Chicago Bears hired Matt Nagy to develop Mitchell Trubisky, for example. However, questions were raised about the model as it related to Goff. Was McVay’s offense truly developing Goff into a good quarterback, or was the offense merely propping up an average quarterback?

And the Rams had a decision looming.

Ultimately, the Rams showed their belief in Goff, signing him to the big contract extension. Prior to the start of the 2019 season Los Angeles signed Goff to a four-year, $134 million extension.

He will play out the rest of that deal in Detroit with the Lions.

The warning signs were there, if you looked closely enough. McVay’s offense with Goff at the helm relied heavily upon eye candy, misdirection and play-action. Furthermore, McVay truly played the role of “quarterback puppeteer,” as phrased by Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus. McVay would have Goff get to the line of scrimmage with a ton of time left on the play clock, and before the radio in his QB’s helmet would turn off. This allowed McVay to continue feeding Goff information as long as he could.

This culminated in part of Bill Belichick’s gameplan for Super Bowl LIII in calling two defensive plays in the huddle, and shifting to the second call after that point, forcing Goff to read things on his own.

That prompted me to think about quarterback development in this piece, where I raised the issue of hand-holding young QBs, to their detriment:

That brings us to the words from Stavridis: “…developing the ability to operate autonomously while remaining within the intent of one’s mission is an important part of a leader’s developmental process—and one that today’s leaders may have to develop on their own initiative. If a young leader comes to over-rely on constant and near-instant access to a higher authority, he or she can miss out on this crucial maturation step.”

Is this approach version 2.0 of Ruining Quarterbacks?

Because what have we seen over the past eight to ten months? In a vacuum, this approach to developing the passer might work, but outside of a vacuum there are defensive coordinators and defensive-minded head coaches who are hard at work coming up with answers for the questions now being posted to them by these offensive systems.

Is Mayfield the next to fall victim?

Mayfield’s path to this moment

(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

To be fair to Mayfield, his path does not completely mirror that of Goff. While both players were first-overall selections, Mayfield played his first season under two different coaches. First it was Hue Jackson, who was fired after eight games, and then under Gregg Williams. But under Williams, the team won five of their eight games, and Mayfield finished the season with a 6-7 record as a starter.

The person who got a lot of the credit? Freddie Kitchens, who stepped into the offensive coordinator role when Todd Haley was also let go mid-season. That prompted the organization to give Kitchens the head coaching job, akin to what the Rams did with McVay. Take the offensive-minded coach, put him in charge, and task him with developing the young quarterback.

That approach did not have the immediate impact it did with the Rams. Kitchens and the 2019 Browns limped to a 6-10 finish and Mayfield’s development seemed stunted. The young quarterback completed 59.4% of his passes for 3,287 yards and 22 touchdowns, against 21 interceptions. Kitchens was let go, and the search was on for another head coach.

Enter Kevin Stefanski.

While the Browns were floundering, the Minnesota Vikings were enjoying some success on the offensive side of the football. That season, Kirk Cousins enjoyed one of his best as a passer to-date, completing 69.1% of his passes for 3,603 yards, 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions. The ANY/A of 7.20 was one of the better marks of his career, and he earned his second Pro Bowl selection. The Vikings finished with a 13-3 record and beat the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round, losing in the Divisional Round to the 49ers.

The future seemed bright. But when head coaching opportunities come calling, coaches pick up the phone. Seeing the impact Stefanski’s offense had on Cousins, the Browns tapped him with the task of fixing Mayfield.

The recipe? The core philosophy we saw in Los Angeles. Rely heavily on play-action, and in particular the boot-action designs we would see McVay call for Goff. Get Mayfield out of the pocket, give him some flood concepts and three-level reads, and work in some throwback elements to stress defenses.

Would this succeed in developing Mayfield, or would it ultimately end the same, with a coach and a system propping up a quarterback, doomed to failure?

For 2020 at least, it seemed to work. Mayfield and the Browns finished with an 11-5 record and a berth in the playoffs, and the organization won their first playoff game since, well, Bill Belichick was their head coach. For his part the young quarterback seemed to take a step forward, finishing the year having completed 62.8% of his passes for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. His ANY/A of 6.96 was the best of his career, as was his QBR of 72.2. If you happen to be a believer in NFL passer rating, his mark of 95.9 was also a career-high.

So despite a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round, the future seemed bright. Much like it did with the Rams when they lost in the playoffs in Goff’s second season.

