Who is Responsible for the Baker/Beckham Boondoggle?

Back in September, I wrote: “the way to fix Baker is to ditch Odell.” And now, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info, we have the statistical evidence to verify my prophetic statement. From this ESPN story:

“Mayfield’s completion percentage targeting other receivers this season is 78.6%…Mayfield’s completion rate to Beckham, meanwhile, was just 59.9%.”

…and…

“Over the last two seasons, Mayfield and Beckham have the worst completion success rate (55.6%) of any duo in the NFL (with at least 100 attempts).”

And, of course, the very moment Beckham was knocked out of the game against Cincinnati, Baker started balling out of control, completing a franchise record 22 passes in a row and five touchdowns. At the time, people mocked Baker’s achievement by saying it was against the lowly Bengals. But the very next week those same Bengals beat the playoff-caliber Tennessee Titans 31-20. So, maybe Baker’s achievement can’t be discounted after all, right?

After the Bengals, Baker threw very well against the Raiders, but was plagued by dropped balls. But, make no mistake; Baker is back, baby!

What I want to know now is how this debacle was allowed to continue for so long. You could blame Baker for not running the plays as-designed, and caving-in to OBJ’s demands for the ball. You could also blame the quarterback coaches for not putting a stop to something that was blatantly not working. Personally, I blame Odell Beckham, Jr. and his celebrity “reality distortion field” for blinding Baker and the coaching staff.

Ultimatelly though, the coaching staff is responsible. Freddie Kitchens’ pal, Ryan Lindley, was the QB coach for last season, and didn’t have much coaching experience, though he did play the position in the NFL. Coach Stefanski replaced Lindley with the much-more-qualified Alex Van Pelt. But Van Pelt, either didn’t try, or was not able to reign in the Baker/Beckham Axis of Evil Football-Playing.

So! Let the record show that the coaching staff didn’t have a fucking thing to do with Baker’s revival. Baker doesn’t get credit either. It’s pretty amazing that he couldn’t figure out the problem. I mean, he was a stellar QB all his life, and then he hits this brick wall and didn’t even notice! How does that even happen?

Nobody gets credit! Baker’s revival was just plain, dumb, and I mean very dumb, luck!

It will be virtually impossible for the Browns to not play better over the rest of the season. But the big question is, will these idiots bring Odell back next season and let him ruin Baker again? Is that level of buffoonery even possible? Yes; yes it is. So, Browns fans, enjoy the old Baker while you have him, because 2021 just might be another year in Odell Hell.

Also, let the record show that Browns’ analytics “whiz” Paul DePodesta didn’t figure out what was wrong with Baker. How could he have missed the fact that Baker is half the player he normally is when throwing to Odell? I mean, the stats cited in the ESPN article (linked above) are mind-boggling, and DePodesta couldn’t see that gigantic statistical anomaly? What the fuck? When you combine this debacle with his persecution of Rashard Higgins and David Njoku, it’s obvious the DePodesta needs to be ousted. Without his idiotic calls, and the OBJ trade, the Browns would probably be a Super Bowl contender now.

No, No, No! Odell Beckham Jr. is NOT a Big YAC Guy

Since OBJ’s injury, a lot of Browns commentators have been saying something along these lines: now that the Browns no longer have a big yards-after-catch (YAC) guy to strike fear in the hearts of opponents, defensive-coordinators can focus on thwarting the Browns’ rushing attack. But if we look at the stats, we see that OBJ was nearly the worst pass-catcher in the league when ranked by YAC. You have to scroll all the way to the bottom of this chart to find him:

That’s right; OBJ ran for an average 2 yards after catching the ball. People probably have in mind OBJ’s 50-yard touchdown run against Dallas, but that was a rushing attempt, not a pass-reception. And that was a fluke. First, OBJ did his “running backwards” thing and was almost tackled for a big loss. Now, you might think that I’m being uncharitable by saying that, but the fact is that OBJ has never had a big running play like that. His previous best was a 13-yard run back in 2014. How many times could he have taken an end-around like that before defenses caught on? Probably not many.

Odell did better in 2019 with a 4.47 YAC, but that is still about half of what the elite guys do.

A couple of things to consider about YAC: if you catch a ball in the end-zone, your YAC is zero for the catch because there are no more yards to be gained. If you catch a toe-tapper at the sideline, your YAC will also be zero. If you have to dive, jump, twist around, etc. to catch the ball, then your YAC suffers as DBs are able to close on you. The ideal scenario is to catch the ball on the run with some separation on the DB. And that’s why YAC is computed for quarterbacks too.

