What’s going on with the Cleveland Browns? If you bought into the much-hyped Browns as I did, picking them to win the AFC North, you can’t be feeling good. Cleveland is 1-2, with a blowout loss, an uninspiring win and a frustrating prime-time defeat on its 2019 ledger.
The schedule offers no respite, with a road date in Baltimore on Sunday, followed by a game at the 49ers, a home date with the Seahawks, a bye week and then a showdown at New England. The combined record of those teams is 10-2. Things could get grim in a hurry.
Many people are responsible for Cleveland’s slow start, but one name rises above all others: Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield was the genesis of most fan and pundit optimism surrounding the team. But instead of making a major leap forward in his second season, Mayfield has clearly taken a step back through three games. His Pro Football Focus grade, 84.5 last season, is 72.1. His passer rating was 93.7 last season, about the league average. This season it's an abysmal 70.3.
The numbers tell a straightforward story of a quarterback not performing up to the standard he established in his rookie season (3,725 yards passing, 27 TDs). The eye test is much uglier. He's pressing. His mistakes have come late in games, the worst possible time.
Pro Football Focus gives him its highest-graded passer (86.0) in the first quarter of games this season. That number drops to 80.6 in the second quarter, 69.1 in the third and 40.0 in the fourth. That final number is fourth worst in the league. All five of his interceptions have come in the fourth quarter.
I talked to former Browns scout Matt Williamson for his perspective on Mayfield. He is highly critical of Cleveland’s offensive line, particularly at tackle. Williamson cited the off-season trade of guard Kevin Zeitler to the Giants as a major negative, but noted that Mayfield is “seeing ghosts, and not trusting his blocking or his reads and eyes.”
Mayfield is holding onto the ball on average a quarter-second longer (3.03 seconds) than he did last season (2.79 seconds), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The magic number for Mayfield is 2.5 seconds. When he gets rid of the ball in less than 2.5, his numbers are good. More than 2.5, and bad things start to happen. That was the trend through two weeks this season, and it continued in the Week 3 home loss to the Rams.
Williamson also told me defensive coordinators have consistently confused Mayfield with coverages and that he has struggled with his protection schemes. He's optimistic Mayfield will work through his problems deciphering defenses. But he also mentioned Mayfield's rookie season came with a caveat: Many defenses he faced as a starter weren't good.
Seven of Mayfield’s 13 starts in 2018 were against defenses that finished the season 24th or worse in points allowed. He faced the league’s three worst scoring defenses, including Cincinnati twice, plus the 24th- and 25th-ranked groups in back-to-back weeks. So far this season, he has played the league’s eighth-, 19th-, and seventh-ranked scoring defenses.
Freddie Kitchens has taken much of the blame for Mayfield’s struggles, saying he needs to put his quarterback in better situations, and must find ways to keep him from holding onto the ball too long. That latter goal might not always be possible, because Mayfield wants to get the ball downfield and make plays.
In the final eight games of the 2018 campaign, with Kitchens as play- caller, Mayfield was sacked five times — the lowest total in the league in that span — and took few quarterback hits. This season, he already has been sacked 11 times and hit more than a dozen more times.
According to Ken Carman, morning host at 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland, most Browns fans believe Kitchens is right to point the finger at himself. When I asked him whom Browns fans blamed for the team's slow start, he said, “98 percent Kitchens, 2 percent [offensive coordinator] Todd Monken.”
Asked what's wrong with Mayfield, Carman said, “He’s trying to do too much in the fourth quarter … he pays a lot of attention to what the media says, and one of those things is that they have no big wins. It causes him to press in the fourth quarter.”
Mayfield hasn’t been cowed by a less-than-stellar start. He responded to Rex Ryan calling him “overrated as hell” with a nifty zinger about Ryan’s lack of gainful NFL employment.
In evaluating the offense, Mayfield told reporters, “I think we’re very close. I think we’re very close to putting together the game that our offense needs to have. Like I keep saying, eliminating the mistakes. Everybody doing their job on every play. Stuff is going to happen during the game and you are going to have to adjust, but I think we’re very close.”
Close won't cut it, though. The Browns must be better than that. They must put it together before it's too late. And that burden falls squarely on Baker Mayfield.