Right now? Right now the Browns are 3-1, but Mayfield’s future seems cloudier than ever before.

Mayfield in 2021

(Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports)

As it stands right now, Mayfield’s production and efficiency are below the standards of previous seasons. While his completion percentage is up, he has thrown two touchdowns along with two interceptions, and QBR as of today sits at just 39.8, and he has taken a higher percentage of sacks than in any previous year of his career.

Beyond the numbers, however, you can just watch Mayfield and see the struggles. The play that perhaps propelled the discussion is this miss, when Mayfield had a chance to ice last week’s game against the Vikings:

While that miss came early in the game, it might be a later miss that is a bigger cause for concern:

This play comes from the fourth quarter, with the Browns holding a 20-6 lead and facing a 3rd and 2 at the Chicago 34-yard line. Stefanski calls for a 13 personnel package, something he has done often for Mayfield, yet has his QB put the football in the air off play-action. Mayfield, spotting an open Harrison Bryant working left-to-right on a crossing route, attempts a throw from an unsettled base in the pocket, and misses the mark.

These are the kinds of plays quarterbacks need to make.

My friend Matt Waldman and I had a discussion about Mayfield this week on our podcast, the RSP Quick Game. Matt is a long-suffering Browns fan at heart, and one of the more philosophical football minds I know. During that discussion Matt brought up the “three to five” throws each game that separate the great quarterbacks from the average quarterbacks.

Right now, Mayfield is missing on those throws.

From a contractual standpoint, that could not be happening at a worse time.

Mayfield’s future in Cleveland

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

What might this mean for Mayfield’s future?

In the short-term, probably nothing. Remember, even as this discussion begins to unfold the Browns are 3-1 and look like they can be contenders at least in the division. In the wake of Mayfield’s tough outing against the Vikings, Stefanski put the blame solely on one person.

Himself.

Mayfield is also dealing with a left shoulder injury, and that could be contributing to his recent struggles. Stefanski was asked on Monday if that injury was impacting Mayfield’s accuracy, and the coach brushed that off. “I do not think so, based on what I see at practice. I do not think so.”

So for now, with the defense the Browns have built, the organization can simply ride things out with Mayfield. The scheme, even with his recent struggles, can still lead to Mayfield making some good reads and throws, like he does here on this three-level flood concept:

Even in a game where he struggled, Mayfield still found ways to make plays from the pocket, taking advantage of some confusion in the secondary to move the chains on this 3rd and 10 situation in the first quarter.

The deeper question is the future.

After all, we are approaching the timeframe for the Browns to make a decision on the future of Mayfield in Cleveland. This summer Josh Allen was signed to his extension with the Buffalo Bills, and we have also seen other members of Mayfield’s 2018 quarterback class move on from their first NFL teams. (Along with their second, and third, and fourth, in the case of Josh Rosen). Like Mayfield, Lamar Jackson is also awaiting a new deal with the Baltimore Ravens.

When it comes time in Cleveland, on what side of the ledger will the front office come down with Mayfield? Will they look at the offense, and how Mayfield executes Stefanski’s system, and look at the results and do what the Rams did initially with Goff, signing him to the extension? Or will they look at how that system propped up Goff, yet ultimately failed to truly develop him as a passer, and emulate what the Rams did in the end, which was move on from him and acquire a new quarterback?

Mayfield still has time to sort this out. He can print out this article, and the others like this that have been written in the past few days, and tape them in his locker as motivation. Or perhaps save them to his phone. He can draw upon the talent around him, the scheme in place for him, and make throws like the one above to keep the Browns winning games.

Yet returning to Matt Waldman’s premise, the kinds of quarterbacks that earn the big-dollar extensions are the ones that hit on those “three to five” throws per game that are difference makers. Mayfield’s struggles right now, culminating in the miss to Beckham last week, are a prism into how that issue would be decided for Mayfield if today was decision day.

Time is running short for him on his first contract, and decisions are looming in the future. The marriage with Stefanski and his coach’s scheme was a page out of the Rams’ initial blueprint for developing Goff. But having copied what the Rams did once, the Browns could do it again, only this time before inking the young passer to a new deal.

Whether that happens is likely in Mayfield’s own hands, starting now. Maybe he will turn things around and earn that new contract. Maybe he will start hitting on those big-moment throws, starting this weekend against the Los Angeles Chargers, and prove that he is the kind of QB worth that big extension. Maybe he will lead the Browns, along with their run game and their talented defense, to where they want to be as a team.

Or maybe my shortstop was right.

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