Breaking-Up the Bake-Pack

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield holds the NFL record for the most passing touchdowns (27) by a rookie quarterback. That was during the 2018 season when Baker only played in 14 of the Browns 16 games. By contrast, Kyler Murray started all 16 games in his rookie season of 2019, and only threw 20 TDs. Not even close to Baker’s record.

During the final 7 games of the 2018 season, the once-lowly Browns finished with a 5-2 record. It was the Golden Age for long-suffering Browns fans. Euphoria broke out at the plausible notion that the team had found its franchise quarterback.

And then…Freddie Kitchens destroyed the team. Or did he?

But first, let’s talk about what I call the “Bake-Pack.” Exactly who did Baker throw all of those touchdowns to in 2018?

Jarvis Landry was the workhorse of the season with 81 receptions and 4 touchdowns.

David Njoku was second with 56 receptions and 4 touchdowns.

Duke Johnson was third with 47 receptions and 3 touchdowns.

Antonio Callaway was fourth with 43 receptions and 5 touchdowns.

Rashard Higgins was fifth with 39 receptions and 4 touchdowns. Hig had as many touchdowns as Landry with only half the receptions.

In 2019, Callaway self-destructed and only had 8 receptions before being released. And Duke Johnson requested a trade after the Browns signed Kareem Hunt. So, the Bake-Pack was reduced to three players. And then, unbelievably, Njoku and Higgins were benched, and the Bake-Pack was no more. Deprived of his favorite targets, Baker went from being a record-breaking phenom to one of the worst quarterbacks in the league.

Kitchens was blamed. Higgins and Njoku were said to be in Kitchens’ dog house, but nobody knew why. It was a huge mystery that fans lamented, loudly, throughout the entire 2019 season. Indeed, this issue generated a huge chunk of the hatred directed toward Kitchens.

When Kevin Stefanski was named head coach for the 2020 season, Browns fans were elated at the prospect of the Bake-Pack riding again. But, unaccountably, Stefanski continued the Kitchens policy of benching Higgins and Njoku. This made it obvious that the shots were not being called by the coaches, but rather by Coach Spreadsheet, Paul DePodesta.

And so the Golden Age Bake-Pack was put to death by a calculator-wielding analytics nerd. And the Browns regressed from going 7-8-1 in 2018 to 6-10 in 2019. Oddly, DePo gets very little criticism, or even mention, by the Browns media, like he is Voldemort or something.

After Browns “blocking receiver” (whatever the fuck that is) KhaDarel Hodge was put on the injured-reserve list on October 6, 2020, Higgins was actually permitted to put on his uniform. He then promptly caught two touchdown passes against the Colts and Steelers while Landry and Beckham caught zero.

Higgins likes to be called “Hollywood” or “Wood” but I call him “The Touchdown Man” because he has the uncanny ability to get open in the end zone, and to catch Baker’s eye. It’s almost like he lives under the end zone, and when the Browns enter the red zone, he pops up unseen like a Disney character going on duty at Disney World, and catches the TD.

During the Browns’ only two losses this year, the savage beat-downs administered by the Ravens and Steelers, the team was only able to score two touchdowns. The TD against the Ravens was caught by Njoku. The TD against the Steelers was caught by Higgins. If it weren’t for the Bake-Pack, those games might have been shutouts.

But Higgins will probably be benched when Hodge comes back, because analytics. (The Browns need Hodge on special teams, but not at receiver.)

Was the Golden Age of 2018 the apogee of Baker’s life-long quarterbacking career? It’s starting to look that way. Would Baker do better if Higgins were his #1 or #2 receiver? I think so.

Trying to shoehorn OBJ into the Browns offense hasn’t produced the hoped-for results. OBJ has put up mediocre stats this year. For example, on “big” pass-plays of 20+ yards, OBJ ranks at #54 with 3. CeeDee Lamb has 10.

Note: when Baker walked out onto the field before the Steelers game, he strutted along like he was god’s gift to football. He was comically overconfident, and a few minutes later, he hit Minkah Fitzpatrick for a touchdown. (In case you don’t know, Minkah is not on the Browns.) After being humbled, I expect Baker to play much better during the next few games. Being overconfident clouds your judgement; though it is hard to remain humble after a four game winning streak in the NFL.

Note: after the Steelers game, OBJ threw his helmet down in anger. He probably thinks that if he had gotten more targets, the Browns could have won. Not the case. Not even close. The Steelers mauled the Browns in the trenches. It had nothing to do with Odell. (Note to Odell: it’s not always about you.)

Note: Podcaster John Middlekauff has been watching the Browns more closely lately. He thinks that Baker should become a strict pocket-passer like Drew Brees because Baker is not fast & athletic enough to outrun defenders. I must say that I react the same way when Baker is scrambling: I cringe and brace for a sack or interception. On the other hand, there are people who laud Baker for his elusiveness. And indeed, Baker does seem to weasel out of a lot of precarious situations. I guess it’s a matter of taste. On Sunday, the Steelers’ plan was to keep Baker penned-up in the pocket where he can’t see downfield as well as he can while rolling out. It worked. In any case, Baker’s “Total QBR” is up nicely on the year so far:

Year – QBR – Rank
2018 – 51.2 – 25th
2019 – 52.4 – 19th
2020 – 67.9 – 18th

Even though Baker isn’t fast, he has a very graceful gait. He reminds me of Cuban sprinter Alberto Juantorena, who was a star of the 1976 Olympics. But of course, the NFL is not a beauty contest. I also think that Baker really wants to be a running quarterback. He wants to be Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, as unrealistic as that is.

Note: Patrick Mahomes probably would have beaten Baker’s record, but he was only allowed to play one game in his rookie year. On the other hand, Mahomes was playing with a first-class team, while Baker inherited the very worst team in the league, yet still managed to make it fly.