The Cardinals clubbed the Browns 37-14 on the road on Sunday to move to 6-0 on the season. They now have the league’s last remaining undefeated record. For Cleveland, it was the same old nagging question: Is Baker Mayfield really good enough?
This is not a league solely decided by quarterbacks. But it was hard watching the Cardinals romp up and down the field and not feel the urge to to draw comparisons between Kyler Murray and Mayfield. Two former No 1 overall draft picks. Two Heisman Trophy winners. Both stars at the University of Oklahoma.
Yet only one has been a difference-making star as a professional. Only one is able to elevate his team when the pieces around him started to fail. The problem: No one informed Mayfield. Through the first five weeks, he had four turnovers. On Sunday, he had three. Mayfield tried to go blow-for-blow with Murray, to create outside of Cleveland’s carefully crafted ecosystem … and that didn’t end well.
It was the second straight week in which Mayfield went head-to-head with a team marshaled by one of the sport’s top young quarterbacks. And in both weeks, Mayfield was comfortably outplayed.
As with any loss, the blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the quarterback. Mayfield entered the game nursing a left shoulder injury, one that he reportedly reinjured during the fourth quarter. His offensive line was missing two starters and under fire; the defense couldn’t keep up with all the Cardinals’ fun-and-games on offense; Nick Chubb, the team’s star running back, missed the game with a calf injury; Kareem Hunt, the team’s other star running back, picked up a calf injury in the third quarter.
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Still: it’s in such moments that a team looks to their quarterback. Not to drag them to a victory, necessarily. But to widen the team’s margin of error. Because that’s the thing with Murray and Justin Herbert and the league’s other best quarterbacks, their ability to generate offense all by themselves can cover up for any manner of issues.
Mayfield is different. It’s only when everything is rolling that he is at his best. He slots into what the Browns ask him to do. He plays efficiently, rarely makes mistakes, and only pushes the ball downfield consistently in needs-must situations. Cleveland’s plan of action is a fairly rudimentary one, on the surface, and it rarely shifts week to week. They run the ball, throw off play-action, (ideally) take the lead, and then unleash the finest pass-rushing tandem in the league on defense. As long as Mayfield plays clean, they should win.
It’s simple. And when it works, it’s mighty effective. But when the game gets away from Kevin Stefanski’s side, when they’re unable to rely on play-action and must instead become a pass-first, pass-always offense, things get sticky.
The Browns’ run-game has been so dominant this season that it’s served as a cheat-code for Mayfield. That has allowed the Browns to hide Mayfield, to an extent. He has orchestrated things well, taking on the thankless role of game-manager. But it’s one that suits him. So far this season, including week six, Mayfield is 16th in expected points added (EPA) per dropback, a measure of the quarterback’s total value per dropback. And that just feels right, doesn’t it? He’s often not the problem; but nor is he the solution.
Mayfield doesn’t dig the Browns into a hole on a regular basis. But when he does, or rubble starts to fall around them, he’s rarely the guy to carry them out. And while that served the team fine through September, October showed that it’s an issue if the team is to make the playoffs in a tough AFC North and then compete deep into the postseason.
It’s telling that the Browns have yet to tie Mayfield to a long-term extension that would pay him $30m-plus a year. As quarterbacks continue to gobble up an increasing percentage of a team’s salary cap – Patrick Mahomes (24%); Josh Allen (22%) – a team must be sure when it hands out a mega-extension to a quarterback following their rookie deal. Carving out such a high percentage means that a roster will inevitably have holes. The hope is that the franchise quarterback will be good enough to cover up some of those holes all by himself. The Bills couldn’t wait to hand a record-breaking amount of money to Allen to tie him down, knowing he could help erase any roster crunch that will inevitably come with his larger salary.
The Browns aren’t quite as confident. Allen and Lamar Jackson, the two quarterbacks selected behind Mayfield in the 2018 draft have developed into MVP-caliber quarterbacks – Jackson winning in 2019, Allen making his push this season. Both sit at the head of a pair of potential AFC champions.
The Browns should be in a similar spot. They have a savvy coach, and the finest top to bottom roster in the league: The best backfield in the game, the top offensive line, weapons at receiver and tight end, the best pass-rushing duo, the game’s premier young linebacker, as gifted a cornerback group as anywhere. And yet they may have only the third-best quarterback in their own division.
After four years and six weeks, there’s growing evidence that Mayfield is good – very good, even. He is already the best quarterback to play for the franchise since they returned to the league in 1999. But he may not be good enough.
MVP of the week
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals. Chase may already the best deep threat in the NFL. He entered the week leading the league in catches of 20-plus air yards, with five. Against the Lions, he added his sixth and seventh such reception. His first deep grab set up a field goal to give the Bengals a 10-0 lead heading to the break. Chase later torched Lions’ cornerback Jerry Jacobs for a 53-yard pickup. Not content with that, Chase also delivered the block of the day to seal a Joe Mixon rushing touchdown.
