1a. I’ve spent much of the past week staring into the middle distance and asking myself, “Am I being too hard on Baker Mayfield?” To be clear, his performance this season has not been very good. But are their mitigating circumstances? Three of his early-season games were at Baltimore, at Pittsburgh and against the Colts, three of the top five—if not the top three—defenses in football. And his three games this month were each in near-monsoon conditions; if there’s one thing I learned while studying meteorology under the esteemed Professor A.X. Elrose, it’s that nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.
Aside from that, Mayfield looked great in two wins over the Bengals, which… the Bengals still employ professional football players. And his play in the other two games—wins over the Football Team and Cowboys—neither offended nor excited me.
It’s also important to remember that he’s had three head coaches in three years. Kevin Stefanski’s system is certainly the most functional and QB-friendly one he’s been in, but he had a truncated offseason in which to learn it. That said, the issue right now with Baker is that, while there have been games in which he has operated that scheme capably, he’s too often been erratic when the Browns are playing on schedule. And when they get behind the sticks, things get much worse. Of the 34 qualifiers, Mayfield, Joe Flacco and Dwayne Haskins are the only quarterbacks in football completing less than 50% of their third-down passes.
It hasn’t been all bad though. Mayfield has been (weirdly) efficient on second-and-long, hitting 76.8% of his throws on second-and-8+ (third-highest completion percentage in that split). That’s likely because play-action is still a threat on second-and-long, but those are still tough downs for a young QB. Also working in his favor is that his teammates have always seemed to love him (and watching his commercials, some of them are surely considering packing on 80 pounds in hopes of becoming the next B.J. Raji).
Playing from the pocket was always going to be a challenge for Mayfield—he’s been much better on those play-action bootlegs—because for 6-foot quarterbacks vision becomes an issue in the condensed spaces of the NFL. Mayfield can’t fall back on the otherworldly vision and anticipation skills of Drew Brees, the otherworldly improvisation skills and downfield accuracy of Russell Wilson, or the otherworldly scrambling ability of Kyler Murray. The Browns have given him such a strong supporting cast—offensive line, pass-catching weapons and a run game that can carry the offense. It ultimately leaves you wanting more from a franchise QB. And it creates a sense that a Kirk Cousins-type could have just as much success (and perhaps more) in Stefanski’s offense, with this talent level to work with.
Cleveland will have to make a decision on Mayfield’s fifth-year option this offseason, and for the first time in the rookie wage scale era—when there is no more valuable commodity than a quarterback still on his rookie deal—the franchise is considering a second contract for a quarterback they drafted. But it’s not as binary a choice as it would have been five years ago, when there was a serious shortage in quality quarterbacks. As last offseason proved, this is a buyer’s market thanks to the recent influx of young talent, and there should be at least four QBs going in the first round this April.
If Mayfield was a free agent this upcoming offseason, what would his market be? Neither Cam Newton, Jameis Winston nor Marcus Mariota could find starter money this past offseason. Mayfield certainly hasn’t established himself as a reset-the-market or even a $30 million-per-year QB at this point. But what about $20 million?
Mayfield does have six-plus weeks to raise his play to that level. Cleveland will get warm-weather games against struggling defenses in Jacksonville and Tennessee the next two weeks. Stefanski’s system doesn’t lend itself to 400-yard passing days, but clean, efficient quarterbacking with a few big plays mixed in would be a very positive sign.
1b. Baker Mayfield also has the league’s highest pass-blocking grade among quarterbacks, according to PFF. So factor that in too.
1c. Who will be participating in the offseason quarterback market? Let’s have a look in Part II of our now-nonsensically titled Football Things Special Event, continued from one week ago, “The Ballad of Abracadaniel.”
