Whatever his inconsistencies throughout his NFL career, Baker Mayfield has usually been pretty careful with the football. Before the Browns’ 24-22 loss to the Packers on Christmas Day, Mayfield had never thrown more than three interceptions in a game, he’d only done that five times in his NFL tenure, and never in either 2020 or 2021.
Then, Mayfield threw four interceptions against the Packers, and that disaster marked the nadir of a disconcerting trend. Since Week 10 of the 2021 season, Mayfield has completed 56.1% of his passes (87 of 155) for 908 yards (5.9 yards per attempt), seven touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a passer rating of 66.8 — the worst in the NFL among starting quarterbacks over that time.
From Weeks 1-9, Mayfield completed 66.7% of his passes (150 of 225) for 1,917 yards (8.5 yards per attempt), eight touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 99.4, 10th-best in the league.
Things started to get really weird in Week 11, when the Browns beat the Tim Boyle-led Lions, 13-10, but Mayfield completed just 15 of 29 passes for 176 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Mayfield, who had been struggling with injuries all season, was clearly limping in the second half, but head coach Kevin Stefanski kept him in the game. Mayfield did not speak to the media after the game, but got back to the podium the next day.
“It is about putting it all together,” he said. “When we do our job and we do it well, we are a really good team. That takes converting on third downs, finishing in the red zone and then not hurting yourselves in the middle of drives to where you have to overcome long-yardage situations. It is being consistent within every single drive and having a singular focus on the task at hand within those drives and knowing that those critical downs we have to convert and we have to do well.”
It hasn’t tracked yet. The Browns have dropped from seventh to 20th in Offensive DVOA since Week 10, and from 11th to 24th in Passing DVOA. They’ve gone from 5-4 to 7-8, they’re currently last in the AFC North, and while that division is wide open for them with upcoming games against the Steelers this Monday night, and against the Bengals on Sunday, January 9. But if this is the passing game the Browns tote into those two games, the playoffs could be nothing but a fever dream.
So… how did things get so bad, and how can they be fixed?
Mayfield’s mechanics are a mess.
(AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Mayfield has never been a poster kid for quarterback mechanics — the ways in which he throws a football tend to work for him as opposed to anything you’d find in a manual. Which leaves Mayfield with less margin for error when he’s injured, and he’s dealt with a litany of maladies this season — a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder, a bruised heel, a bruised knee, and a groin injury. He also dealt with COVID in mid-December as part of a team outbreak.
Mayfield’s mechanics were all over the place against the Packers, and this was most prominent on his second interception, which came with 43 seconds left in the first quarter. The Browns had third-and-19 from the Green Bay 24-yard line, and Mayfield was trying to hit Jarvis Landry on a quick comeback out of trips. But he shortened his release point, locked his front leg, and threw from a bad platform. The result? Mayfield overthrew Landry, and cornerback Chandon Sullivan was right there for the pick.
“Didn’t follow through on the one in the end zone, which is extremely costly, a red-zone turnover,” Mayfield concluded. “Just sailed high, you can see it if you slow it down. Falling back, fighting my own momentum, which is not good.”
“I think he mentioned to you guys he did not have his feet set on that one,” Stefanski said. “He has an opportunity to potentially climb and make a throw. As you all know, the pocket is going to be dirty in the NFL with some of these pass rushers, so it is not easy, and I fully understand that, but there are definitely some things we can clean up.”
As my Touchdown Wire colleague Mark Schofield points out, Steve Axman’s Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics is a must-read for anybody wishing to understand the position at a deeper level. This quote from the book, from a piece Mark wrote on the inevitable results of improper mechanics, seems especially relevant here.
[The] front step is not a big step. Although each quarterback’s front step will differ in length due [to] physical differences, it must be short enough to force the upper torso to actually roll, or fall, over the ball of the planted front foot. Too big a front step forces the upper torso to position its weight toward the back foot, causing a “break” of the body at the hips. In essence, the hips and lower body are left behind as the upper torso snaps forward from the hips. This action either causes a release that is too high, thereby forcing the football to take off high, or a situation which the football is pulled down low, thereby causing a substantial loss of torque and power and a low throw. Straight-legged stepping, often associated both with overstepping and tall quarterbacks, produces the same negative pass-action results.
One of Mayfield’s two interceptions against the Lions showed a similar wasted opportunity. Landry had cornerback Amani Oruwariye beaten on the route for a potential big gain, but Mayfield appeared as if Oruwariye was his target.
Of course, when your lower body is messed up, it’s hard to throw the ball with consistent lower-body mechanics.
“There is some that between weather and that, but it is not something that I am going to say, ‘Hey, this is why,” Mayfield said the day after the Lions game. “I made a lot of throws yesterday and then I did not make a lot of throws yesterday. There is give and take, but I expect myself to be better. That is how I have always been.”
The Browns do not go to 11.
(AP Photo/David Richard)
Week 16 was very interesting for Ohio’s two most prominent quarterbacks. In a 41-21 win over the Ravens on Sunday in which he completed 37 of 46 passes for 525 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow completed 36 of 44 passes for 523 yards and all four of those touchdowns out of 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end, and three receivers. One day before, against the Packers, Baker Mayfield completed 15 of 27 passes for 174 yards, one touchdown, and all four of his interceptions out of 11 personnel (per Sports Info Solutions).
Quite the swing.
In Week 16, Ohio’s NFL quarterbacks gave us the full range.
Joe Burrow threw four touchdown passes out of 11 personnel.
