As the Cleveland Browns prepared to open the 2019 regular season on September 8, it seemed inevitable that quarterback Baker Mayfield would be rewriting the team’s record book.
Brian Sipe’s single-season record of 30 touchdown passes in 1980? Certainly no problem, given that Mayfield tossed 27 touchdowns as a rookie, while starting 14 games. Sipe also holds the team record with 4,132 passing yards in that same 1980 season. That mark also looked to be in jeopardy after seeing Mayfield throw for 3,725 yards last year.
Throw in the acquisition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and running back Kareem Hunt, and it looked like the team would be updating a few key lines in the record book for the first time in almost 40 years.
Mayfield provided everyone with a glimpse that the situation may not be as smooth as anticipated in Week 1, however, as he threw three interceptions and took five sacks while passing for just one touchdown.
Now, with just two games remaining, Mayfield is 28th in the league in completion percentage (60.1), tied for 20th in touchdown passes (17), is third in interceptions thrown (17), 30th in quarterback rating (78.7) and tired for ninth in sacks (34).
So what has gone wrong?
That is the question that Michael Renner at Pro Football Focus attempted to answer this week.
The first reason is the offensive line, although Renner posits that Mayfield has taken a bad situation and actually made it worse:
With the Browns owning PFF’s 18th-ranked pass-blocking grade on the season, though, this reason has been vastly overblown. Baker Mayfield isn’t the first quarterback in NFL history to deal with poor tackle play, but there’s no doubt that it adversely affected his play.
His poise in the pocket was one of his most impressive traits as a rookie. Last season, Mayfield converted pressure to sacks only 16.2% of the time — ninth best among starting quarterbacks.
This year, that number has jumped to 20.2% — fifth-worst among starting quarterbacks. Great quarterbacks have the ability to mitigate offensive line issues with pocket presence and decision making. But this season, Mayfield has only made his front-five look worse.
It was clear fairly early in the season that Mayfield had no confidence in his line - most notably left tackle Greg Robinson - as evident by Mayfield continually rolling to his right to escape pressure, both real and imagined.
Part of this issue can be fixed by the Browns replacing Robinson, right tackle Chris Hubbard and possibly the right guard position this upcoming off-season.
The rest falls on Mayfield, although remedying the offensive line should go a long way to helping him with his pocket presence.
While it was clear the offensive line was going to be a problem going back to training camp, the next issue is a bit of a surprise as Renner focuses on the wide receivers:
What was supposed to be one of the most talented groups in the NFL has looked anything but through 14 weeks. The chemistry — or lack thereof — has been the most glaring issue. Mayfield and his receivers simply haven’t been on the same page, with balls clanging off their hands and into defenders’ waiting arms seemingly on a weekly basis. Mayfield’s 18 turnover worthy plays this season are the 10th most, but he has the third-most INTs (17). This is largely because he has the most unlucky interception-to-turnover-worthy-play rate in the NFL. He’s had seven picks were he wasn’t downgraded at all — the fifth-highest total of any quarterback in the last five seasons.
While luck has certainly bounced against the Browns, a good deal of this still falls on Mayfield’s plate. He admitted himself that he was force-feeding Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry early in the season. Landry (30) and Beckham (27) rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in contested catch opportunities this season. Those are already career-highs for both players. Between a lack of chemistry and Mayfield pressing to get them the ball to his wideouts outside the normal flow of the offense, it’s no surprise that the unit hasn’t lived up to the offseason hype.
Mayfield had success as a rookie by spreading the ball around to his wide receivers. While Landry led the team in targets by a wide margin, Mayfield still found ways to utilize Rashard Higgins, Antonio Callaway and Breshad Perriman, among others.
That has not been the case this year, which is understandable given that any quarterback would be eager to throw to Beckham and Landry as much as possible. But it is obviously better when a quarterback works the ball to players within the framework of the play, as opposed to forcing them the ball, which Mayfield has done far too much this season.
The final issue, according to Renner, is one that will sound familiar to many Browns fans: the play calling:
When it comes to true ‘schemed’ production in the passing game, the Browns have actually been one of the best in the NFL. They’ve been far and away the league’s most prolific RPO attack. Mayfield has gone 42-of-52 for 405 yards on RPOs, which leads the NFL by 14 completions and 158 yards. They’ve also been one of the league’s most prolific screen games, (not counting RPOs) racking up 424 yards (second most) at 7.0 yards per attempt (11th).
What hasn’t been schemed well is the Browns’ play-action game. Mayfield has the fifth-lowest completion percentage off play-action passes in the NFL this season (60.4%). While they used it well for deep shots last season, with an average depth of target 13.0 yards downfield, those haven’t been there nearly as much this year, with an average depth of target only 9.8 yards downfield. And that’s with one of the league’s most electric deep threats in Beckham. Scheming more favorable looks downfield off play-action should be priority number one for the Browns’ coaching staff this offseason.
It has been painfully clear that this year’s offense has little resemblance to the one that the Browns put on the field for the final eight games of last season.
For numerous reasons - and there are more than just one - the Browns have never been able to develop a consistent flow on offense and have looked disjointed from series to series. Other than running the ball, there is little in the passing game that they can count on, and as Renner points out, they have gotten away from what worked last season.
It may be too late to fix all the issues this season, Mayfield and the Browns need to take a hard look in the offseason at what went wrong this year and come up with a viable plan to solve the problem.
If they can do that, then the club should see the success in 2020 that they expected to see this year.
If not? Well, let’s save that conversation for another day.