This week’s Thursday Night Football game will almost certainly be remembered more for the brawl that ended it than for what actually happened during the course of play. That’s a shame because the game featured the first meeting between two second-year quarterbacks who have had very different NFL careers: Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph.
Mayfield, drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, shone as a rookie but has been criticized for poor performances so far in 2019. His opponent, Rudolph, was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of that same draft but didn’t see the field until Week 2 of this season.
So, in the battle of the two quarterbacks facing each other on the football field for the first time, how much did Mayfield outperform Rudolph?
Both conventional statistics and PFN’s own Offensive Share Metric (OSM) agree that, while Mayfield had a solid, if unspectacular, day, Rudolph underperformed dramatically. Let’s dive in to get a better look.
Comparing Mayfield and Rudolph’s statistics
Despite the rough start to his season, Mayfield played reasonably well on Thursday, throwing two touchdowns while avoiding turnovers against a resurgent Steelers defense. Meanwhile, Rudolph threw four interceptions before being nearly bludgeoned to death with his own helmet by Myles Garrett (that last part isn’t particularly relevant, but it is an excellent reminder of the fact that, no matter how bad things may seem, they can always get worse). From a purely statistical perspective, though, Mayfield was not particularly impressive. He only threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns. To his credit, he avoided making critical mistakes, which was crucial, but for the most part, did nothing spectacular. Instead, it was really Rudolph’s incredibly poor performance that set the two quarterbacks apart. The Steelers quarterback doubled his interception total for the season against the Browns and completed just over 50% of his passes.
The difference in Mayfield and Rudolph’s performances becomes even more apparent when you consider the defenses they were playing against. Mayfield produced his statistics against a Pittsburgh defense that has become a dominant force since trading for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick after Week 2. The Steelers defense has 14 interceptions, the second-highest total by any team this season. Mayfield, who had thrown 12 interceptions going into the game, more than any quarterback not named Jameis Winston, managed to avoid throwing any against Pittsburgh. On the other hand, Rudolph’s four interceptions came against a Browns defense that hadn’t intercepted a quarterback since Week 4. It almost seems as though the two quarterbacks statistics should be switched. Based purely on the defenses they faced, and the statistics they produced against them, it seems clear that Mayfield outplayed Rudolph completely.
Comparing Mayfield and Rudolph’s PFN OSM grades
Those who have read my work in the past will know that conventional metrics don’t always tell the full story. That’s where the PFN OSM comes in. The metric uses the NFL’s advanced analytics to determine how responsible a player was for their own production. Sometimes, a player will not have an unimpressive game statistically but still receives a very high OSM grade. This scenario will often arise when a player is given limited opportunities but performs better than expected.
In this particular case though, the OSM grades agree with the statistics. Mayfield’s grade of 21.58 wasn’t anything special. To put it in perspective, if you ranked his grade alongside the season averages of all other qualifying quarterbacks, Mayfield’s score would place him at 26th out of 38. Obviously, that isn’t very good, but it could certainly be much worse. Unfortunately for Rudolph, “much worse” describes his grade of 12.88 quite well. The only quarterback whose overall grade was lower than this on the season is Josh Rosen, who was benched in Week 6 for poor performance. What these grades imply is that, while Mayfield only had a moderate effect on his own offensive production, Rudolph contributed almost nothing.
Why Rudolph and Mayfield’s PFN OSM grades were so different
Even though Mayfield and Rudolph’s OSM grades align with their statistical performances fairly well, explaining why that might be is not as simple as you would expect. For example, one major factor involved in determining OSM grades is completion percentage. On Thursday night, both quarterbacks had low completion percentages. But while Mayfield’s 53.1% was higher than Rudolph’s 52.3%, it was not by enough to account for the difference in their OSM grades. However, the NFL also calculates something called a player’s “expected completion percentage” based on the statistical probability of a catch on each of that player’s pass attempts. Mayfield did not perform well on this metric, completing 3.9% fewer passes than expected, implying that he missed throws that he statistically should not have. But he did score significantly better than Rudolph, whose completion percentage was a rather atrocious 6.5% lower than it should have been. So even though Rudolph and Mayfield completed a similar percentage of their passes, Rudolph’s grade is lower because he underperformed more than Mayfield did.
A similar pattern arises when you examine another advanced metric: intended air yards (IAY). This statistic measures how far downfield the ball was thrown by the quarterback before it was either caught or fell incomplete. Rudolph and Mayfield both had relatively high IAY averages, with Rudolph at 9.6 yards, and Mayfield at 8.8 yards. However, when you examine only the IAY on completed passes (CAY), Mayfield once again outperformed his Steelers counterpart. As is usually the case, Mayfield’s CAY was lower than his IAY, at 7.9 yards. Rudolph’s CAY was lower as well, but by a much larger margin, only averaging 4.1 air yards per completion. The implication of this statistical discrepancy is that, while both quarterbacks threw the ball a similar average distance downfield, Mayfield’s success rate on those longer throws was much higher than Rudolph’s.
What this game means for the two quarterbacks
This game pitted two quarterbacks whose seasons are trending in very different directions against each other. For Mayfield, and the Browns offense overall, their two-game winning streak hopefully represents something of a return to the level of play they showed last season. For Rudolph, meanwhile, you have to hope that Thursday night was an anomaly. Pittsburgh gave away their first-round pick in the Fitzpatrick trade, sending a clear message to fans that they plan on making a playoff push this season. But with their two leading receivers and their starting center out next week, the Steelers could be in real danger of losing to the winless Cincinnati Bengals if Rudolph does not improve his level of play. Unfortunately, if his performance on Thursday was any indication, the worst might still be on the way.