Why Baker Mayfield should have been the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year

There’s absolutely no question that Giants running back Saquon Barkley was a dynamic addition to his offense. The second overall pick out of Penn State was everything his team hoped he would be, leading the league with 2,028 yards from scrimmage in an offense that was mostly reductive outside of his efforts. Barkley established immediately that he was going to be one of the NFL’s most effective, consistent, and versatile backs for a good long time.

For that, he won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year on Saturday night. While it’s tough to argue that Barkley’s season doesn’t have a Rookie of the Year tinge to it—and that he’d be the justifiable winner in a lot of seasons—to ignore what quarterback Baker Mayfield did for the Browns in his rookie campaign seems odd in this case. Because when you look at the two players and their situations on their face, it’s fairly clear that the award should be Mayfield’s to take home.

Let’s start with the fact that quarterback is undeniably a tougher position when transitioning to the NFL, while running back is generally one of the easiest. You may have different calls and blocking schemes at the NFL level, but historically, running backs have had a fairly easy transitional path. Quarterbacks do not, for a number of reasons: They can find themselves in incompatible professional situations, their NFL schemes are too divorced from the ones they ran in college, the talent around them can sink them before they begin, and the increased complexities of NFL coverages can have them hesitating in the pocket and making horrible mistakes.

Mayfield was selected first overall in the 2018 draft out of Oklahoma by the Browns, who had head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley in place. Jackson and Haley didn’t start Mayfield to begin the season—they went with veteran Tyrod Taylor to start the season, and only inserted Mayfield after Taylor went 4-of-14 for 19 yards in Week 2 against the Jets. Mayfield came in and completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards.

The starting job was Mayfield’s from then on, but the issues weren’t over. Jackson and Haley had a major disconnect, and the offense Haley was putting on the field wasn’t helpful. Still, through Week 8, Mayfield managed to complete 130 of 223 passes for 1,471 yards, eight touchdowns, and six interceptions.

Then, after a 33-18 loss to the Steelers on October 28, both Jackson and Haley were fired. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was named interim head coach, and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens—a former Alabama quarterback who had never held the position at any level—was promoted to offensive coordinator.

And that’s when all hell broke loose in Cleveland.

Armed with Kitchens’ varied and highly effective passing concepts, Mayfield went on an absolute tear in the second half of the season. From Weeks 9-17, he completed 180 of 263 passes for 2,254 yards, 19 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. His 68.4 completion rate ranked ninth among all starting quarterbacks, his yards per attempts of 8.6 ranked second only to Patrick Mahomes’ 8.7, and only Mahomes, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger threw more touchdown passes than Mayfield’s 19.

At the end of the season, Mayfield had broken the rookie record for passing touchdowns with 27. It was a mark previously held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson, and Mayfield did all this with a functional offense for only half a season, and just 13 games in which he was the actual full-game starter. Moreover, if you count his Rose Bowl game against Georgia on January 1, Mayfield was working in his third different offense in a single calendar year. Most first-year quarterbacks working under the dysfunction brought about by Jackson and Haley early on would probably be too freaked out by it to benefit from Kitchens’ schematic improvements. But Mayfield was able to excel at the toughest position in the game under circumstances that would have wilted many veterans.

Not only that, but Mayfield’s excellence was a major factor in the Browns naming Kitchens as their head coach on January 9. They were 2-5-1 when Kitchens took over the offense. By the end of the season, they were 7-8-1, and got closer to a playoff berth than any Browns team in over a decade.

Yes, Saquon Barkley had an incredible rookie season. But Baker Mayfield had a first NFL season that can be called unprecedented in many ways, and that’s why he deserved the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in a landslide.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s