By Steve Palazzolo
Coming off the worst game of his young career, it’s fair to ask what is wrong with Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. While the “Monday Night Football” effort against the San Francisco 49ers may be rock bottom, Mayfield has taken a step back from last year when he put together one of the best rookie seasons of all time.
It’s not just Mayfield who is struggling. The entire Browns passing attack has been plagued by inconsistency at the catch point, miscommunications and poor pass blocking to go with Mayfield’s regression. While he’s not making nearly as many big plays as he did a year ago, Mayfield’s best work seems to be paired with a receiver mishap on the other side and he’s certainly not getting any favors when it comes to interception luck. Let’s dive in.
Baker Mayfield’s pocket presence issues
The first thing that is apparent when watching Mayfield is his questionable pocket instincts and subsequent pocket movement this season. When he was at Oklahoma, he tended to hold the ball too long at times, but criticism was a nitpicking his otherwise all-around NFL-caliber skills. Last season, Mayfield’s average time to attempt (from snap to throw) was 2.57, 13th-highest in the league, while this year, he’s at 2.72 seconds, sixth-highest.
So far in 2019, holding the ball too long and drifting in the pocket has been a huge issue for Mayfield, and there are many plays in which he’s doing the offensive line no favors, either from his initial deep setup in the pocket or his penchant for moving laterally which leads to impossible angles for the line to block.
This season, Mayfield has been directly charged with four sacks (either due to holding the ball too long or inviting pressures), tied for third-most in the league. In addition, Mayfield has been charged with 11 total pressures, third-most in the NFL. In 2018, Mayfield did a fantastic job of mitigating a mediocre offensive line, and his pocket movement was more calculated (drifting to create space and throw), while this season, we’re seeing a college weakness show up on film much more than it did a year ago.
Baker Mayfield has played out of rhythm
Piggybacking off the issues in the pocket, Mayfield has played “out of rhythm” at a much higher percentage this season than he did as a rookie. PFF defines “in rhythm” plays as those in which the quarterback throws within the flow of the play call, allowing for one or two hitches in order to get to a second read. This season, Mayfield has thrown in rhythm on 64.7 percent of his dropbacks, fourth-lowest in the league and well below last year’s 71.8 percent.
Outside of Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray this season, every NFL quarterback fares much better on in-rhythm throws, and Mayfield is no different. His PFF grade of 83.3 on in-rhythm throws dwarfs his 45 grade when off rhythm, so seeing fewer plays within structure is a huge concern for Cleveland.
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Last season, Mayfield had distinct statistical splits once head coach Hue Jackson was fired and Freddie Kitchens took over, though his throw-by-throw PFF grade was similar during both tenures. Why the statistical difference? Kitchens immediately employed more favorable play-calling and creating more efficient throws within the flow of the offense led to a much better statistical output, despite Mayfield’s actual performance being in the same ballpark. So far this season, that has not been the case with the play-calling and execution.
Baker Mayfield’s poor interception luck
While Mayfield deserves plenty of blame for his pedestrian numbers, he has also been on the receiving end of horrible interception luck. At PFF, we track “turnover-worthy plays” to isolate those plays in which the quarterback is clearly to blame for putting the ball in harm’s way. A throw directly to a linebacker is a good example of a turnover-worthy play, and it gets the TWP label whether the linebacker catches it for an interception or drops it for an 0-for-1 in the box score.
The other side of the equation is non-turnover-worthy plays that become interceptions, as these bad breaks will crush the box score stats despite the quarterback not totally being at fault. Mayfield has five turnover-worthy throws on the season, but eight interceptions, showing that he has had unlucky breaks with regard to the outcome of plays.
From a tipped pass that normally hits the ground over 90 percent of the time to his low, yet very catchable, pass to Antonio Callaway that should be a touchdown about 90 percent of the time, Mayfield has had multiple interceptions that never should have seen his stat line. There have also been a few passes in which Mayfield and his receivers have not been on the same page.
A deep dive into the film shows multiple plays in which a receiver breaks down to make a cut, Mayfield winds up to throw and lead his receiver to space before the receiver alters his route and hangs the quarterback out to dry. Part of this issue is Mayfield’s aggressiveness throwing into tight windows, but there’s also a disconnect between quarterback and pass catchers through five weeks, and it’s showing up in the statistical output.
Ultimately, Mayfield’s mediocre performance has been exacerbated by unlucky bounces ball and miscommunications down the field. There have been a few poor fumbles in the mix as well, so Mayfield certainly hasn’t been great at taking care of the ball this year, but he should not be tied for the league lead in interceptions as he ranks 22nd out of 38 qualifiers in avoiding turnover-worthy plays.
Final word on Baker Mayfield
Coming into the season, the Browns looked like one of the most improved teams in the league, led by an ascending second-year signal-caller. While the start of the season has not gone as planned, the talent is still there, and there is plenty of time for Mayfield to regain his spot as an accurate, big-time throw machine that is capable of attacking all parts of the field. It’ll take improvement in the pocket, a few schemed-up throws every game, and a few lucky bounces of the ball to offset the inconsistent start to the season.
For more NFL analytics go to PFF.com.
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