Baker Mayfield and the Conundrum of Comfort in Chaos

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In a quarterback class filled with enigmas, Oklahoma Sooner Baker Mayfield might be the biggest of them all. There are moments when the QB makes plays that are “drop the pen” moments, often coming as a product of pin-point accuracy on a vertical route or a throw on a crossing route placed well and with upper-tier velocity. But there are other moments that are pure head-scratchers, such as throws into coverage or questionable decisions in or outside the pocket. A thread throughout the curious plays seems to be this: Does Mayfield thrive on chaos? Is that his comfort zone and does he seek it?

Is chaos comfortable for him?

The summer after my second year in law school, I worked at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society in Richmond. I worked primarily under the head attorney there, who was carving out a practice representing low-income individuals who were facing foreclosures under subprime mortgages. (The year was 2001, little did we all know what the future had in store). It was a fascinating summer, filled with stories like this one. I came into work one morning and before I could sit down, my boss came barreling into my office. Well, it really wasn’t an office so much as it was the office’s library with a desk, actually, two, as I had to share the space with another law student. Thankfully, she was a great person to spend time with and now we’re married with two kids. But I digress…

So my boss comes charging over and lets me know he has an appeals brief due that day in the circuit court. Which usually is not that big of a deal, except, he had not started yet.

The rest of the day was a blur of research, frantic writing and editing, and even some crazed driving through Richmond traffic during rush hour (I swear he went the wrong way down a one-way street at one point) so I could run it into the clerk before they closed. But we got it filed.

The thing was, it wasn’t the only time something like this happened that summer. It happened on almost a weekly basis. To the point where I wondered if he simply felt he practiced/wrote/researched/lived better if he was under pressure, even if manufactured by himself or avoidable.

I get the same sense watching Baker Mayfield play quarterback.

This first play comes from Oklahoma’s game against Texas Tech. Early in the contest the Sooners face a 1st and 10 on their own 44-yard line, and line up with Mayfield (#6) in the shotgun using 20 personnel. They have three receivers to the left, with fullback Dimitri Flowers (#36) in a wing alignment. The Red Raiders have their 3-3-5 defense on the field, and they show a Cover 3 look with the cornerbacks playing off coverage:

mayfieldstill1The two receivers on the left run a hitch / slant combination on this RPO design:

mayfieldstill2After a quick run fake to Joe Mixon (#25), Mayfield opens to his left and has both routes open:

mayfieldstill3But he doesn’t pull the trigger. From that still, it’s hard to know why. The inside route – the slant – is a bit of a tough throw and the edge defender is in position to knock that down. But the hitch route is wide open, with the cornerback playing off. Instead, Mayfield tucks this ball and rolls to the left, hoping the situation will improve:

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It does not. He makes a late throw to the hitch route, who by this time has a defender on his back, and the pass falls incomplete. Instead of a 2nd and 5 or so, the offense now faces 2nd and 10. By not pulling the trigger here on an open route, he increases the complexity of the play, and the likelihood of a negative result. Now, given the design of the play it is possible that the slant route was the only read in his progression, but that’s a mere possibility and one we cannot know for sure. Looking at this play in its entirety, it seems he had the option to throw the hitch.

Sometimes when Mayfield makes decisions such as these, they pan out, which is why he is a very curious evaluation. On this play against Texas Tech, the Sooners face a 2nd and 7 on their own 28-yard line holding a six-point lead. With the football on the left hashmark, the offense uses 11 personnel in a 2X2 alignment. Defensively, the Red Raiders use a 4-2-5 nickel and they show Cover 3 before the play (the tape starts right at the snap):

mayfieldstill4Working off play-action, Mayfield fakes a handoff to Mixon and rolls to the right, toward Dede Westbrook (#11) who is running a deep curl route. Backside Nick Basquine (#83) and Jeffery Mead (#15) run deep in routes:

mayfieldstill5As Mayfield comes out of the fake and rolls to his right, he is staring at Westbrook, who is open with space and past the sticks:

mayfieldstill6The cornerback is hidden by the score in the upper left of the frame, but he is basically right behind the “16” to the left of Oklahoma’s name on the score box – right where the red box is. So Westbrook has the first down, with about five yards of cushion, should Mayfield throw him the football. But instead, Mayfield stops and looks to the other side of the field, throwing the in cut to Basquine:

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Even though the throw is made into a smaller throwing window, the pass is completed for a first down. There is a chance this is all by design from offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, using some misdirection in the passing game, but if not, Mayfield is passing up a sure thing to make a more difficult throw. He has his best receiver open for a first down in space, but he then forces a throw backside that is completed, but not without his receiver absorbing a big shot from the safety. It is a curious decision, that fits with the theme of Mayfield’s penchant for chaos.

