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A Tale of Two Mayfields

A thorough analysis of Baker Mayfield's 2020 season including the reasons why he improved so much and the reasons behind it, dispelling a few myths along the way.

By now most people have heard Baker had a tumultuous start to the 2020 season and then turned it around in the second “half”. Cutting up Mayfield's season and examining it from every possible angle, we see how much, and in what ways, the 3rd year quarterback improved as the season progressed.

It was not difficult to find the split in Baker’s season. It was plain to the eye if you were watching week to week, and it is equally abrupt in the numbers. After the 1st quarter of week 7 at the Bengals, Baker’s season turned around in dramatic fashion. Using statistics compiled by PFF, Big Time Throw % (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window), and Turnover Worthy Play % (a pass that has a high percentage chance to be intercepted or a poor job of taking care of the ball and fumbling) for weeks 1-6 and 7-DP (Divisional Playoffs.)

Baker Mayfield 2020 Passing Grade, BTT% and TWP%

PFF

Passing GradeBTT%TWP%

Weeks 1-6 (26th in the NFL)

57.3

3.9%

5.6%

Weeks 7-DP (2nd in the NFL)

91.8

6.6%

1.6%

The difference is stark. In this comparison you can see that Baker went from one of the worst in the NFL to one of the best in the NFL in each of these categories.

Taking a deeper look these splits, here is how Mayfield performed at each level of passing depth - short, intermediate, and deep. We will use the same PFF passing grade, BTT%, TWP%, adding Adjusted Completion Percentage (the % of aimed passes thrown on target - (completions + drops / aimed).)

Deep Passing

PFF

Passing GradeBTT%TWP%Adj Completion %

Weeks 1-6 (31st)

50.1

18.2%

22.7%

44.4%

Weeks 7-DP (1st)

96.2

39.6%

4.2%

55.8%

Intermediate Passing

PFF

Passing GradeBTT%TWP%Adj Completion %

Weeks 1-6 (30th)

61.3

2.4%

4.8%

57.5%

Weeks 7-DP (8th)

92.4

8.1%

2.0%

68.9%

Short Passing

PFF

Passing GradeBTT%TWP%Adjusted Completion %

Weeks 1-6 (24th)

67.3

2.4%

3.6%

84.0%

Weeks 7-DP (4th)

84.4

0.0%

0.6%

81.6%

Baker improved at all levels of depth, including being the leagues most accurate deep passer over his final 12 games.

His EPA per play also showed improvement. It is important to note that EPA is an offensive stat that it is inclusive of the performance of all elements of a team’s passing game including blockers, pass catchers, scheme, and playcalling. Baker’s EPA per play soared to career highs as well.

Baker Mayfield 2020 EPA/Play

ESPN

EPA/Play

Weeks 1-6

.113

Weeks 7-DP

.149

In order to dig deeper on EPA, I turned to PFF’s Arjun Menon, who just this week released a fantastic study on each NFL quarterbacks performance against different types of defensive coverage based on EPA/play. In this study, Baker was one of only two quarterbacks to outperform league average vs every defensive coverage scheme. I asked him to split Bakers season after week 6, and once again it tells what is becoming a familiar story.

Baker Mayfield 2020 EPA/Play vs Common Coverages

PFF

Cover 0Cover 1Cover 2Cover 3Cover 4Cover 6Cover 2 Man

Weeks 1-6

-1.10

0.014

-0.052

0.036

-0.083

.0016

2.29

Weeks 7-17

0.834

0.181

0.229

0.234

0.252

0.355

0.153

NFL Average

0.020

0.080

0.100

0.060

0.060

0.080

0.150

In his final 12 games Baker performed above league average against every defensive coverage type. He did not feast on a specific coverage type and played particularly well comparatively vs all three of the most common coverage types, Cover 1, 2, and 3. Defenses were not able to key in on a specific way to confuse or beat Mayfield.

Taking another angle, it has been said by some that the difference in Mayfield’s play was the result Stefanski “smashing the easy buttons” via Play Action passes, so to check the veracity of that claim, here are the splits on Mayfield’s play action passing for 2020:

Baker Mayfield 2020 Play Action Passing

PFF

% of Called PAPassing GradeBTT%TWP%Adjusted Completion %

Weeks 1-6 (28th)

33.2%

63.1

7.0%

4.8%

70%

Weeks 7-DP (5th)

27.1%

91.8

7.3%

0.8%

82.4%

This theory does not appear to hold water, given the percentage of play action passes decreased in Baker’s final 12 games. In addition, over the same span, Baker’s PFF passing grade was the same in non-play action drop backs. He did however improve his effectiveness in these concepts over the course of the season, which is in line with what we’ve looked at to this point. 

It's also worth noting Stefanski was not regarded as one of the NFL’s top play callers by PFF’s Eric Eager in his piece earlier this offseason. While Eric does not divulge his exact model for this ranking, we can deduce that this has something to do with Stefanski using a run heavy pass/run ratio, and more importantly the ratio in specific down and distances. Stefanski runs more than league average on 1st down and 2nd and long/medium distances, and did not call play action on 1st down at a high rate in 2020.

