Baker Mayfield and the Conundrum of Comfort in Chaos – Revisited

Life in the social media, Twitter-dominated age allows people to develop “brands.” As I have found over the past few months there are a few “brands” now associated with my name. First, of course, is the song “Africa” by Toto. While not the absolute pinnacle of music history, a fun little tune that has a devoted following of fans. Whether it is a video recorded for my pal R.J. Ochoa, a request to change my fandom, or any number of “Toto” related memes, for better or worse that song is now part of my online identity.

The same could be said for my fondness of “Scrubs,” and related GIFs.

Finally, there is another brand associated with my persona online, and it’s this: Development is not linear.

That stems in large part from this piece written last March, when I tried to dive into the yearly cycle of quarterback study and evaluation. Every draft it seems that evaluators slowly give up on the current quarterback class and turn their eyes toward the future. Then we slowly look back over time and wonder if we were underselling that group a bit, and perhaps overselling the future class. Rinse and repeat.

Despite that belief, you still want quarterbacks to show growth and development over time. It does not have to come in the form of leaps and bounds from game to game or year to year, but you want to see an upward trend in his ability to play the position, and his refinement of the traits that are critical to playing the position.

Which brings us to Baker Mayfield.

Back in December of 2016 I took some time to study Baker Mayfield. This was well before he was even rumored to enter the draft, and in fact he would return to school for his final season, during which he led the Oklahoma Sooners to another playoff berth and won the Heisman Trophy. But in that piece I worked through one of my hang-ups with Baker: Those times when he seems to almost invite pressure and chaos in the pocket, rather than making a quick decision, taking an easy throw, or anticipating a route breaking open.

This summer when studying him some more, that was perhaps my biggest question on him. Could he move past this, or is it going to remain a function of who he is as a quarterback, and something his NFL coaches will need to either develop away, or live with? My exact note was this: “…don’t always seek chaos, you get enough of it in the pocket just playing the position.”

Mayfield was stellar in Oklahoma’s road victory over Ohio State early in the season. The senior QB completed 27 of 35 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns. But let’s look at this 1st and 10 play from early in the second quarter. The Sooners line up with Mayfield (#6) in the shotgun and 11 offensive personnel on the field, putting H-Back Demitri Flowers (#36) in a wing to the left with two receivers outside of him. The Buckeyes counter with a base 3-4 look and both outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage, and a Cover 1 look in the secondary:

Oklahoma runs an outside zone RPO on this play:

 

Mayfield takes the snap, meets running back Trey Sermon (#4) at the mesh point, and seeing the linebackers crash on the run look, he makes the right decision to pull the ball and look to throw the football. His first option is the out route along the sideline to Jeffrey Mead (#15), but that is covered well. So Mayfield looks to his second read, Flowers on a quick sit route, and sees this:

 

He doesn’t pull the trigger and instead tries to buy more time with his feet in the pocket, and is eventually sacked:

 

Now in that original piece I wrote this: 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. Maybe I’ll get that chance at the Senior Bowl. So there could be something to this play that I’m not seeing. Maybe it’s the progression of the play. Maybe Mayfield saw slot receiver Grant Calcaterra (#80) come into the throwing late and thought pulling the ball down made more sense. But to me, again, it seems like Baker’s seeking chaos by passing up a quick and easy throw.

Mayfield put up video game numbers against in-state rival Oklahoma State, completing 24 of 36 passes for a whopping 598 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions. For more on the two turnovers, you can check out this First Sound video breaking down all of Mayfield’s interceptions from the regular season.

On this play, the Sooners face a 2nd and 10 on the Cowboys’ 22-yard line. The score is knotted at 38 early in the third quarter. Oklahoma lines up with Mayfield in the pistol and 11 offensive personnel on the field. Oklahoma State has their secondary in a Cover 3 look presnap:

 

The Sooners show run, but Mayfield pulls out of the mesh and has these routes to choose from:

 

On the right side of the formation Oklahoma runs a Scissors concept, with the tight end running the corner route and the Z-receiver running a post. To the wide side of the field the Sooners run a Dig/Out combination, something the New England Patriots refer to as Razor. As you can see Oklahoma State drops into a three-deep coverage.

Early in the play, Mayfield opens to the Scissors concept, but feels pressure off the right edge, and uses his feet to extend the play by rolling to the left. Now, you can say that he bailed the pocket a bit early, but I think this is fine. There is interior pressure as well, and nowhere he can really step up into:

 

Now is where things get tricky for the quarterback. Mayfield keeps his eyes trained on the deep post route, trying to hit that downfield. As he does that, he continues inviting pressure as he waits for it to come open, missing the dig route with a decent throwing lane:

 

Eventually, Mayfield runs out of time and is sacked for a loss of nine yards.

Here’s the end zone look at this. As Mayfield bails to the left, which again I believe is the right decision, he misses a chance to hit the dig route which comes open. But sticking on that post route, he invites chaos, and eventually the chaos wins:

 

Here is one final example, from Oklahoma’s season-opening victory over UTEP. Mayfield was an eye-popping 19 of 20 for 329 yards and three touchdowns in Oklahoma’s 56-7 victory.

But on this fourth down play, again we see the dance with chaos.

The Sooners have a 14-7 lead in the first quarter and face a 4th and 3 on the Miners’ 32-yard line. Oklahoma empties the backfield and use three receivers to the right and a slot alignment to the left. UTEP shows Cover 1 in the secondary with the free safety deep, and off the screen:

 

Oklahoma implements a dual passing concept here, running a Flat-7 Smash to the slot side of the field and using a Pivot/Hoss combination on the trips side:

 

Mayfield takes the snap and immediately opens to the Smash look, which makes complete sense. Man coverage look, short side of the field, see if you can take an easy throw. But he will need to be quick with this decision and then if everything is covered, work back to the wide side of the field. Mayfield does that, because he sees this:

 

But then, he breaks down a bit. Tight end Mark Andrews (#81) is wide open on his pivot route early in the play (which Mayfield misses while reading the Smash, and perhaps there is a criticism that Mayfield hangs on the Smash Concept too long, but I won’t make it right now). But once Mayfield works to the three-man concept he again has a window to hit the tight end:

Instead, Mayfield tucks the ball and tries to extend the play, even looking back to the Smash Concept (as he scrambles away from it) before getting sacked and forcing the turnover on downs:

 

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?

Again, that’s from December 2016. Have these questions been answered? In a sense I think they have. This is who Mayfield is as a quarterback. There are times where he will invite chaos, will seek it out. It is where he can sometimes thrive. He was forged by it. As we saw this year with Russell Wilson (Note to Rotoworld, I am not making the direct Wilson to Mayfield comp here, although it does make a bit of sense) there are times when this can work in the NFL. But his future coaches will need to accept this from him. This is who he is. It can work, but there will need to be structures in place to make sure it is effective.

And there will be mistakes.

But there always are from quarterbacks. Especially younger quarterbacks. The key for Mayfield’s development is whether his future coaches can accept that these kinds of plays will happen. Mayfield does well enough from the pocket with his reads and decisions that there is an NFL future in front of him, but the issue will be how that unfolds in concert with his future coaching staff.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield

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