Managing Baker Mayfield’s Ego

Back during the 2020 season, we had a lot of fun watching Baker Mayfield do his best Lamar Jackson imitation. We saw Baker run the ball, throw blocks, catch passes on trick plays, and execute innumerable hero-ball scramble drills where he narrowly avoided getting drilled by pass rushers. The most dramatic was the “Maserati” play where Baker ran (behind Kareem Hunt) for a first down to seal a victory over the Steelers.

As much as I loved watching Baker prove his critics wrong, that he was indeed an athletic guy, I cringed every time he made one of those plays. I knew it was only a matter of time before he got smashed.

This devil-may-care attitude obviously had the stamp-of-approval from Coach Stefanski because it continued into the 2021 season. Then, during Week 2, Baker threw an interception to a linebacker, figured he would fix his mistake, and made the tackle. As he was trying to wrap-up, his left arm got pushed backward and damn near came off.

Baker didn’t need to make that tackle. Kareem Hunt had a good angle on the guy, and Jack Conklin & Wyatt Teller were both closing in. But Baker didn’t hesitate to blow-up his season, and that of his team.

The problem, of course, was that Baker considered himself a well-rounded football player, capable of all the various skills involved in the game. Hell, he probably thought he could kick field-goals too. But in reality, and like most quarterbacks, Baker is a specialist. His left shoulder is not conditioned to making tackles. Its function is to assist the throwing motion of his right arm.

After the game, when asked about it, Stefanski said something like: “We gotta get that guy on the ground.” So, he approved of his franchise quarterback making tackles. Of course, the coach’s job is to win games, and if you have to sacrifice a few players to get it done, then so be it. But in the case of your QB, and getting smashed so early in the season, it hardly seems worth it. It’s not like starting-caliber QBs grow on trees. They are, in fact, rather rare, and spread thin among the 32 NFL franchises.

The NFL has known the value of quarterbacks since 1940 when they instituted the “roughing the passer” penalty. Fans liked higher-scoring games, so the NFL protected QBs & kickers. However, they did so with rules, rather than directives. So, no team is under orders to protect their QBs, and are free to unwisely use those players. If the Ravens wanted Justin Tucker to make tackles, there is nothing the NFL could do to stop them.

So, there is a dichotomy: the league wants to attract and protect talent at the QB position, but coaches feel the need to win right now and are able to sacrifice their QBs if they choose. There is also a second dichotomy: when every QB is a conservative pocket-passer, they come across as bland, boring the fans. Then, when a running-QB like Lamar Jackson comes along, he automatically looks super exciting, just by contrast, delighting the fans.

It comes down to a matter of taste: do you want to see your QB’s health preserved over a long, if boring, career? Or do you want to see him “used up” in a more-exciting, but shorter career?

During the second half of the 2020 season, Baker Mayfield played at an elite level; couldn’t get an extension. In 2019, Lamar Jackson was MVP; still waiting on that extension. So, are these two QBs being used up? Perhaps not by their coaches, but by the bean-counters in the front-office? Probably so.

Perhaps a good balance would be to have your starter as the “boring” QB, and your back-up the “running” QB. In any case, my preference is for Coach Stefanski to coach Baker to be more controlled. For example, I want to see Baker get the ball out quick instead of him dodging pass-rushers while waiting for a receiver to get open. We know that Baker doesn’t want to ever throw the ball away, but it is an important skill for a QB to have. But as long as he thinks of himself as the hero, he won’t practice that skill, simply because he doesn’t think he will be needing it.

Can Baker be coached out of playing hero-ball? If Stefanski tried, would Baker take the coaching? Or would he demand a trade? Hard to say. But the truth is that if Baker can start to think of himself as a specialist, he should have a longer & more productive career.

Note: watching Baker make that tackle reminds me of watching punter Jamie Gillan trying to run for the first down after he muffed the snap during Week 1 versus the Chiefs. He had no chance. Like Baker, Gillan is an athletic guy, but not “NFL athletic” which is a whole other level. These are specialists, and they are simply not viable outside of their niche roles.

Note: for the 2021 season, Baker Mayfield finished with a 63.6 PFF grade, which was 30th in the NFL. By insisting on being the hero, and playing out the season, Mayfield dragged his team down and missed the playoffs. Yet another example of hero-ball.