Below are the 18 teams who should be in the market for a significant investment at quarterback, whether it be a new starter, a challenge to the current starter, or a QB of the near-future. You’ll be able to tell which list is which as long as you’re able to recognize how the letters form words and the words form sentences and the sentences often form coherent thoughts. (And if you’re not able to do that, you’re probably that guy who kept emailing me about how Jameis Winston should have started over Taysom Hill last week.*)
There are 18 teams below, but to be clear: For 31 teams, if they get the first overall pick they should take Trevor Lawrence and move on from their current QB. Lawrence is a fit in any offense (wanna run single wing? Wishbone? An offense based solely around the Statue of Liberty Play? He can make it work). He brings immediate superstar potential, and the rookie wage scale locks him into a far-below-market contract for his first three seasons. Only the Chiefs have a better QB situation than whomever lands Lawrence in April.
A NEW QB IN 2021
Jets: It’s Lawrence if they stay winless, Justin Fields (who would have been the first overall pick in any of the previous eight drafts) if they accidentally win a game.
Jaguars: Lawrence or Fields, and then Gardner Minshew can reprise his role as an off-brand Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Broncos: They didn’t do any favors giving Drew Lock two offensive coordinators in two seasons, but what’s done is done and Lock hasn’t shown enough to keep Denver from taking a first-round QB. Philosophically, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance would be a perfect fit with Vic Fangio, adding dimension to the run game while emphasizing the downfield passing game.
Football Team: There are limited, conservative passing games and then there’s what Washington is doing with Alex Smith. It’s a formula for wins as long as they’re facing opponents like the Ryan Finley-led Bengals or a Cowboys defense that conscientiously objects to tackling. Lance or BYU’s Zach Wilson would be more dynamic options. Or, they have cap space to make a move for Matthew Stafford, which would guarantee them multiple NFC East titles over the next five years or so.
Bears: The bummer is that, as desperately as they need a quarterback, their outright refusal to address the crumbling infrastructure that is the offensive line (while spending draft capital and cap space on things like subpar edge rushers, middling running backs and enough tight ends to form a K-pop band) makes this one of the worst landing spots for a quarterback. Whoever they bring in will have to be able to create time and space—Lance and Wilson fit the bill, but might require a trade up in April.
IF THE RIGHT GUY BECOMES AVAILABLE
Panthers: Aggressive Teddy Bridgewater has been a joy to watch for the underdog Panthers, but they surely realize it will be someone else who takes them to the next level.
Vikings: Kirk Cousins’s contract is large and immoveable, so it would have to be one of the rookies coming in on a cheap deal. Zach Wilson would look swell in a highly schemed offense like Gary Kubiak’s, though Alabama’s Mac Jones has a lot of similarities to a young Cousins and—again—would cost a fraction of the cap space.
Patriots: They have so many issues beyond quarterback—and cap room with which to address them—though Cam Newton hasn’t exactly locked down the job with his erratic play. It might ultimately make sense to upgrade the receiving corps and address the aging defense before bringing in the next QB for 2022.
49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo probably deserves a shot to run this thing at full health, but it’s such a well-designed offense that it hurts my heart every time Garoppolo sails a pass right and wide. Spending a Day 2 pick on Mac Jones (I worry about his tendency to drift backward against pressure), or maybe Florida’s Kyle Trask (unfortunately heavy-footed) might make sense and would certainly be more cost-effective, but neither guy is as physically talented as Garoppolo. If BYU's Zach Wilson makes it to them on draft day, Garoppolo’s fate might be sealed.
Colts: I mean, really, Jacoby Brissett would have had them in the same position this year as Philip Rivers does (Indy was 5-2 before Brissett got hurt last year, and when he returned it was to a receiving corps straight out of the Alliance of American Football and and a collapsing defense that was the real problem).
Titans: They’re surely pleased with Ryan Tannehill. But considering how QB-friendly this offense is (between scheme, play-calling and the Derrick Henry factor) and Tannehill’s shortcomings when they get behind the sticks (28th in third-and-6+ conversion rate), you wonder if they’d be tempted to do it with a young QB on a much smaller contract.
Saints: They probably should hand it over to Taysom Hill for a season and see what happens—that multi-dimensional run game, when melded with the passing game, will always create those big throwing lanes for him.