Chase, the Bengals’ first-round draft pick, has brought some oomph to a Bengals passing attack that would otherwise remain pedestrian. His chemistry with Joe Burrow, dating back to their college days, has allowed him to hit the ground running. He may never be the most complete receiver in the league, but he’s already one of the most electrifying.
Video of the week
Kansas City defensive lineman Tershawn Wharton came up with one of the interceptions of the year in the Chiefs’ 31-13 win over Washington. Wharton jumped up to bat down Taylor Heinicke’s pass at the line of scrimmage, clamped it on the head of the opposing offensive lineman, and was able to snag it before it hit the ground.
There are a whole bunch of questions still swirling around the Chiefs despite their win in Washington. The main one: Can the defense play at an average-to-bad level rather than the apocalyptically awful level they showed through the first five-and-a-half weeks?
The Chiefs’ defense isn’t designed to be great or even good. It’s built to create turnovers. No matter how poor they look, the team figure if they can steal two extra possessions a game, they should win because of their juggernaut offense. The group finally delivered during the second half in Washington, pitching a shutout and picking up two turnovers.
Quote of the week
“I still own you!” – Aaron Rodgers to Chicago Bears fans.
The Aaron Rodgers Versus The World tour rolled up to Chicago this week. After icing the game with a six-yard touchdown scramble, Rodgers turned his attention to the Bears fans. “All my fucking life,” Rodgers roared, after first hitting the crowd with his signature championship belt move. “I own you. I still own you.”
Rodgers had to work for everything against a fearsome Bears defensive front. Chicago’s defensive line beat up on the Packers’ rejigged o-line, forcing Rodgers to play a precise, rhythm-based game, getting the ball out of his hand as quickly as possible. It worked. Rodgers completed all 15 of his passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards, resulting in 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Stat of the week
One. Raiders’ interim head coach Rich Bisaccia has worked as a coach since he was the Wayne State defensive backs and special teams coach in 1983. Sunday marked the first time in Bisaccia’s 38 seasons, including 20 in the NFL, that he had ever worked as a head coach. His team beat the Broncos 34-24
Bisaccia was promoted in the wake of the Jon Gruden scandal. And after Gruden’s team delivered an – understandably – lackluster performance in his final game as head coach last week, the Raiders played with their hair on fire for Bisaccia. The Raiders are now 4-2 and tied with the Chargers for the lead in the AFC West. There may be more off-the-field fallout from the Gruden scandal. But on the field, the Raiders still have plenty to play for.
Elsewhere around the league
— Jacksonville picked up their first win since the opening weekend of last season with a 23-20 win over Miami in London.
— The Geno Smith era in Seattle began with an overtime loss to the Steelers. TJ Watt showed why he is one of the the finest defensive players in the league with a strip sack of Smith to set up the winning field goal. The Seahawks’ Darrell Taylor was taken to hospital after a scary injury but the team later said he has movement in all his extremities. Let’s hope he makes a full recovery.
— A wild ending in New England saw the Cowboys beat the Patriots 35-29. picked off Mac Jones late in the fourth quarter to give the Cowboys a 27-21 lead, marking Diggs’ sixth consecutive week with an interception. On the next play, Jones hit Kendrick Bourne on a 75-yard touchdown to give the Patriots the lead. The Cowboys rallied to kick a final-minute field goal before clinching the game in overtime.
— The Ravens improved to 5-1, mauling the Chargers 34-6. Through five weeks, the Ravens profiled as a good team carried by an MVP-caliber quarterback. The run-game was iffy (yet exciting), the defense average. Both clicked on Sunday. Baltimore used six different rushers, combining for 187 yards and three touchdowns on 38 attempts. The defense held Justin Herbert and the Chargers go-go offense to 221 total yards, a chunk of which came in garbage time.
— After six weeks of football, it’s starting to make sense why Giants owner John Mara was so vociferous in his support for the league’s no-fun emphasis. Mara led the efforts to re-up the NFL’s taunting rules. On Sunday, his team was hammered 38-11 (Scorigami!) by the Rams. The Giants are now 1-5. With a mounting injury list, things could get even uglier in New Jersey before they get better.
— The Panthers went down to the Vikings 34-28 in overtime, with Sam Darnold completing just 17 of his 41 pass attempts. After his excellent start to the season, Darnold has reverted to type. Over the past three weeks, Darnold has been hit 26 times and sacked 13 times – some are on his offensive line, a whole bunch has been a result of his indecision in the pocket. The same inconsistent, jittery play that plagued his time with the Jets has returned. Over the course of those three weeks, the Panthers have turned the ball over eight times. It’s clear that Carolina has a playoff-caliber defense, but Darnold and the offense have turned into the kind of sinkhole that no defense can consistently overcome.