In 2019, Baker Mayfield ranked at a stellar #8 in the league with an Average YAC of 5.7. See this page. However, here in 2020, with Coach Stefanski’s new “short ball” offensive scheme in place, Baker ranks near the bottom with an Average YAC of 4.0. So, OBJ is affected by that also. You could argue that this new scheme was a punishment for Baker and OBJ because they did poorly in 2019. Consequently, they were subsumed in a run-oriented scheme where Baker would be limited to short passes, and OBJ would be regulated to blocking for Nick Chub and Kereem Hunt.

Nevertheless, OBJ’s YAC for 2020 was still the worst on the team except for that of Rashard Higgins who only has one-third of OBJ’s targets. Hig also has a high proportion of TDs and toe-tappers.

YAC – Player
5.94 – Kareem Hunt
4.73 – Austin Hooper
4.42 – Jarvis Landry
4.38 – David Njoku
2.04 – OBJ
1.33 – Rashard Higgins

So, if YAC is what you want, Kareem Hunt is your man. I’m sure Chubb would do well too if he got more targets.

Methodology: I compiled this data on November 3, 2020, which was the Tuesday after NFL Week 8. OBJ played weeks 1-6 before he was injured right at the beginning of Week 7’s game versus the Bengals on October 25, 2020. In the table above, I selected the top 100 receivers by total yards. Then I sorted them by Average YAC.

Browns’ Higgins & Njoku Burst Free of Analytics Nerd DePodesta

During Baker Mayfield’s shootout with Joe Burrow during the Brown’s victory over the Bengals on Sunday, WR Rashard Higgins dazzled fans with his ball-catching prowess, grabbing all six balls thrown to him by Mayfield. Higgins filled the void left by the injured Odell Beckham with ease & style, and TE David Njoku made a superb diving touchdown catch.

It was especially joyous for long-sufferring Browns fans because it rekindled the “Golden Age” of late 2018 when Higgins & Njoku caught pass after pass from Baker. But Hig and Njoku were pretty much benched for all of 2019 and most of 2020. Not only that, but the Browns actually let Higgins go back in March. That’s how he lost his number 81, and why he is 82 now. While Higgins was in the wind, the Browns signed Austin Hooper, and gave him Hig’s old number.

Before Baker, Hig, and Njoku go on to light-up the back half of the schedule, I want to make it clear exactly what happened here. Because I believe that this episode is a textbook example of chemistry defeating analytics, and should be taught to all aspiring coaches, GMs, and analytics nerds.

So, here is my version of events in a nutshell: after playing superbly in 2018, Higgins & Njoku were benched in 2019 by Browns analytics chief, Paul DePodesta because “numbers.” Freddie Kitchens was made the fall-guy for the infamous “no reason” benchings that infuriated Browns fans. In 2020, coach Stefanski was given the same orders, and also made to take the fall. Then, a series of injuries forced Higgins & Njoku into the Cincinnati game where they proceeded to make DePodesta look like a fucking fool.

Talented players, who displayed a palpable chemistry with their quarterback were benched on orders from an analytics nerd. Don’t forget, I am a nerd myself, and I can see analytics being very valuable when, for example, scouts are sorting through hundreds of players. But to actually call the shots on the field? That’s just plain crazy. Chemistry is so much more important in football that coaches need to think long and hard before breaking up established player relationships. Football is the ultimate team sport. Baseball, on the other hand, is actually closer to single-combat where you have one pitcher facing off against one hitter, and analytics can readily be used to make substitutions.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason why the Browns’ infamously talented roster has yet to pay off is because it is being deployed with analytics.

When it comes to DePodesta, mum is the word for Browns employees. In fact, I would bet that all Browns employee contracts for coaches, players, and staff, have a no-DePo clause forbidding anybody to talk about him. I think it is also obvious that DePodesta has veto power over coaches. Exactly how much power he has is unclear, and I regard this lack of transparency as a black mark for ownership.

Browns fans should pressure the Haslams to reign in their power-mad nerd.

Note: further evidence happened during training camp when Higgins’ position coach, Chad O’Shea announced that Higgins had won the #3 receiver job. But then coach Stefanski barked back, and overruled O’Shea, saying the decision had not yet been made. Then Hig went on to be the infamous “healthy scratch” and forbidden to even wear the uniform. I think that was an obvious case of DePodesta speaking through Stefanski, the kinda-sorta head coach.

Note: Many OBJ supporters are denigrating Baker’s performance in Cincinnati saying: “that was the Bengals sucking, not Baker being good.” Then they go on to cite how great OBJ was during the Dallas game. But Dallas has a terrible defense too, so wasn’t that just “Dallas sucking instead of OBJ being great?” Anybody who doesn’t think that something profound happened to Baker after OBJ left the Cincinnati game is just plain blind, deaf, and dumb.