SEARCHING FOR THEIR TANNEHILL
The beauty of the Titans signing of Ryan Tannehill two offseasons ago is that, while they viewed him as a potential starter, he wasn’t the kind of guy the fanbase was going to be clamoring for. Bringing him in didn’t put any added pressure on Marcus Mariota, who they were still trying to develop. And, of course, Tannehill ended up being good enough to grab the job and get what amounts to an additional two-year commitment. With that in mind…
Browns: See above on Baker. But if there were an unthreatening veteran with untapped potential they could bring in as a Plan B…
Rams: The Rams have the complementary football thing down as well as anyone, and Goff has been great executing Sean McVay’s offense. But you have to think sometimes they just want a little more out of the position.
QB OF THE NEAR-FUTURE
Bucs: You can’t even figure out who the next QB will be, considering the coach is probably going out whenever Tom Brady does.
Steelers: Considering his struggles, you have to wonder if Sam Darnold is just one of those guys who isn’t comfortable in the play-action game—don’t underestimate how uncomfortable it can be to turn your back to the defense in those first moments after a snap. Ben Roethlisberger was never a play-action guy, and he came into the league, like Darnold, as primarily a second-reaction, playground QB before refining his game. Considering the Steelers have been much more forward-thinking with their system this season, they might have quietly become a nice landing spot for a guy with Darnold’s strengths and weaknesses.
QB OF THE NEAR-FUTURE IF IT’S THE RIGHT GUY
Falcons: Matt Ryan still has some gas left in the tank, and we don’t know what their offense will be in 2021 anyway. If they think they need a full reset, this might be the last chance to get a significant return for their franchise QB.
Lions: They might as well start from scratch now that Bob Quinn’s reign of terror has come to a merciful end. They wasted Matthew Stafford’s prime—to have a quarterback that good and consistently put a bottom five roster around him should be punishable with a hefty fine and possibly jail time. For Stafford’s sake they should move him to a team looking to get over the top (Patriots? 49ers? Colts?).
*—Just kidding, we love you Brian! But seriously, stop emailing. We blocked your email address to Talkback long ago—one of the first seven times you wrote in to swear you’d never read SI again—and now I’ve done the same with my inbox.
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2. Mitchell Trubisky makes his return to the starting lineup at Lambeau on Sunday night. He’s had some time off to think about what he’s done, and with Nick Foles hurt in their last game the Bears had two weeks to figure out how they’re going to reinvent a fundamentally broken offense.
Aside from poor quarterback play, an overmatched offensive line has been Chicago’s biggest issue. Short of petitioning the league to allow each member of the offensive line to build a moat filled with scorpions at the line of scrimmage between every down… or something involving flamethrowers and a copious amount of accelerant… there was no way a quarterback as immobile as Foles was going to be able to function. Trubisky’s athleticism at least gives him a chance.
For the past three seasons, the Bears have tried to expand Trubisky’s skillset and build him into a complete pocket passer. It didn’t happen then—he was bad in 2018 (but Pro Bowl!), atrocious in 2019, unplayable in 2020—and it’s not going to happen now. But in a way, that's liberating. They can now accept his limitations and emphasize the things he does well, as neither he nor the team have anything to lose. Here are four things the Bears offense should be emphasizing against the Packers on Sunday night.
i) For the love of Pan, the goat god, get Trubisky out of the pocket, where he has all the mechanical discipline of a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man. Trubisky has been better (not good, but better) in play-action throughout his career, yet he only ranked 20th in play-action attempts a year ago. He was on pace for more over the first three games of 2020, but the fact that the Bears were falling behind big early in games forced them to move away from it. They have to stick with play-action as long as they can and preferably get him moving on bootlegs when they do. Defenses react to play-action in potential run situations no matter how bad your run game is (and Chicago’s is baaaaad), and the bonus of using play-action frequently is that you’re not handing it to your four-feet-and-a-cloud-of-dust running back.
