Baker Mayfield’s season thus far has been marked by two drastically different performances. During the opening week, his Cleveland Browns were thoroughly trounced by the Baltimore Ravens, a game in which he struggled mightily. Then, in Week 2, Mayfield led the team to a relatively smooth victory against the Cincinnati Bengals. There were many factors involved in Cleveland’s improvements between the first two weeks of the 2020 NFL season, not the least of which being that Cincinnati is a significantly worse team than Baltimore. However, Mayfield’s personal turnaround undoubtedly had a major impact. So, let’s look at his statistics from the two games, and see if we can determine why Mayfield looked so much better in Week 2.
Examining what went wrong for Mayfield against Baltimore
When Cleveland played the Ravens in Week 1, Mayfield failed to get anything going against the reigning AFC North champions, throwing for a paltry 189 yards along with one touchdown and one interception. His failures, combined with struggles from the rest of the team, resulted in a 32-point blowout; hardly the way a team looking to make the playoffs wants to start their campaign. On the whole, the Browns seemed utterly outclassed in the face of one of the NFL’s best teams.
While the loss was in many ways a team effort, it is not unreasonable to lay a great deal of the blame on Mayfield’s shoulders. PFN’s Offensive Value Metric (OVM), which measures how valuable a player was to their offense, gave Mayfield a grade of just 18.98, significantly lower than what you would expect from an elite quarterback.
Looking at his advanced metrics, it rapidly becomes clear why Mayfield’s performance provided so little to his offense. To his credit, the Ravens defense did their best to make things difficult for him, forcing him to throw the ball into tight windows a relatively high 17.9% of the time. Unfortunately, Mayfield did not rise to the challenge, only completing 53.8% of his pass attempts.
You likely don’t need me to tell you that a quarterback completing such a low percentage of their passes does little to help their team. That said, one could argue that the quality of Baltimore’s defense caused those difficulties. And while that is true to a certain extent, Mayfield shouldn’t be let off the hook so easily. The NFL calculates the probability that each pass a quarterback throws and uses that data to determine the completion percentage that the quarterback should have had. In Mayfield’s case, his expected completion percentage was 61.4%, 7.6% higher than what he actually achieved. So, while Baltimore understandably made things quite tricky for Mayfield, he underperformed significantly even given those caveats.
What changed for Mayfield in Week 2?
Against the Bengals, Mayfield completely flipped the script from Week 1. On a surface level, his traditional statistics don’t seem much more impressive than those from the week prior. He totaled for 219 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception, a performance that was outshone by Joe Burrow, who threw for a remarkable 316 yards and three touchdowns (although it took him 61 pass attempts to do it).
However, anyone who watched the game closely will tell you that, aside from that poor interception, Mayfield did exactly what was necessary for the Browns to emerge victorious on Thursday night, putting together an extremely efficient performance. His OVM grade reflected that improvement, almost doubling to 33.77.
So, what changed? Well, the primary difference lay in Mayfield’s completion percentage. At 69.6%, it still wasn’t exceptionally high, although it was certainly better than his previous effort. However, as we have already discussed, you can’t determine a player’s value to their offense based solely on their completion percentage. After all, any half-decent quarterback can complete a screen pass, or find an open receiver from a clean pocket. What the truly elite players do is make plays in low-percentage situations.
Mayfield couldn’t do that against Baltimore, but Week 2 was a different story entirely. His completion percentage was a staggering 13.1% higher than it should have been. That is an enormous difference in efficiency, one that can have a considerable impact on how a game plays out. Completing more passes is already beneficial in a vacuum, but it also has the side benefit of forcing defenses not to overcommit against the run. This is a similar strategy to the one employed by the Tennessee Titans, combining a tough, downhill running game with efficient passing from Ryan Tannehill. That system took the Titans all the way to the AFC Championship game last season, so it certainly isn’t a bad one to try and emulate.
If Mayfield continues to play like he did in Week 2, the Browns will be a force to be reckoned with
Mayfield wasn’t the only reason for Cleveland’s victory over the Bengals. Their running game obliterated Cincinnati’s defense, with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt rushing for a combined 210 yards and three touchdowns. That level of domination will often result in victory. However, if the Browns want to be a playoff threat this season, they need Mayfield to play at a level that complements their success on the ground. And on Thursday night, that is precisely what he did. It is true that Cincinnati hardly represents elite competition. They might be the worst team in the NFL for a second year running. But that doesn’t change the fact that Mayfield played incredibly well against them, and if he can continue to do so against more formidable opposition, Cleveland’s offense could be one of the most dangerous in the NFL.
Lucas Ellinas is a writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Ellinas.