In this young 2021 campaign in the National Football League, the Cleveland Browns have turned in one of the strongest starts to the season. After losing to the reigning AFC champions on the road in Week One, the Browns rebounded with three straight wins. Now, as the club is heading into a much tougher stretch, trouble is not missing in paradise. While Cleveland’s running group is arguably the most productive in the NFL, the air raid, and its leader in Baker Mayfield in particular, are thought to be on a downward tendency. That poses a serious, consequential question – how big actually are the problems?
Why That Preconception?
With only four weeks of NFL football in the books, few realistic conclusions can be made yet. The small sample size behind the figures of both top and mediocre players around the league contributes negatively to their credibility.
However, most fans and members of the media have loudly agreed on one simple notion: Baker Mayfield‘s decline is steep and consequential, and his performance has been disappointing, to say the least. It might be difficult, regardless of one’s perspective, to state that the Oklahoma Sooners product looks nothing short of a first overall pick in a historic QB draft class. Yet, very little, and often weak, reasoning is given behind that statement. To quote the famous economist Thomas Sowell, “As so often happens, when there is a strong preconception shared by many people, no alternative explanation was considered, much less tested empirically” (The Thomas Sowell Reader, 2011 – directed towards MLB’s famous “Dead-Ball Controversy”).
So, what is actually the indicator and impact of Mayfield’s woeful recent stint?
Most importantly, it is hard to argue against the popular opinion on his turnout during the Browns’ last two games. As frequently noted, Baker Mayfield has registered avid drops in accuracy and passer rating, despite Cleveland racking two wins in that span and a total of three in a row. In the Browns’ kickoff game at Arrowhead, Mayfield completed 75% of his 28 passing attempts, followed by a 90 percent accuracy success versus Houston. This immense effectiveness then dipped to 61% and 45% in the next two games. Meanwhile, Mayfield replicated his Week One passer rating putout over the club’s second home game. However, he followed that up with a 59.5 showing in Minnesota – his lowest rating since Week Six of last season.
Interestingly, the difference in prerequisites between the two lines of efficiency is quite clear. The Austin, Texas native’s number of attempted throws jumped from 24.5 in Week 1-2 to 32 per game in the last two weeks. In turn, that correlated with worse performance. That pattern serves as a prevailing indicator of a weakness that could slash Mayfield’s value (for Cleveland and on the market) in the long run, confirming another major criticism aimed at him.
Furthermore, what comes out as even more worrying is that this increase in workload was not a play selection tool that could be changed back to support his efficiency. Unlike Baker’s turnout, Kevin Stefanski’s pass-run ratio did not undergo a noticeable shift in the latter period in comparison to the first two matchups. That is in contrast to other challenging situations for Mayfield such as, for instance, when he had to overcome a rocketing workload due to a Nick Chubb injury last year. Here, the number of running plays the Browns used jumped from 30 C/G to 40 C/G – a 33 percent increase, as opposed to a 30.6 percent change in passing attempts.
That means Mayfield’s reliability virtually fell as the Browns had to execute more plays due to factors outside the unit’s control. The dire concerns might be starting to claim some validity. However, conclusive analysis is impossible to complete as conclusive evidence is still impossible to obtain at this stage of the campaign.
Too Early or Too Unwise To Call?
Despite the seemingly inevitable reality of his hesitant performance staying for a longer period of time, evaluators shouldn’t be too quick to question the future of Baker Mayfield as a Cleveland Brown. As mentioned in the previous section, this point of the season provides few credible facts to those who seek to use them. But what’s more is that the Browns air raid is entering a stage that would further discredit any figures that might end up against Mayfield’s name.
On the one hand, the sample size is very obviously an obstacle rather than an advantage after four weeks of play. Mayfield’s 113 passing attempts are slightly over a third of the near-300 he had on average in his first three years in the NFL. And that’s even after he has averaged more than 30 over his last two games, setting a season-end estimate of 480 throws.
And the same time, even with a drop over the latter half of his campaign-opening stint, Baker Mayfield seems headed in a favorable direction. Firstly, the Browns starter has completed 65.5 percent of his passing attempts. In comparison to his career-high of 63.8 (2018), this is a hefty improvement. As a team, Cleveland has climbed to the middle of the league in completion percentage as opposed to sixth-lowest in 2020. When regression to the mean hits a few clubs with extreme values (such as Cardinals and Cowboys), the margin to the top might be narrowed even further.
When it comes to passer rating, his average of 89.7 is, in fact, his second-lowest on record. However, a passer rating in the range of 90 is in no way “mediocre”, as the attacks state. Moreover, it is also higher than eight other qualified quarterbacks thus far, per CBS Sports. It looks like, if we put those figures on a pedestal, Mayfield has maintained the acceptable level he showcased last year. Seemingly, he might even have a shot at a slight improvement. Also, even if those figures are not intact with his draft position, he is good enough to lead an air raid that plays a second fiddle to the Chubb-Kareem Hunt duo.
That, in turn, could be a reason to keep him beyond his rookie deal. However, all of that is up to his financial demands. Mayfield is clearly replaceable in the eyes of the Browns, the market, and NFL player economics alike.
On the other hand, the winds could be blowing towards a year that would not solve the significant problem before the Browns front office. Mayfield might not justify a big deal (if those are his demands) with his on-field performance. However, his receiving corps has not provided adequate reinforcements either. Firstly, Jarvis Landry has been on the Injured Reserve List for more than two weeks now. Secondly, Odell Beckham Jr. did not make his season debut until Week Three. The wait certainly was considerable but it was definitely… not worth it. So far, the former New York Giant has only caught seven of the sixteen throws intended at him or 43.8%.
A down year could end up saying very little as regards his capabilities in a sufficiently stacked unit. The Browns have had the chance of observing Baker’s turnout with both Landry and OBJ available (2019). That display was disappointing at best. However, this was back during his second year in the league. As the Browns staff should be aware, the boss of one of its key pieces once implied that the younger a player is, the more positive productive he has in front of him, under the same circumstances (Moneyball, 2003). That means these figures would be better if Mayfield had the same core in 2021.
The Judgement Year
Many have claimed that Baker Mayfield’s performance this season would determine the direction of his career. For starters, the Browns’ willingness to offer him a future contract likely depends on this. Not only that but so does the perception of the market. If his most reliable targets continue going down or underperforming, Cleveland might not have the empirical evidence that indicates the necessity for them to move on.
Yet, Mayfield himself also needs to prove the growth that is expected as he matures as a professional player. His resume lacks stability even with sufficient weaponry. As of currently, it does not seem like a good deal for Cleveland to keep him in exchange for anything more than a bargain.
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