Slippery Slope: If Mayfield Is Better Without Beckham, He's Not Browns Only Issue
In light of a terrific performance by Baker Mayfield after a season-ending knee injury to wide receiver Odell Beckham, plenty have raised the question or flat out concluded that the Cleveland Browns quarterback is better without his top wide receiver.
Citing not only the performance by Mayfield against the Cincinnati Bengals, but his play his rookie season, the year before the team traded for Beckham, the belief that the third year quarterback would be better without the talented receiver is an oversimplification.
In 2019, Mayfield absolutely force fed Beckham to disastrous results. Despite any number of people suggesting the Browns needed to target Beckham 10 to 15 times per game, he wasn't healthy and was simply unable to be the star the Browns were asking him to be. Mayfield was ineffective and his play suffered as a result. There were plenty of other reasons why he wasn't as good as his rookie year, but this situation didn't help.
The potential problem with adding a player like Beckham is the pressure to use him, especially with just how great Beckham was his first few seasons in the league.
This had a major impact on Mayfield in 2019, but it hasn't been the same issue in 2020. This hasn't reduced the number of people suggesting that Beckham needs about a dozen targets per game. It's also not entirely on the quarterback. Coaches and play callers can make the same mistake, falling in love with the talent, forming the offense around them at the expense of others and calling plays that can force the ball to a certain player even when the play isn't there. After all, the defensive coaches are paid to stop him.
It's certainly smart to want to get the ball to the best players. That's why they are there. But it should be in the flow of the overall offense, where it can naturally flow to them, utilizing the strengths of as many players on the offense as possible. When it's 3rd and 7, the play should certainly involve the star player but it can't become an edict they get the ball, because the defense is keying on them too. The edict should be to get the first down, regardless of who gets the ball.
Mayfield has always been his most successful when he plays unencumbered and just throws it to the open man. The balance is being able to do that while also getting the ball to Beckham, maximizing both.
Mayfield found one on one coverage with Beckham on the first throw of the game, but he threw it short and inside, which resulted in the interception. Had he gotten it deeper and outside, that might have been the first big throw of the game. Instead, not only does it result in the interception, but Beckham goes out with a knee injury.
Mayfield threw a pair of interceptions against the Pittsburgh Steelers that had nothing to do with receivers and everything to do with poor reads, forcing the ball into terrible situations. So much of Mayfield's success appears to be a result of doing less, letting the game come to him and then getting more aggressive as situations presented themselves.
It helped that the Bengals struggled to get pressure on Mayfield and the back end of the defense offered little resistance. None of this is to take away from what Mayfield did as he was impressive, throwing the five touchdowns and leading the Browns to the win. A healthy Beckham would most certainly help this team and will likely be missed, potentially as early as the next game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
If the goal is to eliminate or minimize players where Mayfield plays poorly the more they get the ball, then it would mean having the same approach to Jarvis Landry. In his two full seasons with the Browns, he had the worst season of his career when Mayfield was at his best in 2018 and perhaps the second best season of his career when Mayfield struggled in 2019.
Against the Bengals, Landry caught five passes for 48 yards, which was the fourth most on the team in the game behind Rashard Higgins with 110 followed by rookies Harrison Bryant and Donovan Peoples-Jones each with 56 yards.
No one draws the dramatic conclusion that the Browns are better without Landry, because it's easier for him to disappear within the offense. Despite the contract of a superstar, it's largely accepted that he isn't one and he can just be a cog within the offense, often credited with intangible benefits to the team.
Beckham is not afforded the same consideration, despite basically making the same amount of money as Landry. He comes with star expectations and plenty of that is because Beckham demands it of himself. Beckham wants the team to win, but he absolutely wants to be a reason the Browns win, believing that he's always a threat to score, which can be a great mindset.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first matchup or against the Dallas Cowboys, he showed just how good he can be. Obviously, the goal is that he will look great against teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, but that's been a team problem as opposed to a Beckham problem in 2020.
This dynamic also adds pressure to live up to it with media and fans always looking at the offense through the prism of Beckham. And it has enabled this question to be asked whether Mayfield is better without Beckham.
There are simply too many moving parts to make it as simple as the Browns would be better without him. If he had a role more akin to Landry where he's just a receiver and the game comes to him and he can capitalize, the group might be far better. That seems unrealistic for the time being.
Unfortunately, the Browns will have a number of opportunities to prove they are better without Beckham for the rest of the season. It's still not quite that simple, because Mayfield could simply have finally broken through the mental block he seems to have been playing with this season, but it will provide more context for that argument.
What is worth investigating is the fact that Mayfield seems to play significantly better when Rashard Higgins is on the field in both 2018 and 2020. 2019 was a forgettable year in which he only caught four passes while having issues that spilled over into the public with the coaching staff and organization.
In the 18 games Higgins has played between 2018 and 2020 with Mayfield, he has 50 receptions for 735 yards and six touchdowns on 65 targets. This season, on 12 targets, Higgins has 11 receptions for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Compare that to Landry's 2018 season, which was also Mayfield's best season. In 16 games, Landry was targeted 149 times. He caught 81 passes for 976 yards and four touchdowns. Just on yards per target, that's 11.3 yards per target compared to 6.6. Going to Higgins has been almost twice as effective.
It's important to note that Landry has been far more efficient this season, as he was in 2019 when he was genuinely great. This season, Landry has 29 receptions on 39 targets for 367 yards, which is good for 9.4 yards per target. The problem is that Mayfield hasn't played as well in 2020, so if the idea is that the Browns should look back to when Mayfield was at his best, Landry was at his worst, which really puts a focus on how slippery a slope this can be to look at it through the prism of a single player.
With Beckham out for the rest of the season, the Browns will seemingly have to rely on Higgins. It could prove an opportunity for Higgins to continue to showcase his value to the Browns and specifically to Mayfield. If he continues to play at the level he's shown capable when he's on the field with Mayfield, it could be a tremendous boost for a Browns offense that could use one with all of the injuries the team has this season.
In the mean time, if people want to draw an overarching conclusion about the Browns wide receivers as it relates to Baker Mayfield, it may very well suggest the Browns move on from both Beckham and Landry, opting for most cost efficient receivers that are already on the roster and added through the upcoming draft and free agency to supplement their talented tight ends, using the money spent at wide receiver to improve a defense that needs more talent.