Sometimes quarterbacks are who they are, and no amount of coaching and development can fix or correct aspects of their play.
Take Mitchell Trubisky. The Chicago Bears are currently teetering on the verge of a difficult decision at the quarterback position, given the third-year passer’s ineffectiveness this season. His struggles were perhaps best highlighted by Seth Galina, who crystalized his poor decision-making in a series of tweets breaking down a single run/pass option concept:
*record scratch*— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) October 21, 2019
Yup, that's me, Mitchell, and you're probably wondering how I found myself in this situation.
Well, it all started about 6 seconds ago when my coach, Matt Nagy, called the simplest RPO in the playbook!
~a short thread~ pic.twitter.com/ZJLYfrV2Fl
This was a play many noticed from Trubisky’s outing against the New Orleans Saints this past weekend, including myself, as I included it in a writeup of Trubisky for Pro Football Weekly titled Mitchell Trubisky: The Reckoning. Tasked with studying and evaluating Trubisky every week for PFW, this was a tough play to try and explain.
Making it worse was the fact that it was eerily reminiscent of a play that troubled me about Trubisky when he was coming out of college. A simple curl concept against the University of Virginia that is the first play broken down in this video:
Pre-snap, Trubisky sees the the inside receiver in this trips formation is uncovered, and he expects to be able to throw to him on a simple curl route. But when the slot corner vacates the number two receiver in the trips and jumps Trubisky’s pre-snap intended target, rather than simply go to his next receiver in the progression the quarterback pulls the football down and panics, taking a sack in the process.
It seems little has changed in a few years.
That brings us to Baker Mayfield.
The University of Oklahoma product enjoyed a big rise in the pre-draft process, from a Heisman Trophy campaign to a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, propelling him to the first overall selection. While there was much to like about the Sooners quarterback, there was always something that concerned me with his play. I called it the “conundrum of comfort in chaos.” I’ve written about this and Mayfield for both Inside the Pylon (here and here) and the Matt Waldman RSP.
The basic idea is this: Mayfield is a quarterback who thrives in chaos, in scramble drill situations. Yet perhaps to his detriment he will seek those out rather than take what the offense gives him from the pocket. He will forgo the easy throw in the hopes of creating something more dynamic off of structure. This video from last season examines this in depth:
This trend of Mayfield to seek out the comforting effects of chaos, rather than to simply take the easier throw or option available to him, has continued into 2019. Despite additions on the offensive line and big-name acquisitions like Odell Beckham Jr., Mayfield keeps relying on what he can create, rather than what is designed for him. Take this 1st and 10 throw from late against the Los Angeles Rams:
Mayfield (#6) has a quick curl route available to him, and with this play coming from before the two-minute warning, the game clock is not an issue. So he can make this throw and takes what the defense gives him. Instead, he flushes himself to the right - away from a clean pocket - and ends up throwing an incompletion.
Mayfield was better at handling the pocket again the Baltimore Ravens a week later, as exemplified by this read and throw on a 3rd and 7:
The Cleveland Browns have a bunch formation to the left and run a switch vertical concept out of that alignment, but pressure and coverage force Mayfield to move his eyes. Where you would normally see him bail the pocket and try and create off of structure, here the young QB does a much better job of staying in the pocket, fighting in the face of pressure and making a play within structure.
But those moments are few and far between.
Take this play from the Seattle Seahawks back in Week 6. The Browns face an early fourth down conversation situation, a 4th and 7 midway through the first quarter. The offense lines up with Mayfield in the shotgun and three receivers to the right. They run a curl/seam concept against a Tampa 2 look from Seattle:
Mayfield makes a big play off structure to move the chains, but the process - and the comfort of chaos - are still something to notice:
Mayfield has the seam route early in the down, once it clears the underneath defenders. But rather than make this throw Mayfield dances in the pocket, trying to create an opportunity downfield. He does, hitting Jarvis Landry (#80) on a scramble drill route, but by taking his time - and seeking out chaos in the pocket rather the easy throw - he raises the level of difficulty.
That brings us to this weekend, the New England Patriots, and the Boogeymen.
We have seen what this defense is capable of doing to quarterbacks. 18 interceptions versus one touchdown pass speaks volumes. But it is how the Patriots are posting these numbers which might foretell struggles for Mayfield on Sunday. The Patriots have combined fearsome pressure looks with Cover 1 and Cover 0 schemes in the secondary. Their level of trust in their defensive backs to play tight man coverage enables them to bring more rushers than the offense usually has blockers, creating some free rushers and putting the opposing passer under duress.
How do you defeat these looks? By taking what the defense gives you, throwing to your hot reads and your outlets, and trusting in the structure of the designs.
Things that Mayfield often forgoes in the hopes of a bigger play downfield.
Perhaps he learns before Sunday. Perhaps Freddie Kitchens and the offensive staff instill in him the need to play within structure, to take what the Patriots give him on Sunday, to throw hot routes to Nick Chubb and others, and to live for second and third downs.
Or perhaps Mayfield is who he is, and he seeks out the comfort of chaos on Sunday yet again, only this time against a defense who is all too happy to see him do just that.