In 2019, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield had the wrong coaching staff. In 2020, he had the right one.
Mayfield consistently improved throughout the 2020 season, fulfilling his potential as a franchise quarterback while flourishing under first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski. Mayfield seems to be ready to build on last year’s progress.
“He was impressive,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt told reporters this week regarding Mayfield’s performance in minicamp. “There are a lot of areas and a lot of pass concepts that we wanted work on in this minicamp that maybe he did not completely own last year and wanted improvement in these plays. He has shown that. A lot of that is just working through progression and knowing where to go next if one and two are covered, and he got that accomplished in this camp. We are very happy with where he is right now.”
Van Pelt also was asked whether Mayfield has a noticeable confidence level.
“Definitely,” Van Pelt said. “In the last seven or eight games last year, he really played really well. I think he now feels that. He understands what that looks like and how he has to operate within the system to be successful. Now that he realizes that, you see it more in practice.”
Operating the system is the key. Working through the progression is the key. And that’s why concerns linger regarding the return of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham’s talent is undeniable. His potential impact on the offense, given his ability to draw double coverage, to catch any pass that comes remotely close to his body, and to take a short pass and explode for a long gain, is significant.
The concern comes from this simple fact: Beckham has a history of clamoring for the ball. He genuinely believes that the more he gets the ball, the more likely it is that the Browns will win. In the past (specifically, in 2019), the obsession with getting the ball to OBJ became an obvious distraction from Mayfield’s ability to focus simply on throwing the ball to the open man. The Browns developed an urgency to get the ball to Beckham, defenses knew it, and defenses exploited it. By successfully keeping the ball away from Beckham early in a game, the entire Cleveland offense could easily be short-circuited.
It was too much pressure on Mayfield. It’s the kind of pressure that causes a quarterback to wait a little too long to move to the next receiver in the progression. It’s the kind of pressure that causes a quarterback to throw into coverage when he shouldn’t. It’s the kind of pressure that becomes a distraction.
That’s why the narrative developed last season that the Browns possibly could be better without Beckham. Removing Beckham from the equation removed the pressure of getting the ball to Beckham. Now that he’s back, the question becomes whether he’ll adapt to an offense that got to the final eight without him, taking whatever comes his way and never politicking for any more targets than he naturally gets as a result of Mayfield running the offense and deciding whether Beckham is open, throwing it to him if he is, moving on to the next receiver if he isn’t.
That’s the key here. Mayfield runs the offense. Beckham and the rest of the receivers and running backs need to realize that, and to fully submit to it. That means no one talks about wanting the ball more than they’re getting it. That also means that, if anyone does it, Mayfield tells them to stop it.
Mayfield’s performance last season gives him that power. If Beckham can get back to being the player he once was and if the question of whether he’s getting the ball enough never emerges from within the locker room, the Browns could indeed be ready to contend for a berth in the Super Bowl.