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Fixing Baker Mayfield and the Browns Passing Game

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Los Angeles Rams v Cleveland Browns Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

A little over a year ago, Baker Mayfield took over for Tyrod Taylor and lit the field on fire in front of a national TV audience. Freddie Kitchens took over for Todd Haley as Offensive Coordinator a few weeks later. What followed was one of the best strings of offensive games Browns fans have witnessed since the return:

Baker Mayfield, last 9 games of 2018:

  • Completion %: 68.4
  • Yards: 2254
  • TDs: 19
  • INTs: 8
  • Times sacked: 5
  • Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (yards per passing attempt, adjusted for TDs, INTs, and yardage lost due to sacks): 8.33

Those 8.33 ANY/A would put Baker third in the NFL if they were extrapolated over the entire season (In my opinion ANY/A is the best single number that does not take opinions into account for evaluating QBs.) While his TD:INT ratio was slightly less than ideal, the reward the Browns were getting was well worth the risk of turnovers. And a slight uptick in really any statistical category would put Baker firmly among the most dangerous QBs in the NFL in his sophomore season. Kitchens was promoted to head coach largely to continue that momentum and to continue to build and develop the Browns offense in 2019.

2019 hasn’t gone as planned.

The Browns are 1-2, which is ultimately the only statistic that matters. Both losses have come against playoff teams, and losing to the defending NFC Champions on Sunday night isn’t the end of the world. As a team, the Browns have been reasonably good and markedly better than every team in the Hue Jackson, Pat Shurmur, and Rob Chudzinski eras. The on-field talent is clearly there.

However, to this point in the season we are witnessing a major regression on offense. Baker’s stats from 2019 tell the story:

  • Completion%: 56.9
  • Yards: 805
  • TDs: 3
  • INTs: 5
  • Times sacked: 11
  • ANY/A: 4.66

These numbers are simply not acceptable for a quarterback of Mayfield’s talent. For a bit of context, that ANY/A would put Baker below Colt McCoy, Derek Anderson, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer’s career numbers. His per-game sack rate is almost seven times what is was during Freddie’s time as OC last year.

The good news is that Baker didn’t become a bad quarterback overnight. With good adjustments he can get back to his late 2018 form and progress from there. But like any good quarterback, he will need support from his team to do it.

Below, I’ll outline four changes I’d make to the offense and why. They might not solve every problem, but they would help get the Browns back on track.

1. Use the same plays, more

I wrote about the Browns’ egregious amount of penalties against the Titans, which were drive-killers. Penalties put the Browns behind the chains, which makes them predictable, and exposes their biggest weakness on offense (pass protection on the edges) against defensive players who know what is coming. Baker can still rescue us from the occasional 3rd and 10+ (and he has), but consistently putting anyone in those kinds of down and distance situations is a recipe for disaster.

We’ve since seen a decrease in penalties from 18 (!?!) against the Titans to 9 against the Jets, and then 8 against the Rams. But 6 of those 8 penalties against the Rams were on the offensive side of the ball. Odell Beckham Jr.’s procedure penalty was a particularly rough one, as it took a Nick Chubb touchdown off the board.

Tying in to this thread, Chris Collinsworth mentioned this during the broadcast, but both Odell and Jarvis Landry like to put a bit of extra movement on their routes to create separation. To this point, it does not appear that Baker has developed chemistry with Odell to understand precisely when and where he will come open.

By running fewer plays, players will develop chemistry faster, and better understand their jobs on every play. This should cut down on procedural errors (including penalties), as well as give our lesser-talented players a better chance to do their jobs (i.e. in pass protection). We aren’t good at everything we are trying to do right now, let’s just try to be great at a few things before we expand.

2. Bring back the weird

One of my favorite parts of Freddie Kitchens’ playcalling last year was his propensity to install one thing every week that was…weird. One week it was the inverted Wishbone, the next it was a handoff to Jarvis Landry up the middle, or maybe even letting Landry uncork a pass downfield after a handoff. Where has that gone?

While this might appear to contradict my first point, these two ideas should be able to coexist. We can have a concise set of normal plays, then bring in one random idea every week. Defenses will have to prepare for our normal stuff, but they’ll also be left wondering if they should prep for the previous week’s weird play or something out of left field. It’s one new thing per week for us, anybody’s guess for the opposition.

3. Take one shot to Odell every game

Don’t overthink this: we have a receiver who can catch anything, and we need to put fear back into the heart of defenses. Nothing scares a defense like getting beat deep. Pick a spot and take a deep shot, let one of the best in the world go up and make a play. Live with the result, even if it ends up as an arm-punt. Despite being an improbable catch, Odell made that great one-handed catch against the Jets and it appeared to help fuel our offense. Even if he isn’t putting up the kinds of numbers he likes, give him the opportunity to do something special every game.

4. Stop running vertical routes from 3+ WR sets

Or at least stop running so many of them. This line can’t pass protect without help for more than 3 seconds. Defenses are disguising and not letting Baker get clean pre-snap reads, especially as to what coverage will become as routes develop. This means that when we line up in spread formations and try to work the ball down the field, Baker needs time to find open players but he doesn’t have it. When the routes take time to develop down the field and the pass protection doesn’t hold up, that’s a recipe for disaster.

If we line up in more “pro-style” sets with backs and TEs able to help in protection, maybe we can work it down the field and keep more blockers in the formation. If we line up in spread sets, we’ve been explosive when the route concepts develop quickly. But when we clear out the backfield and make Baker hold the ball we don’t have the talent to protect him.

This one might be the toughest to accomplish because of who our coaches and players are. Landry and especially Beckham are both great at contested catches down the field. Freddie and OC Todd Monken both have experience in Air Coryell systems where the vertical passing game is the center of the offense. Baker has great deep accuracy, and we all know how he idolizes Brett Favre. He’s probably like Brett in that he wants to go for the home run on every play, and that he might not make the most rational decisions from the pocket:

(watch until 12:50)

Baker will take those deep shots whether he’s being coached to or not. He needs to be set up to get the ball out quick, which is how we function best on offense right now.

Currently, Baker’s average Time to Throw is 3.03 seconds, the third-longest in the NFL. That’s up from 2.79 seconds last year, and while I don’t have the stats to prove this he appeared to hold the ball longer under Hue Jackson/Todd Haley, so I suspect it would be significantly lower if we looked at Kitchens’ time in charge of the offense in 2018.

Coach Baker back into where he’s had success: use the short passing game to set up the other parts of the offense. Keep running RPOs that either give Nick Chubb a light box or give Baker easy short completions.

If the Browns do these four things it might not fix every problem, but it would get us back on the right track and feeling good about the offense.