Baker Mayfield threw four interceptions out of 11 personnel. pic.twitter.com/d3O8CwHrt2
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) December 28, 2021
11 personnel has been far from ideal for Mayfield this season; he’s completed 117 of 202 passes out of it for 1,314 yards, eight of his 15 touchdowns, and seven of his 11 interceptions. Stefanski said after the game that the decision to throw out of 11 personnel against the Packers was a situational one, which really doesn’t make a lot of sense — coming into Week 16, the Packers had allowed 16 touchdowns against 11 personnel, but they’d picked off 11 passes, and their opponent QBR of 85.1 against it ranked seventh-best in the league. After the Browns game, Green Bay’s defense now tied with the Patriots for a league-high 15 passes intercepted out of 11 personnel, and their 81.1 opponent QBR allowed now ranked fourth in the NFL.
So, Stefanski did his reeling quarterback no favors with the personnel outlook.
“I think it was certainly game plan-specific to who you are facing and the different looks you are getting to certain personnel groupings,” the coach said on Monday of the plan against the Packers. “It just felt like 11 was what we wanted to be in that game. It could be moving forward, but we just have to make sure that we are doing what we may think makes sense versus that particular defense.”
If that’s what Stefanski plans to do more often, the Browns might want to wrap up their season right now. Mayfield has generally been better out of 13 personnel — one receiver, one running back, and three tight ends, and 22 personnel — one receiver, two running backs, and two tight ends — for a few reasons. Additional tight ends add to the protection schemes, and additional running backs give Mayfield more clear-cut outlet options, which he really needs right now. Because when Mayfield tries to create outside of structure at this point, it doesn’t generally go well. In addition, the Browns don’t really have the kind of receiver group that should inspire a ton of three-receiver looks.
The Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The Browns have Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Rashard Higgins. If you’re going to splay your receivers out play after play, you’d better have receivers who can beat single coverage with more than scheme. Right now, the Browns simply don’t, and when the scheme either doesn’t work, or the quarterback doesn’t see what’s out there, it’s a problem. Add in the fact that the Browns have David Njoku, Harrison Bryant, and Austin Hooper at tight end — a rather formidable group — and Stefanski’s methodology becomes even more confusing.
Mayfield isn’t seeing what he needs to see.
(Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)
This is tied to Mayfield’s mechanics to a degree, but the quarterback isn’t seeing what he needs to see in time, and he’s reacting late physically. Two of Mayfield’s interceptions against the Packers were the result of this issue.
The first pick came with 8:45 left in the first quarter, and Mayfield trying to hit Donovan Peoples-Jones over the middle on a deep post. Once safety Darnell Savage moved to carry Peoples-Jones up top, and cornerback Rasul Douglas matched (some might say mugged) Peoples-Jones, Mayfield should have understood that Rashard Higgins was the better (and open) option on the deep crosser.
“The first interception, the one put to Donovan as well, he was probably 15 yards downfield getting illegal contact,” Mayfield said. And while that’s true, it’s also true that you can’t rely on officials calling anything consistently these days, and it’s still up to you to discern the open target based on safety movement. Savage had committed to Peoples-Jones over the top before Mayfield released the ball, and it was on Mayfield to figure that out.
Mayfield’s third interception came with 2:00 left in the first half — he was moving clumsily to his left, and by the time he had his shoulders squared to the target, he missed Landry getting open on a switch release, threw the ball late, and Rasul Douglas had his first of two interceptions on the day.
“Just got to put it more outside,” Mayfield said of that one. “The guy made a good play on it, seeing it left inside and rotating back and playing it.”
Perhaps, but Mayfield also had this dead to rights if he’d reacted in time.
The Browns had better fix this… quickly.
(Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)
“I don’t think it was anything preparation-wise, mentally,” Mayfield concluded after the Packers game. “It was just missed throws. Uncharacteristic and I hurt this team. That’s the most frustrating thing for me because I thought our defense played tremendous against a really, really good offense. But when you turn the ball over in your own territory, in the red zone and around midfield and give them extra opportunities, they’re going to take advantage of it. That’s just who they are.”
As far as any disconnect with Stefanski on the construction of the passing game, Mayfield got jokey after the Lions game, but the point still stands.
“We are going to take a lovely vacation during the bye together and maybe visit Maldives and spend a lot of time (laughter),” Mayfield said on November 22. “No, we are fine. I think we watched the film as an offense, and we watched the whole game together and talked about all of the things that are hurting us. It was one of those meetings where you just own up to your mistakes and own up to the plays where we have to be better.”
Stefanski said this week that he went through the interception reel with Mayfield in hopes that everyone can get back on the same page.
“With any of our players, you have to learn from each one of these. With the quarterbacks, it is no fun to watch the interception reel, talk through them and learn from them. It is again not fun because you do not want to turn the ball over, but we do have to learn from them because we have to take care of the ball. It is important to how we win. We did not do a great job there, but we will have to look at the tape together, watch it and then make sure we get better moving forward.”
Mayfield can help himself with improved mechanics, and being more aggressive in his reactions to schemed openings. Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt can help Mayfield with more favorable personnel packages (put your best guys on the field, hello), and throwing concepts that don’t test Mayfield’s relative inability due to injury to roll out and throw on the move.
Now, while 11 personnel isn’t the best idea generally for this offense, it’s also true that the Steelers have allowed 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions against it. The Bengals have allowed 14 touchdowns to seven picks against 11, so perhaps a different plan should be in effect for the regular-season finale.
The talent is there. The big brains are there. It’s time for everyone on the Browns’ offensive side of the ball to start rowing in the same direction.