Former Browns teammates Joe Thomas and Andrew Hawkins will be teaming up this year to provide analysis on the NFL season from the perspective of two former players. In this week’s ThomaHawk Thoughts, they share their opinions on Browns rookie QB Baker Mayfield.
Joe Thomas: I’ve always believed that it’s best for a rookie quarterback to sit and learn behind a veteran for a season, allowing him to take lumps with his helmet under his arm, not on his head. I played with eight rookie quarterbacks during my career (Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Cody Kessler, Deshone Kizer, Kevin Hogan), and many of them stumbled in their first year because they were thrown in before they were ready. Not only did it cause an erosion of their own confidence but it also caused an erosion of confidence between the owner, the coach and quarterback—and that creates a less-than-ideal environment for a rookie quarterback to develop.
I’ve seen this play out many times. A franchise with a history of losing, like the Browns, often only gives a new quarterback a very short window to prove that he can turn things around. It’s not fair to expect a quarterback to save the franchise in a year or two, and when he doesn’t, fire the coach—it’s a difficult cycle to watch.
That being said, Browns QB Baker Mayfield may be changing my opinion. He’s played well so far this season since entering Cleveland’s Week 3 game against the Jets, and he hasn’t fallen into any of the traps that I see so many rookie quarterbacks fall into with turnovers, penalties and taking sacks. If I had to point to one thing that sets him apart from past Browns rookies, it would be his confidence—confidence not only in himself, but in his decision-making. I think his decisiveness is something that is extremely rare for a rookie quarterback.
Andrew Hawkins: Before the start of the season, Joe and I agreed that we thought it would be best for Tyrod Taylor to start for the Browns, allowing Baker to learn and watch. We’ve seen Cleveland eat up and spit out quarterbacks. It is a tough place to play, especially for this fanbase who is longing for that guy.
The Browns have had 29—now 30 with Baker—starting quarterbacks since 1999, but when you watch Baker you can just tell, this guy is different. He executes differently, and I think most Cleveland fans can tell that Baker is wired a little bit differently. I think the Browns’ 30th quarterback is going to be the charm.
This isn’t the best metric to use, but anyone can see how much winning means to him. Elite equarterbacks want to win more than anybody else—they care about what the defense is doing, they make sure guys are primed to play their best, whatever it takes to put the team in the best opportunity to get a W. You can just tell Baker’s mind is fixated on winning. When you have a player with that attribute, you feel like you have a chance, and that's what makes Baker special.
The Browns’ other quarterbacks, when compared to Baker, often seemed to be overwhelmed by the moment—teammates could tell that their focus was elsewhere, whether that was trying to get the offense down, making sure they called the play call in the huddle properly, avoiding interceptions, hoping to not be booed out of town... Baker knows that he’s going to make the right decision. When he’s on the field, it’s clear Baker is ahead of the curve—it doesn’t seem like you’re watching a rookie playing in only his second NFL game.
Thomas: Baker exceeded my expectations for his first start. That two-day road trip to the West Coast can be challenging and add additional distractions that a geographically closer road game wouldn’t. And playing at Oakland in an old baseball stadium can hinder your play if you let it, but I didn’t see either of those things affect him at all. He was the same player we saw on Thursday night against the Jets. He threw the ball decisively, and on target. His receivers had a number of drops, or his numbers would have been significantly better. It seemed like he commanded the offense better on the road. A lot of times with rookies, you will see a lot of penalties in that environment. You didn’t see that, and all of that is a credit to him and his preparation.
Based on the offensive output against Oakland, this team is going to score a lot of points, which is thrilling for Browns fans. Baker looks like an All-Pro QB. He is decisively throwing the ball to a number of different receivers, and he is taking those calculated risks because he understands the concepts the offense is running and what the defense is doing to him, and so he is able to on the move calculate the chance of success of any move that he makes.
Hawkins: Baker has the physical tools needed to succeed in the NFL. The throw where he overshot rookie receiver Antonio Callaway early in the game could have been a touchdown if he had taken a yard off that ball, but being able to see that and fire that ball out there with that kind of arm strength, it’s special. Baker had two interceptions in the game, but that’s not a concern—I always say I want my rookie quarterback to throw a healthy amount of picks. You want a guy who is going to figure out when to take those calculated risks, and we’re seeing that with Baker.
Although the is playing well, he is still adjusting to the speed of the NFL. If you look at the last two games, there are two plays that have stood out in a negative way. He fumbled late in the game vs. the Jets, a ball security issue. And then in the red zone as well, he threw a pass that fell off the shoulder pads of a defender and probably should have been picked. In this last game, it was two similar situations. Late in the game, he fumbled snap and then took a chance on throwing into triple coverage to Callaway. He’ll understand as time goes when not to take those risks, specifically in the red zone, or late in the game when you still have an opportunity to win.
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Thomas: Callaway could have given him a better chance on that ball.
Hawkins: I would have felt better about that last pass into triple coverage if it was Jarvis Landry, a guy who you can feel really good about saying, okay, if he doesn’t catch it, he is going to do whatever he has to do to break this football up and make sure it is not an interception. But as a rookie, Callaway is also still learning, and he might not understand that quite yet.
Thomas: His other interception was a tipped ball, and really, it was impressive for a rookie to go into an environment like that and play nearly turnover free, from an interception standpoint. A gunslinger like him could throw three or four interceptions easy, especially as the game wears on, but you didn’t see that from him. The one area that you could see room for improvement was that fumbled exchange between him and the center, but that’s not out of the ordinary for a QB starting on the road in a loud environment. Also, he didn’t play under center at Oklahoma and obviously didn’t play with the silent count, which can be a little tricky getting used to. Specifically, it looked like he had given the trigger to start that silent cadence and once he started it, he didn’t realize that once the center starts his head bob, there is no way to stop it. That was a good learning experience for him.
Hawkins: I want to see him get better at situational football as the season goes on. I want to be sure that when he gets to the red zone he is not throwing that pass off the safety’s shoulder pads. I want to make sure he is not taking that chance late in the game in triple coverage and instead decides it’s better to throw it away and give my team another chance.
Baker’s done better than most of the rookies we've seen in Cleveland, but I still want to see him get better from week to week. He was more in command in last week’s loss to the Raiders than he was against the Jets. If he can continue that trend and continue that trajectory, I feel like everyone can feel good about where he'll land at the end of the season and his career going forward.
Thomas: I want to see if he continues to make all the players around him better. That's what I saw in that Oakland game. You were seeing guys like Darren Fells, who is not your first tight end on the depth chart, and he scored. Baker is making everybody around him on that team better and that's a hallmark of a great quarterback.
Joe Thomas and Andrew Hawkins have their own football podcast, The ThomaHawk Show. Episodes post Mondays and Thursdays on Apple Podcasts or wherever podcasts are available.