It Is Time for Baker Mayfield

Hue Jackson’s game management in the final seconds on Sunday spoke volumes about the lack of trust in his QB. The Browns have the talent, and this year they have the offensive system in place to get some wins. Do they need a different quarterback under center?
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With eight seconds left in regulation, the Browns offense gathered to call the third play of their surprisingly lucrative last-ditch drive at the Superdome. Gains of 25 and 16 yards (against a Saints D that was too soft in its eight-man coverage) had put the offense at the New Orleans 34-yard-line. It happened so quickly, and so easily, it felt like the Browns were trespassing in Saints territory—like they’d found an unlocked door just inside midfield. And so head coach Hue Jackson rushed out his field goal unit before someone could show up and boot them out.

It was a 52-yarder, no gimme for kicker Zane Gonzalez, a second-year kicker who had earlier missed two extra points, a 44-yard attempt and, of course, had a 43-yarder blocked in the waning seconds of OT against the Steelers last week. Almost certainly, some Browns offensive players wondered why they weren’t staying out there to use the eight seconds for one more quick throw to the sideline, hoping to make the field goal more manageable. Sure enough, Gonzalez pushed the long kick right, and the Browns were left still searching for their first road win since October 11, 2015 (at Baltimore).

Jackson was not asked about his decision afterwards. Even if he was he wouldn’t have said so publicly—even if his actions showed it—but Jackson may not have trusted his quarterback to make a quick sideline throw. Yes, it was Taylor’s incredible 47-yard bomb to Antonio Callaway that had even put the Browns in position to win late. (Taylor throws one of the NFL’s prettiest deep balls.) But it was Taylor’s interception to Marcus Williams one possession earlier that had put the Saints ahead.

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Taylor has a well-earned reputation for taking care of the ball, but that interception offered a perfect illustration of why the Browns can’t ultimately succeed with him under center. Early in the down, safety Kurt Coleman stormed the backfield. Taylor, who has a tendency to quickly break himself down in the pocket and become a runner, calmly sidestepped the pressure and prepared to throw. In a vacuum, it was perfect pocket movement from a historically unnatural pocket mover. The problem was, in the process, Taylor stared down tight end David Njoku.

And therein lies the difference between a natural and unnatural pocket QB. Marcus Williams, playing textbook free safety, read Taylor’s eyes and easily jumped the throw. When an unnatural pocket QB feels pressure, he first thinks to elude the pressure and then thinks to throw. He’s a passer who, in eluding pressure, quickly becomes a runner, then goes back to being a passer. A natural pocket QB streamlines this process. He thinks all at once to elude pressure and throw. He remains a passer the entire time, and so he doesn’t blatantly stare down his target when moving, just like he wouldn’t blatantly stare down his target when not moving.

A year ago, the Browns were saddled with a bad receiving corps, and Jackson didn’t believe those men could handle many different formations, presnap movement and highly schemed plays. So, the Browns lined up in spread formations and ran isolation routes. Their receivers weren’t good enough to win on their own in space, and rookie QB DeShone Kizer, forced to make simplistic reads that allowed for complex defensive looks, threw 22 interceptions.

To fix this, Cleveland spent $47 million guaranteed and a pair of late draft picks to acquire receiver Jarvis Landry, who could be a weapon from any receiver spot. The hope was Landry’s arrival, mixed with the development of tight end David Njoku and incumbent receivers Josh Gordon and Rashard Higgins, could give the Browns a more expansive passing scheme. It has, even with the Gordon experiment finally spiraling into an ugly end over the weekend. In Weeks 1 and 2, we’ve seen a much more creative Browns passing game.

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The problem is, a highly schemed passing game requires anticipation throws from the quarterback. The idea is you have diverse formations that force the defense into predictable coverages. From there, you run route combinations that exploit those looks. The timing can be very sensitive, which is why a QB must anticipate those routes opening before they fully do. And since clean dropbacks are uncommon in pro football, a QB also must be able to view these routes while moving within the pocket.

Not only is Taylor an unnatural pocket mover, he’s also a “see it” passer. He won’t uncork a ball unless he’s confirmed that his target is open. But by this time, that target may no longer be open. Taylor, to his credit, is a responsible decision-maker, and he trusts his dynamic legs. So when his once-open targets don’t stay open, he usually runs, which is better than rifling the ball into coverage. Still, we’re talking about missed opportunities and an offense being executed improperly. A mobile, “see it” QB like Taylor is better suited for the type of isolated spread formations that the Browns ran last year. (Or that the Bills, not coincidentally, often ran when Taylor was their QB.)

Nobody knows more than Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley about Baker Mayfield’s current level of readiness. But it’s worth noting that around draft time, the Browns—among other teams—gushed about Mayfield’s football IQ and leadership. If that gushing was valid, you’d think Mayfield could run Jackson’s and Haley’s offense sooner rather than later.

Unlike last year, there’s a quality offense to run in Cleveland, and the Browns have a defense that has kept the high-powered Steelers and Saints in check. This team is not as bad as its ongoing mega-slump suggests. Turning to their QB of the future could soon prove that.

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