The Cleveland Browns were supposed to be the belle of the ball this season after a fantastic offseason. They had addressed all of their key issues through the draft and free agency period. Everything was set for a deep playoff run.
At 3-2 with just two close losses as their blemishes, it's safe to say the Browns can absolutely achieve their dreams of winning the Super Bowl. But defeats to the best two teams they've played, which just so happen to be AFC contenders in the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, have exposed the Browns' biggest offensive weakness: Baker Mayfield.
The former No. 1 overall pick has had a rollercoaster career thus far. His rookie season was incredibly electric as he played with much-needed gusto. His play led to offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens' promotion to head coach and the acquisition of Kareem Hunt and Odell Beckham Jr. as the team loaded up to take advantage of their momentum.
However, the team fell flat and Mayfield looked like a different quarterback. He no longer benefitted from the unsustainably high contested catch rate that he did as a rookie, and the confidence that led to those attempts was gone as his interception rate grew. Something changed with Mayfield's demeanor.
Most of his advanced stats remained steady despite his raw numbers dropping considerably. His play against pressure, air yards, and accuracy were all consistent. He was simply failing the eye test.
This led to Cleveland's quick firing of Kitchens and the hiring of Kevin Stefanski as the new head coach. The 2020 NFL Head Coach of the Year immediately put Mayfield into the Kirk Cousins rehabilitation model to reduce the workload for the quarterback. The results took almost half the 2020 season to be fully realized as Mayfield needed to improve his individual play, but the Oklahoma product saw an increase in efficiency.
Mayfield's air yards per completion rose nearly a yard, from 6.3 to 7.2, and the offense was less reliant on yards after the catch. His accuracy improved as his on-target percentage rose 4.2% and he had 12 fewer batted balls. Mayfield's execution helped lift the Browns' offense to new heights.
This season was supposed to be another leap year from talented game manager to a swagged-out but efficient version of what we saw with the Sooners. Combining his rookie year confidence with 2020's efficiency, then adding a healthy Beckham and group of young receivers should've made everything easier. That, however, has not been the case in 2021.
Mayfield By The Numbers
Mayfield vacillates between being an average to good quarterback by most metrics. His intended air yards per attempt is the highest of his career (9.5) despite his air yards per completion being by far the lowest (5.8). The offense is getting more after the catch than we've seen in a Mayfield offense and that's not a bad thing.
His on-target percentage has risen again, this time to 76% and his interception rate is at a meager 1.4%. However, his play on conversion downs (3rd and 4th down) has been as bad as any starter in the NFL. Mayfield's EPA per play is only above Trevor Lawrence, and his completion rate compared to expectation is only above Jared Goff's and Zach Wilson's.
This is where the Browns have a Mayfield problem. The competition in the AFC alone is stupid high right now. The emergence of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, and Justin Herbert pin Mayfield into the mediocre talent pool in his own conference. And in the future it's possible Deshaun Watson stays in the conference, Tua Tagovailoa develops, and a slew of other rookies join the fight.
Mayfield was much more efficient on these same downs last year but his variance comes because he's more reliant on scheme than any of his peers. His skill set is good enough to rise above but we simply haven't seen the playmaking, confident gunslinger of Mayfield's rookie season. It's put the Browns' 2021 season in jeopardy and should make the team question his future as a gigantic extension looms.
A Baker Mayfield Problem?
This isn't about blaming losses on Mayfield. The Browns lost both of their games this season primarily because of defensive miscues. In fact, the Browns allowed the most EPA on conversion downs than any team in one game since the Ravens went bonkers in their 2019 opener.
My adjusted score calculations had the Browns around 3 points better than the Chargers yesterday.— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) October 11, 2021
Chargers gained +25 EPA on late downs (3rd & 4th), the most of any team since the Ravens in Week 1 of 2019
The glaring issue is Mayfield's inability to consistently play at a high level and overcome the team's flaws. Mahomes carries the Chiefs despite a lack of a running game, a complex passing attack, and horrible defense. Allen is the Bills' offense and the Ravens ride Jackson as much. We've seen Baker fall short against elite foes when there's a bad call, fumble, or defensive breakdown.
Never mind that Mayfield's fourth-quarter numbers dip to 55% completion rate for a meager 7.2 yards and sub-76 passer rating. When it comes to throwing the ball in predictable situations, he hasn't matched his peers. The Browns cannot compete at the highest level so long as this continues.
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