ii) Trubisky’s best moments have come in two-minute drills, when the Bears are frantically trying to move the ball and he’s probably doing a lot less thinking. Tap into that by using tempo throughout the game. What are you saving your defense for anyway? As well as being the side of the ball where you’ve invested the majority of your cap space and draft capital, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t put up more than 24 points against this Chicago defense in any of the past four meetings. Also, the Bears are allowing 22.3 points per game when they win the time of possession battle this season, but only 20.0 when lose the TOP battle.
iii) In the simplest terms, the Bears offense is broken because they don’t get big plays and they’re hilariously inept on third-and-manageable. Don’t ask Trubisky to stay ahead of the sticks for third down—those third downs never end well. A year ago, Chicago was 46.1% on third-and-6-or-less (28th in the NFL). This year, they’re 37.7%, worst in the NFL by a wide margin (and worse than the Packers are on third-and-6+, 38.5%). Meanwhile, only the Jets have fewer plays of 20+ yards over the last two seasons. Trubisky was—again, not good, but not horrendous—working downfield a year ago. He completed 38.4% of throws beyond 15 yards in the air, just below the league average of 41.4%. That dropped to 30.4% in his three starts this year. But that’s within range of “if he goes on a hot streak we can pull off a big play or two that we wouldn’t otherwise get.”
iv) Legs! Use read-option stuff, make it an 11-man run game. What are you saving him for? He won’t be here next year, and if you don’t win at least four of the final six games the coaching staff and front office might not be here either.
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3a. Instead of merely sending the Broncos out there to play the Saints after losing their entire quarterback room, the NFL should embrace the farce and also have them play without pants.
If this scenario happens with, say, the Raiders 24 hours before what could amount to a play-in game against Miami in Week 16, will they be forced to start Zay Jones at quarterback in a de facto playoff game?
3b. Speaking of the Saints schedule, it’s also patently absurd that the league scheduled a Friday night game for Christmas Day. Considering all the players have gone through this season, we can do without making them work on Christmas. As the young people say, “same energy”:
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4. While you were all distracted by Matt Patricia—he was the public-facing half of the operation and arrived with some truly terrible ideas—you missed the fact that now-former Lions GM Bob Quinn just had as destructive a four-and-a-half-year roster-“building” run as you could imagine.
In 2016, Quinn joined an organization two years removed from an 11-win season and already with an elite quarterback in place. Aside from the coaching change, Quinn proceeded to over-invest to build an offensive line that proved to be middling, and at running back. Then he unload talented defensive backs for pennies on the dollar (Darius Slay, Quandre Diggs) while struggling to find adequate replacements. Unless Will Harris has been playing possum, Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick who has struggled mightily as a rookie, might be the only piece of the rebuilt secondary who has even a chance of making a long-term impact in Detroit.
Quinn overpaid for a good, but not difference-making, EDGE in Trey Flowers—precisely the kind of move that a Patriots team wouldn’t make, especially with their “manufacture a pass rush” M.O. And while Kenny Golladay, Quinn’s lone Day 2 hit over five drafts, was a huge get, one of Quinn’s final acts as GM was failing to secure the star receiver’s future in Detroit. (T.J. Hockenson is a good one too but he’d better be at eighth overall, and the jury is out on whether D’Andre Swift will reach the lofty heights that would justify a team with so many glaring needs taking a running back 35th overall two years after taking one 43rd overall.)
My advice to the next GM (unless I’m the next GM, maybe? Do you think it could happen? No. But, also, maybe?): Hire Eric Bieniemy, draft Trey Lance, trade Matthew Stafford to a franchise on more solid footing because he deserves something better. And set about with a three-year plan that isn’t some low-grade facsimile of Foxboro.
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5. All right Football Things super fan(s), I recycled two past jokes in this week’s column. Can you identify them? If so, write them down on an 8x10 card. If you’re right, you’ll get a Football Things t-shirt as long as you go to your dresser, take out a t-shirt and, with that pen, write “Football Things” on it.
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6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Foo Fighters!
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