Browns, WWW

The AFC North belongs to Baker and Lamar now: While We’re Waiting

Quarterbacks having doubt shoveled upon their resumes is not a unique nor new facet of the American football sporting culture. However, few recent signal-callers have had their bonafides questioned by the mainstream media to the degree of the Baltimore Ravens Lamar Jackson or the Cleveland Browns Baker Mayfield despite the results on the field being a direct contradiction to those doubts.

Mayfield’s brashness and hyper-competitive nature have won him some critics. After midfield flag plants, gestures to opposing benches, and unfiltered responses during his time at Oklahoma, the NFL persona should be no surprise. Refusing to embrace Hue Jackson, calling out his immediate latching on with a division rival, and staring down Jackson have led some to believe his confidence has bled over to arrogance. The media push back has been despite Mayfield leading the Browns to seven wins against seven losses a year after zero wins were recorded on the ledger.1

Jackson’s athleticism is the source of most negative comments issued in his direction. Some in the media believed he could only be a non-quarterback in the NFL and have allowed confirmation bias to further cement their mindset. At the NFL Combine, a team had asked him if he was willing to work some wide receiver routes, which was widely reported as how NFL teams viewed him. The correction that it was the Los Angeles Chargers who were so infatuated with Jackson’s abilities they wanted to see if he was willing to spend time at receiver as their roster had the presence of a future Hall of Fame quarterback was less widely circulated. Jackson saving John Harbaugh’s job and the Ravens season as he won six of seven games after replacing Joe Flacco has merely shifted the debate to if his excellence is sustainable after he set the NFL records for rushing attempts in a season by a quarterback.

Rather than focus on the components of common narrative though, the Week 17 match up between Jackson’s Ravens and Mayfield’s Browns had most of the positive and negative on field traits from each quarterback encapsulated within the game.

Lamar Jackson

There’s a reason every Raven running back that touched the ball had lanes to run as the defense had to account for the possibility that Jackson had kept the ball in the opposite direction. Kenneth Dixon (12 attempts, 117 yards), Gus Edwards (12 attempts, 76 yards), and Ty Montgomery (2 attempts, 13 yards) added their efforts to make an indomitable rushing attack. The 90 yards and two touchdowns2 Jackson added himself were helped bolster his own stat-line, which was efficient but relatively meager in the passing game. Ball security is his big area for improvement as despite few interceptions, the ball has hit the turf with far too much regularity.

On non-designed runs, Jackson keeps his eyes downfield where he was able to spot easy completions or keep the defenders feet in cement to open up running lanes for himself. Shaky footwork often led him to not trust the mid-range outside routes, which helps explain nine of his targets going to tight ends with another four to running backs. The middle of the field was peppered with passes, but Jackson will need to expand the route tree efficiency if he is going to develop into a quarterback defenses cannot scheme. It is this adjustment to his passing game, not his running that will determine his sustainability in the NFL.3

Baker Mayfield

The games waning moments saw Mayfield under-throw Jarvis Landry and just miss David Njoku with passes that would have allowed Greg Joseph to attempt penance for his earlier field goal miss. Each could have been caught though Mayfield owns the majority of the blame for the football finding the turf. The Ravens sent all-out blitzes on the final four plays of the game. The normally calm Mayfield amid the mayhem looked rushed as the rookie learned a valuable NFL lesson against a formidable defense. Mayfield also found three Raven defenders with passes during the game due to his willingness to throw the ball into tight coverage.

The negatives nearly did not outweigh the positives as Mayfield fell a single completion short from winning the game. In fact, if either a field goal earlier was made or a Jabrill Peppers fumble return touchdown was not nullified by an early whistle, then the 376 yards Mayfield put up in the passing game would have been plenty. The Ravens only allowed 300 yard passing days in three games during the entire season with Mayfield recording two of them4 with Week 17 being the only non-overtime game.

Mayfield is the modern age pocket passer5 in that he is always looking to finish a passing play with the ball in his receivers hands rather than running himself. What he will use his legs to do though is to buy time and open up passing lanes. His passing prowess was on display as Mayfield’s understanding of the complexity of the Raven defense led to him to complete passes to eight different players; with three receivers catching touchdowns.

Mayfield still has to continue to develop. However, his rookie season can be compared to that of Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, and Aaron Rodgers (first year starting), which speaks to his ceiling as a quarterback.

Future of the AFC North

The narrative from the first encounter of these two rookie quarterbacks is of Jackson surviving a tough game to push the Ravens into the playoffs with Mayfield falling just short. The real story though should be of Baker Mayfield finding his true adversary. The Hue Jackson beef was not meant to last, but a pure competition with a worthy Lamar Jackson on the other sideline certainly can.

Postgame hugs have been a currency of respect with Mayfield. In the aftermath of the Raven loss, Mayfield sought out Lamar Jackson, embraced him, and pulled him in close to say something in his ear. Jackson returned volley, and the two broke apart to head their separate directions. Jackson to the playoffs6 as he looks to disprove those who doubt he is a sustainable NFL quarterback. Mayfield to the offseason to work to ensure that Week 17 is not the final week of the season for any of his Browns’ teams again.

The Cincinnati Bengals still have Andy Dalton at quarterback with a faltering defense, and the Pittsburgh Steeler stars make more headlines off the field than on these days. The AFC North division is there for these two young quarterbacks, and the 2018 season demonstrated it will be a fight between them.

  1. Official NFL statistics only give Mayfield credit for six of the wins, but if you believe Tyrod Taylor was more responsible for the victory against the New York Jets in Week 3 when he left down 14-0, then well… []
  2. The two touchdowns could have easily been four as he was an inch short on his goal line fumble and had another one called back on a holding penalty. []
  3. Lamar Jackson continues to have the healthiest injury history of any current NFL starter going back through high school. In the game against the Browns, he took two significant hits, which is not unlike most quarterbacks in a game. And, although he runs a tad less, Russell Wilson was the only quarterback to not miss a snap in 2018 and he hasn’t missed a snap in his seven-year career. Mobile doesn’t equate to injured anymore than pocket passers. []
  4. Kansas City Chiefs Patrick Mahomes had the other []
  5. Notice how few young quarterbacks actually stay in the pocket. The best have learned to move as needed. []
  6. The youngest starting quarterback for a playoff game in NFL history. Also of note, the three young quarterbacks (( Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson) starting their first playoff game each lost this weekend. []