November 29th, 2020—Jacksonville, Florida
7:20 left in the second quarter. The Cleveland Browns have put forth a tremendous and balanced drive, rumbling down to the Jaguars’ 6-yard line. Taking the snap, Baker Mayfield quickly surveys the field and finds his intended target, Jarvis Landry, running wide open for a six-yard score. Mayfield sits firm in the pocket, drives his leg forward, and hammers a strong pass into Landry’s chest for six points. Well, not exactly.
Flustered and fading away just mere milliseconds into the rep, Mayfield instead hesitates and releases the ball late, sailing it over Landry’s head for an incomplete pass. Instead of an easy touchdown pass, Cleveland mismanages the next two plays and kicks an underwhelming field goal on 4th-and-goal.
Sure, my suspenseful retelling of this disastrous play is more dramatic than it needs to be—Cleveland went on to win the game in a relatively easy fashion and improved to 8-3 on the season. The incomplete pass would turn out to be just that, one microscopic blemish on Mayfield’s otherwise impressive 19/29-258-2 stat line. However, the missed throw represents much more than that. It's a microcosm of the fact that Mayfield simply isn't “it.”
No, that doesn’t mean Mayfield is “straight garbage” like Twitter or Instagram comments would lead you to believe. He has shown glimpses of impeccable ball placement, offers good mobility for the position, and has quality off-platform passing ability. In fact, when he just relaxes and lets it rip, he can look absolutely incredible. After all, you don’t just win a Heisman Trophy on accident. But he just isn’t the type of guy you extend a fifth-year option on, nor is he the type of guy who will legitimately improve the talent around him.
For all of Mayfield’s so-called peak plays, plenty of disastrous moments have come along with them, and it seems that for every step forward in his 3-year career, he’s taken at least 1—or sometimes even 2—steps backward. This was something that at first seemed like a byproduct of a poor coaching staff and a horrendous offensive line but has since been confirmed as a legitimate Mayfield problem rather than the other way around.
With promising head coach Kevin Stefanski now calling the shots and with a revamped group of big men holding down the trenches, Cleveland has built an incredible supporting cast, perhaps an even better one than most people realize. Whereas in 2018 and 2019 the team was failing Mayfield, 2020 has seen Mayfield fail the team, dragging an otherwise great organization down to the fringe playoff realm.
The same mistakes he made as a rookie—fading away under pressure, throwing off of his back foot, panicking under duress—have all flared up and become even worse since his initial campaign (largely due to a shift in confidence), and it has changed him from a “playmaker” at Oklahoma to a mere “facilitator” in the pros. Cleveland has done their best to limit his exposure to difficult situations by using a run-heavy, clock-control approach, and it has suited him well—for the most part. Asked to simply do the bare minimum (primarily in 13 personnel packages), most of Mayfield's success has come on either designed bootlegs or play-action passes that get him rolling out of the pocket. Cleveland does have a high yards-per-target rate that seemingly contradicts this style, but yardage can’t be confused for difficulty, especially when the team literally only runs like four different passing concepts. He’s at a point where he can’t produce if he isn’t sure of himself, so the team has made things as simplistic and comfortable for him as possible.
Not surprisingly, it’s this feeling of ease and confidence that has seemingly eluded Mayfield since his rookie season, as it’s his high level of panic and worry that have led to his root mechanical issues. Demonstrating a major case of happy feet even since his college days, Mayfield’s bad habits have arisen consistently this year, especially when he’s thrown for a loop defensively or pressured in the pocket. Smart defenses like Baltimore and Pittsburgh have had the type of talented personnel to expose this—forcing Cleveland into comeback situations where they have to align in empty formations and air raid concepts. Dealing with bad weather and easy opponents, not many teams have been able to exploit this formula, but that doesn't mean it isn't there and ripe for the plucking.
Despite the Los Angeles Rams using different alignments and personnel, these worrisome and wobbly tendencies (and their downfalls) are also seen in their quarterback Jared Goff, another former No. 1 signal-caller on a 7-plus win team. Mayfield has an added mobility component that Goff doesn’t possess, but both have simply been asked to eat the meal—not make it.
Cleveland will need to be smart enough to avoid the same fate as the Rams did with Goff, which was signing him to a mega extension when their organization needed their starting passer to be nothing more than an extension of the system. As a winning team that is seeing unprecedented levels of success, it will be extremely hard for Cleveland to avoid this, especially from a fan and business perspective, but given Mayfield’s level of play, it's downright imperative.
That's not to say Mayfield is inherently bad, but at this point, he’s definitely not good either. The signal-caller is really just along for the ride in Cleveland right now—jumping on the backs of Nick Chubb, an easy schedule, and a strong system. Unlike a Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen (from the same draft class) who get their offenses to draw things up deliberately for them, the Browns have actually schemed things to purposely avoid Mayfield—a huge indictment of his meandering self. He doesn’t have an identity and the Browns didn’t wait for him to find it—they made one without him.
That’s no fault to the team or their staff—Stefanski is maximizing the talent he has on a youthful squad—but it shows that Mayfield has little to do with their overall success.
At some point, whether it be in the form of a crucial loss or an overpriced contract extension, it will cost them.
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