All told, we can reasonably say the Browns did not overuse play action, Baker did not have a higher passing grade when executing play action, and Stefanski did not maximize efficiency in the passing game via down and distance. 

When looking at Baker’s passing grade under pressure, we find a number that he did not improve on enough to join league leaders in his final 12 games.

Baker Mayfield Under Pressure in 2020

PFF

Passing GradeBTT%TWP%Adjusted Completion %

Weeks 1-6 (36th)

32.9

0.0%

6.2%

62.9%

Weeks 7-DP (20th)

49.9

4.0%

3.7%

76.2%

As much as you want your quarterback to play well under pressure, this is a volatile statistic for PFF. As an example, Baker’s best season in this category was 2019- where he was 5th best in the NFL in passing grade under pressure. I doubt many Browns fans find that easy to reconcile having watched Bakers 2019 season. So how can we take a different angle on this concept? 

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It is becoming more common to refer to sacks as a quarterback stat, and if sacks are indeed a quarterback stat, then pressures must also be to a certain degree. PFF tracks this in the form of percentage of pressures that are the fault of the  quarterback. Breaking this down into our split we see improvement over Bakers final 12 games.

Baker Mayfield 2020 Allowed Pressure

PFF

QB % of pressures allowedPressuresSacks

Weeks 1-6 

31.7%

13

4

Weeks 7-DP

16.2%

9

3

In addition to avoiding poor decisions that lead to pressure, recognizing and reacting to blitzes is also a part of performing well vs pressure. Baker showed one of the biggest improvements we’ve seen in this split.

Baker Mayfield 2020 When Blitzed

PFF

Passing GradeBTT%TWP%Adjusted Completion %

Weeks 1-6 (35th)

46.4

0.0%

4.7%

72.3%

Weeks 7-DP (1st)

93.2

8.4%

1.3%

80.3%

Baker went from 35th in the league against the blitz his first six games to the best in the NFL (by a substantial margin) over his last twelve. 

At this point I’ve exhausted the number of ways to cut up Bakers individual numbers from weeks 1-6 and 7-DP. There is no single factor to point to as a core driver of Baker’s progression as a quarterback. Baker improved in every facet of quarterback play. 

Kevin Stefanski deserves credit for providing the first stable environment and coherent offensive scheme that Baker has seen as a professional. Alex Van Pelt deserves credit for coaching Baker out of several bad habits that Baker brought from college and manifested in their worst forms in 2019. He also changed Bakers footwork to excellent results.

Detractors of Mayfield have spent much of this offseason priming the pump to hand over any credit for a great season from Mayfield in 2021 to his head coach and offensive teammates, saying things such as “Baker’s situation is one of the best in football, so of course he should have his best season in 2021, that doesn’t mean he is a great quarterback deserving of a big second contract. He is a product of his environment.”

This narrative is one of the reasons it was worth taking a deep dive into Bakers performance just ahead of the 2021 season. It is also important to note the circumstances under which Baker played what was by far his best stretch of professional football.

  • Entering 2020, Mayfield was tasked with learning his 3rd Offensive system under his 4th head coach and 4th offensive coordinator without the benefit of a normal NFL camp while having no preseason games to prepare for the regular season. 
  • In week 5 Mayfield and Jarvis Landry suffered cracked rib injuries which both played through for the remainder of the season.
  • Nick Chubb, Wyatt Teller, Jed Wills and Joel Bitonio missed a combined 7 games during this stretch. Odell Beckham Jr missed all 12 with his knee injury.
  • When WR Odell Beckham Jr. was lost for the season to an ACL tear, the Browns didn't just lose one of the NFL’s best WR’s, they lost the only explosive vertical threat on their roster, and defenses adjusted accordingly. This is in part why Baker's EPA numbers, while one of the NFL’s best over that stretch, do not line up perfectly with Baker’s grading.
  • The Browns played three straight home games in extreme wind conditions that made passing untenable, to the point where opposing quarterbacks DeShaun Watson, Derek Carr, and Carson Wentz combined for just 509 passing yards over those three games.
  • In Week 16 the entire Browns WR room was put into COVID-19 protocol days before the game. The Browns active roster for this game had only practice squad players at WR as a result.

These circumstances are noted not to make someone feel bad for the Browns or Mayfield, but to point out that this stretch of play by Mayfield did not occur under ideal conditions. By way of injuries and circumstance, Baker's supporting cast was objectively worse in the final twelve games than it was over the first six.

Baker’s improvement only seems more impressive after close inspection. There is no silver bullet that he and the Browns exploited on which to focus in trying to stop the Browns offense in 2021. 

In order to cement his status and earn respect around the league, Baker will need to replicate or exceed this performance in his 1st season with the same coaches and offensive system, a healthy OBJ and Landry, and the Browns incorporating 2nd year WR Donovan Peoples-Jones and rookie Anthony Schwartz as additional vertical threats.

But let it be known in the case that Baker does in fact continue where he left off in 2020, posting a top five season in PFF grade, EPA, and QBR - he deserves full, unqualified credit for that success given we’ve already seen him post those numbers for an extended period of time with lesser surrounding talent. 

One way or another, we will know a lot more about Mayfield’s ceiling as an NFL quarterback by February.

READ MORE: Browns Film Room - Takk McKinley is Extremely Important