As the first quarter of the Browns’ Week Seven matchup against the Cinncinati Bengals drew to a close, the world was collapsing around Baker Mayfield. The Browns quarterback began the game 0/5 with 1 interception. To make matters worse, star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. tore his ACL chasing down the interception.
Despite being a low-stakes afternoon bout against the Bengals, this seemed like a pivotal moment in the quarterback’s career. The odds that we could see Case Keenum, who enjoyed his best season ever with Browns head coach, Kevin Stefanski, as his quarterback coach in Minnesota, take over from Mayfield were increasing by the second.
However, instead of succumbing to the moment, Mayfield came back and showed exactly why Cleveland selected him first overall in 2018. The gunslinger proceeded to go 22/22 for 297 yards with 5 touchdowns to only 1 interception. Moreover, Mayfield registered an impressive yards per attempt (Y/A) total of 10.61.
After a season that has had more questionable games from Baker than good ones, this performance was vital. So far through his career, Mayfield has shown that he worthy of the ‘gunslinger’ moniker. Threading impossible needles, making something out of nothing and launching 70-yard bombs downfield in spite of his unathletic, 5’10 frame. However, live by the sword and die by the sword; Mayfield’s play has often lead to costly and needless interceptions as well as head-scratching decisions.
This is what made Mayfield’s hyper-efficient performance on Sunday so impressive. It was the perfect melding of game-manager and gunslinger. If Mayfield can find that balance and really hone in on it as the Browns’ season continues, then this team’s ceiling just got a little bit higher.
Let’s take at Mayfield’s only interception from this game. The Bengals defence is in single-hi. The Browns run a curl flat concept as running back, Kareem Hunt, vacates out to the flat while wide receiver, Jarvis Landry, runs a curl route past the sticks.
The safety, Vonn Bell, is drawn out to the flat by Hunt, thus opening up the throwing lane to Landry, who is wide open. Instead of taking the easy completion for a first down, Mayfield sees Beckham in single coverage and throws it up. Interception.
Now, for comparison, let’s take a look at this eight-yard completion that came early in the third quarter. It’s 2nd & 7 and the Bengals are once again in single-hi coverage. At the top of the screen, we see that basic curl flat concept again. Baker just has to read the hook curl defender and make the throw. Baker makes the correct decision and it’s an easy completion to Landry for eight yards and the first down.
Now, if Beckham was in the game on that second play, would Baker have made the exact same decision and ignored a wide-open Landry to heave the ball downfield on a dangerous throw? It’s impossible to say. Mayfield did adjust his playstyle following the opening interception, however, that was more to do with Kevin Stefanksi’s play-calling than it did the personnel on the field.
A lot of Mayfield’s throws, especially from the first quarter to the mid-way point of the fourth, were designed reads. Screen passes, play-action bootlegs, check downs, curl routes, etc. all became a part of the Browns gameplan following Beckham’s exit. Nevertheless, after watching the game, it’s more likely that the adjustment in play-calling was made in order to get Baker into a rhythm, not just because Beckham was absent. Once Mayfield got into the swing of the game and his confidence increased, the gunslinger in him returned.
Still the same gunslinger
Following confirmation of Beckham’s ACL tear, the common belief is that, with Beckham out, Mayfield will become a more efficient quarterback. Surely, with OBJ out, instead of taking reckless shots deep, Mayfield will now become as clinical as Tom Brady and finish every game with a 75% plus completion percentage. Right?
The Browns gameplan may very well change, it’s common sense that when suffering a loss the size of Beckham’s there will be some adjustments to the scheme. However, after viewing the shootout on Sunday, it became apparent that Mayfield still stayed aggressive throughout the game.
This is evident by the statline of Browns pass-catcher Rashard Higgins having the game of his life. Higgins finished the game on Sunday with 6 receptions, 110 yards receiving and an impressive average yards per reception of 18.33. If this was Odell Beckahm Jr. catching these passes instead of Higgins, would there still be the same belief that Baker has suddenly transformed into 2016 Alex Smith? I don’t think so.
Take a look at the first play of the final drive of the game. The Bengals are in 2-hi and send the nickel on a cornerback blitz, which Baker and the Browns offensive line fail to pick up.
The nickel gets a direct shot at Baker, but the Browns quarterback shrugs him off and keeps his eyes downfield. As a result of staying composed, Mayfield finds the receiver for a 13-yard completion on what should have been a sack for the Bengals. Mayfield didn’t immediately throw the ball away or hit Hunt out of the backfield. Whether or not he should have is a different question. But he stayed aggressive, rode the sack and made the pass.
Flash forward a couple of plays to the game-winning touchdown. The Bengals are in single-hi with the Browns in a 2×2 spread. Browns wide receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones, gets some separation one-on-one on the outside. Mayfield spots this and unleashes a perfect throw for the game-winning touchdown.
The caveat that these plays did come when the game was on the line and the Browns had just over one minute to drive 75 yards and score a touchdown, should be taken into consideration. However, these throws that Mayfield made are what made the NFL cognoscenti fall in love with him during the 2018 season.
There is no disputing that Mayfield is one of the most aggressive quarterbacks in the league. Per Next Gen Stats, Mayfield is the sixth (fifth if you discount Mitch Trubisky) most aggressive quarterback in the NFL, with 19.2% of his throws being considered aggressive. You can’t just completely alter how a quarterback plays overnight. Will Baker take fewer chances with Beckham out? Probably. However, the reason the Browns won on Sunday was Mayfield’s aggressiveness, his willingness to take a chance, to be fearless in his decision making.
The key for Baker’s and, to a larger extent, the Brown’s success this year is balance. Mayfield should not – and will not – turn into a glorified game-manager who never throws further than the sticks. However, he should take what the defence gives him more often than not. But at the end of the day, Baker should stay the same gunslinger that both confuses and delights.