Baker Mayfield must’ve heard the criticisms. How could he ignore them? The failed promise of the Cleveland Browns’ second-year quarterback, who recently came off a magical rookie campaign, doomed the city from Week 1.
With 12 interceptions and 7 touchdowns, Mayfield’s performance disappointed Cleveland as much as the Browns’ 2-5 record.
Other concerns plagued the team, as well. The newly acquired coaching staff seemed in over their heads. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. almost led the league in dropped passes. Cleveland, as a team, led the league in third-and-longs, often the result of their league-leading penalties called against. The offensive line didn’t hold up, allowing a 7.1% sack rate (almost 2% worse than in 2018).
Mayfield could’ve used any of these failures as an excuse, but he knew the 2018 Browns suffered many of the same ills. If he performed well in 2018, he should perform well in 2019.
Advanced metrics suggest Mayfield’s wide receivers are getting as open as they did last season. The sophomore quarterback made bad throws (16.1% of the time), but that was nearly the same pace as last year.
NextGen Stats gather all the numbers, put them together, and devise a single statistic that shows the percentage of quarterback passes that are expected to be completed based on historical down-and-distance metrics, as well as coverage, speed, depth, and other factors.
That number is compared to the quarterback’s actual completion percentage to determine how well a passer is performing. Positive numbers show a quarterback is doing well. Negative numbers show the opposite.
Mayfield earned a -5.1 rating. That number ranked him 36-of-39 rated quarterbacks after Week 8. Josh Allen was the only active starter behind him.
Freddie Kitchens and Mayfield needed to figure out a solution. What did the Browns do right last year, and in their highlight win against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, that is different from the rest of the 2019 season?
There are very few variations, but during the Browns’ 2019 losing streak, Mayfield abandoned the long pass. He rarely threw further than 10 yards down the field. In 2018, Mayfield led the league in completions over 30 yards.
Since the bye week, Mayfield attempted at least three passes longer than 20 yards in each game. He isn’t completing those passes as successfully as last year, but it gives the defense something to consider.
In those same games, Cleveland drastically cut back on penalties, especially on offense. Their third-and-long plays were cut in half, resulting in safer play possibilities on third-and-short.
The debut of Kareem Hunt convinced Kitchens to curb his chronic use of the 11 personnel. Using two-back sets featuring Hunt and Nick Chubb is helping the play-action game and making Mayfield less predictable.
Each of these post-bye week changes helps Mayfield limit bad throws and poor decisions. He has no interceptions since the bye, realizing his first two multiple-touchdown games of 2019 in the Browns’ victories over the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers.
There are virtually no statistical changes that explain his improved results. His overall yards-per-attempt is still around six or seven yards. His aggressiveness rating is the same despite fewer mistakes.
Cleveland is not throwing the ball more often than before the bye. Kareem Hunt offers an upgrade in the receiving game, but there is no discernible increase in passes thrown behind or near the line of scrimmage either.
The biggest difference in the pre-bye and post-bye Baker Mayfield seems to be above the shoulders. He is as confident and aggressive as ever on the field, and as calm as ever off of it.
Last year’s Mayfield rose to the challenge to break the Cleveland curse and prove the Browns could win. The emotions of the interim coach fueled Mayfield’s drive.
Now, just as the world is ready to write-off the Browns’ playoff aspirations, here comes an equally motivated Mayfield to save the day. Can Kitchens and the rest of the Browns match his drive and stick to their newly-developed winning ways?
Cleveland is still alive and Mayfield is leading their post-bye comeback.