Here’s another example of Mayfield increasing the level of difficulty when other options are available. On this 2nd and 8 play against Texas Tech, the Sooners use 20 personnel with Flowers in a wing to the right, with three receivers outside. They use a go / out combination to the right, with the backside receiver running a crossing route. Mayfield will roll to the right after a play-action fake on this play as well. Defensively, the Red Raiders show Cover 3, and the slot corner will blitz, right into the path of the QB’s rollout:

mayfieldstill7Here’s what Mayfield faces a few seconds after the snap:

mayfieldstill8Flowers is blocking the blitzing defender, but the corner has outside leverage on the fullback. Geno Lewis (#5) is running his out route, and is open with no defenders around him. The two inside linebackers are lurking past the line of scrimmage, but there is room for Mayfield to step up in the pocket a bit, where he can throw the backside route. Or he can pull the trigger now, and hit Lewis on the out.

Instead, he keeps rolling right, outside of the pocket. This allows the blitzing defender to disengage from Flowers, as the FB loses the leverage battle given the quarterback’s decision. Lewis sees this and starts upfield a bit before breaking back outside, doing a good job in the scramble drill. But by retreating in this manner, Mayfield gives up ground, puts himself in danger with the blitzer, and makes it a more difficult play.

Which, of course, he completes:

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It is hard to argue with the results. But in the evaluation business, the process matters. Rather than taking one of the two options available to him early in the play (stepping up and throwing the out or the backside route) he extends the play a bit with his feet and legs, paving a more difficult path for himself. It works in the Big 12, but again, the path he takes matters when trying to game out his potential NFL future. Maybe an NFL edge rusher gets home on that play. Maybe an NFL safety has better coverage on Lewis outside.

You do see in these plays the confidence Mayfield has in both his arm and his legs. Perhaps the issue with him is that he is at times more confident in his legs than anything else. Perhaps it isn’t so much that he seeks the comfort of chaos but rather he is just a believer in his ability to make plays with his legs, whether in terms of buying time for a route downfield, or picking up yardage himself.

But even that has its faults.

The Sooners face a 2nd and 5 against Baylor and use 20 personnel with Mayfield in the shotgun flanked by a pair of running backs. Oklahoma has slot formation to the right, and a single receiver split to the left. The Bears have their 4-2-5 defense in the game and they show Cover 4:

mayfieldstill9This play is designed for Mayfield to roll to the left, and as he does, he quickly looks downfield and does not like what he sees. With the protection on the right side starting to break down, he looks for an escape route:

mayfieldstill10He rolls back to the right, toward the slot receivers. As he does, he retreats deeper into the backfield. When he starts attacking the line of scrimmage again, he’s now 10 yards deep. But now he has an option, a receiver just short of the first down marker, with a few yards of cushion. With his momentum carrying him this way, this is an easy pitch-and-catch for some yardage, maybe even more if his receiver can make a play:

mayfieldstill11Mayfield keeps it:

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He barely gets back to the line of scrimmage, and the offense now faces a 3rd and 5.

None of these plays are fatal, but they pose questions evaluators must consider. Does the quarterback favor his legs too much? Does he seek chaos? Why are there these examples of him passing up easy options to make plays harder for himself, and put the play structure into a weaker position?

Why would an attorney with decades of experience constantly put himself into untenable situations with pressing deadlines?

There’s a mental component into player evaluation that those of us truly on the outside can never fully work out. Barring something unforeseen, I won’t get the chance to sit down with Mayfield and flesh these plays out. However, NFL teams have that chance. Living on the Edge was a mediocre song at best, it’s also a tricky way to play quarterback at the professional level, when the margin for error is razor thin. Mayfield is a very talented athlete who performs some of the tasks of the quarterback position at a high level. Maybe there is an answer, or answers,to these questions that will satisfy an NFL organization. But for me right now, I’m just not sure what they could be.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, Seth Russell’s processing speed, or how LSU runs play action.

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All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.

2 thoughts on “Baker Mayfield and the Conundrum of Comfort in Chaos

  1. Just discovered your site. Great work.
    Wonder if you’re seeing Mayfield take the simpler option more this year. I thought he did a better job of this versus Ohio State.

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