No Excuses for Browns Offense, Baker Mayfield in 2021

Examining why the Cleveland Browns offense has no excuses for failure in 2021 and how they can expand on what they've already done well with Baker Mayfield from 2020.
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After returning the entirety of the offensive side of the ball and the coaching staff, the room for excuses has shrunk significantly. This applies first and foremost to the man under center as well as the microscope, Baker Mayfield.

After a dynamic rookie season where Mayfield burst onto the scene in 2018, he has since experienced a roller coaster ride over the past two seasons. The Freddie Kitchens era did no justice to the development of Mayfield, nor did having to learn yet another system in a shortened offseason. Again, 2021 leaves little room for excuses with the play of Mayfield.

For Mayfield, if he picks right back up where he left off, then the Browns will be ready to roll when they take on the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs on September 12. However, the Browns have the roster ready to make a run at a Super Bowl this season and can ill-afford an abysmal start to the season as we saw from Mayfield a year ago.

Having charted Mayfield’s full 2020 season, to say that it was a night-and-day difference from the first half of the season to the next is an understatement. The hope is that this can be chalked up to learning a new offensive system under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, then settling in right before the bye week.

Before discussing further, it is important to understand how the data being discussed was obtained. Through a process of charting every game of the season and removing unchartable throws (spikes, throwaways, significant miscommunications, uncalled pass interference, etc.), I hope to give a clearer picture of a quarterback’s true accuracy. This takes into account on-target throws that were dropped or tracked poorly, as well as off-target throws where Mayfield may have been bailed out by his receiver.

Not only a clearer number but also weighted to the more difficult levels of the field as well. Outside the numbers at the intermediate level and deep down the field are where quarterbacks make their money at the NFL level, thus deserving a greater weight. Judging on raw accuracy numbers alone is how a team ends up paying Jimmy Garoppolo $137 million. Now that there is a basic understanding of the process, we can better understand not only Mayfield’s early struggles but his tremendous growth in 2021 as well.

Looking at the first eight weeks of the season, Mayfield not only was the most inaccurate quarterback in the AFC North but found himself in the same company as a name like Drew Lock of the Denver Broncos. He had a Weighted On-Target Percentage of just 50.3 percent over the first half of the season.

For reference, Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow hit 64.85 percent, Lamar Jackson was on-target on 62.63 percent of his passes, and even Ben Roethlisberger hit on 59.01 percent of his looks. It should not be a shock to anyone who watched the Browns on a week-to-week basis that Mayfield played at a replaceable level until Week 7 rolled around.

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A glimpse of hope for Mayfield, even during those first six weeks of the season, was his ability to work on time and accurately in the short game. This will continue to be an emphasis in Stefanski’s wide zone offense. On these looks, Mayfield hit on 87.5 percent of his passes under ten yards.

However, the rest was not pretty for Mayfield early on in 2021. On deep balls over 30 yards in distance, Mayfield was on target on just one of eight attempts to start the season. Needless to say, Mayfield needs to be on-target on more than just 12 percent of his passes when attempting to stretch the field.

Outside the numbers, Mayfield struggled to hit the mark with any sort of consistency as well. On 49 chartable throws between 10 and 29 yards and outside the numbers, Mayfield was only on-target on 30 of them, leaving him hanging just above 61 percent to that level of the field. He faired about the same over the middle of the field as well, hitting the mark on 60 percent of his looks.

Then the switch flips as the Browns defeated the Bengals in Week 7.

In that game, Mayfield was on-target on over 66 percent of his strikes outside the numbers and went an incredibly efficient 15-of-15 in the short game. This level of efficiency was more of the same over the next three weeks as well, despite suboptimal weather when the Browns took on Las Vegas, Houston, and Philadelphia in that span.

Mayfield went on to play nearly perfect from weeks 12-15. In that span, Mayfield was on-target on nearly 93 percent of his looks in the short game, missing just twice over the middle of the field on 28 attempts as well. He was delivering precise strikes to every level of the field, nailing both of his looks over 30 yards over those four weeks, and additionally hitting on 80 percent of his throws outside the numbers.

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While his play took a slight dip in weeks 16 and 17 (one game playing with practice squad supports), Mayfield then marched the Browns into Pittsburgh as the city of Cleveland experienced their first playoff victory since the franchise’s return in 1999, defeating the Steelers 48-37.

In all, Mayfield increased his Weighted On-Target Percentage from 50.3 over his first eight games to a whopping 76.35 percent over his last eight. In comparison to the other AFC North quarterbacks, Mayfield edged out Jackson’s 76.28 percent, while far surpassing Roethlisberger’s 53.93 percent. Burrow did not qualify over the last eight games.

On the season, Mayfield finished with just a Weighted On-Target Percentage of just 60.48, but this does not tell the full narrative. It, instead, tells just how abysmal Mayfield’s play was at the start of the season, and just how astounding his development was as the season went on despite lacking the firepower to stretch the field after the injury to Odell Beckham Jr.

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This is where both Mayfield and the Browns can continue to evolve together in 2021. They must take more shots deep down the field this season in order to open up windows for their tight ends and running backs to make plays in space and over the middle of the field.

While Mayfield hit on 75 percent of his deep passes over the back half of the 2020 season, that number is incredibly misleading when he threw just four passes over 30 yards in-depth in that span of games. Again, after Beckham Jr. went down with his season-ending ACL injury in Week 7, it left the Browns with only a sixth-round rookie who struggled off the line of scrimmage, and an underutilized tight end as their only vertical options.

It is a great sign that Mayfield was able to strike when called upon to strike down the field, however, a larger volume will be a priority considering he threw only four passes beyond 30 yards over the back half of the season. All in all, 12 deep balls of over 30 yards is not going to cut it for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. 

Going back to the AFC divisional round defeat to the Chiefs, Kansas City had no worry about any threat over the top. This allowed for their secondary to press the line of scrimmage and clog the middle of the field. Teams will continue to key in on this lack of a vertical threat if there is not a larger volume of deep balls moving forward. 

It is even more staggering to see that number of 12 deep balls all season when comparing to the rest of the AFC North gunslingers. Even Burrow, known for having a subpar arm, threw 16 deep balls in just 10 games. Roethlisberger and his waning shoulder racked up 27, and even Jackson pushed the ball deep down the field 21 times a year ago.

This already potent Cleveland offense has the ability to reach new, dangerous heights this year with an added element of speed and verticality. With a presumably healthy Beckham Jr. back and cutting, and with the selection of Anthony Schwartz, who has Olympic level speed, the Browns now have some added juice back in their wide receiver room.

Added opportunities to the vastly improved David Njoku will allow or the seam to be attacked with more prevalence as well. Considering Njoku capitalized on limited opportunities a year ago, oftentimes looking like the best tight end on the roster, he seems poised to be rewarded in 2021.

Should the Browns actualize the vertical and horizontal speed newly added to their offense this season, and should Mayfield prove to be as pinpoint all year long as he was down the stretch in 2020, then the Browns may just finally see that superstar-level leap they expected when taking him first overall over three years ago. Given the situation both Mayfield and the team currently sit in with his contract situation, this would breathe a sigh of relief for both parties.

As the team begins to gather again for yet another season, this championship roster needs more of Week 6-15 Baker. It cannot afford for their presumed franchise quarterback to rear his ugly head with a similar start as he experienced a year ago. His strong finish a year ago, however, gives plenty to be optimistic about as he looks to lead the Browns back to the playoffs and beyond.

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