The Browns’ 2018 season has been … a journey. Cleveland took an unnecessarily circuitous route to the point it finds itself now—as a team that’s finally starting to live up to its potential—waiting far too long to start rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, and then delaying the inevitable firing of head coach Hue Jackson. But over the past six games, the new-look Browns, under interim head coach Gregg Williams and out-of-nowhere play-calling talent Freddie Kitchens, have gone 4-2 and transformed from the underachieving squad we saw early in the season to one that should be a real contender in 2019.
The foundation of that improvement has been the strides the Browns have made on offense, and Mayfield’s development has been the catalyst. The talented passer shrugged off a midseason slump and has shown why Cleveland picked him first overall, running the offense with a maturity rarely seen so early in a quarterback’s career. So, what’s changed in the Cleveland offense over the past six games, and what does this late-season breakout mean for the team’s future?
Mayfield set the bar high in his pro debut, coming in for an injured Tyrod Taylor in Week 3 to engineer a 14-point comeback against the Jets and deliver the Browns their first win in almost two years. He wowed the national audience on Thursday Night Football, connecting on 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards in just over a half of play, unleashing precision throws while demonstrating his signature playmaking chutzpah. Mayfield’s performance changed the complexion of the team’s offense and unlocked its top players—and was more than enough to win him the starting gig.
But the afterglow of that big premiere faded quickly. The Browns went 1-4 over the next five games and Mayfield took his rookie lumps, completing just 56.5 percent of his passes in that stretch (29th of 31 quarterbacks with at least 75 attempts) while tossing eight touchdowns to six picks, averaging just 6.35 yards per attempt (30th), and notching a 76.5 passer rating (28th). Following Cleveland’s Week 8 loss to the Steelers, GM John Dorsey made some much-needed changes, dismissing both Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley while elevating Williams to interim head coach and naming then-running backs coach Kitchens the new play-caller. That was the turning point of the Browns season.
In the six games since Kitchens took the reins of Cleveland’s offense, Mayfield’s bounced back with a vengeance. He’s completed 70.7 percent of his passes (fifth) and thrown 13 touchdowns (seventh) to just five picks in that stretch, averaging 8.66 yards per attempt (second only to Patrick Mahomes II) with a 109.3 passer rating (fifth). That turnaround has been the result of wholesale shifts in offensive scheme and philosophy along with Kitchens’ all-too-obvious yet crucial strategy of tailoring his offense to the strengths of his players. As backup QB Drew Stanton told NBC Sports’ Peter King, the first-time coordinator wasted no time in polling his players on which plays they liked the most. By getting the offensive linemen, receivers, and running backs involved with game-planning, he was able to build a playsheet that everyone could feel confident running.
Kitchens also identified and quickly eliminated the team’s biggest Achilles heel: a penchant for taking way too many sacks. Mayfield had been sacked 19 times in the previous five games—tied for most in the league—so the 44-year-old offensive coordinator made a few key changes. For starters, he turned to a heavier dose of quick passes, designed to get the ball out before pressure arrives and give Mayfield easy first-read options to go to downfield. A big chunk of these plays have been drawn up to get the team’s versatile running backs more involved in the passing game, and Duke Johnson has seen his role increase. As Mayfield put it, Kitchens has been instrumental in “getting [his] eyes in the right spot,” and preparing the young passer for what defenses will show him both pre- and post-snap. Mayfield’s been less hesitant in the pocket over the past six games and has taken just five sacks, tied for the fewest in the NFL. The Browns also rank first in the league in QB hits allowed (seven) since Week 9.
With a revamped and far more creative run game (that’s drawn on Wing-T looks, utilized direct snap plays, wishbone formations, and varied use of personnel), Kitchens’ new-look offense has been much better at staying on schedule to set up manageable third downs. Just 7.1 percent of their total plays have been 3rd-and-long situations since Kitchens took over (third lowest in NFL), compared to a 12.6 third-and-long rate over the first eight weeks (30th). That’s helped lead to substantial improvement on those crucial third downs: The Browns are converting on third down 43.3 percent of the time over the past six games (10th league wide), a huge jump from the 29.1 percent conversion rate the previous five games (second-to-last).
Much credit should go to Kitchens in that area, but it’s not just scheme that’s given the Browns a boost. Mayfield’s needed to stand in and make some flat-out excellent throws as well. Against the Panthers in Week 14, he hung tough in the face of pressure and delivered this strike to Rashard Higgins for a first down—tossing the ball up high and to the right of the receiver, putting enough air on it to get it over a dropping defensive lineman and to the opposite side of the defender to make sure it wasn’t batted away.
Mayfield has averaged 9.4 yards per attempt on third down over the past seven weeks (tied for first among QBs with 25 attempts), notched a 128.6 passer rating (second), and has taken just three sacks. In the five games prior, he averaged just 6.9 yards per attempt with a 68.4 passer rating while taking eight sacks on third down plays.
The remodeled offense has seen its red zone efficiency skyrocket in the past seven weeks as well. Cleveland has scored touchdowns on 15 of their last 16 red zone trips, the only miscue coming on a failed fourth-down run last week against the Broncos. And since Kitchens took over, Mayfield’s completed 17 of 20 passes for 10 touchdowns and no picks and a league-best 135.0 rating (among QBs with 10-plus attempts) in the red zone.
For quarterbacks, third-down and red zone passing might roughly compare to a golfer’s short game: It separates the greats from the average players. But, like in golf, the best NFL quarterbacks have to be able to drive the ball deep and with accuracy, too. Kitchens has been instrumental in opening up Mayfield’s deep passing over the past six games: Mixing in higher rates of play-action fakes and a bevy of pre- and post-snap window dressing (like orbit motion, jet motion, and pulling guards to pass), Kitchens has used the art of deception to unlock the team’s downfield attack. “I know this,” Kitchens told King. “You have to have creativity to create confusion and … hesitation for the defense in this game today.”
Since Week 9, Mayfield has gone deep (passes of 20-plus air yards) on 17.4 percent of his drop-backs, per Pro Football Focus (the third-highest rate in the NFL, and up from 14.5 percent the previous five weeks), with five touchdowns and a 104.2 passer rating. His accuracy rate of 50.0 percent ranks third. A good chunk of those deep bombs have come off play-action, on which Mayfield has a 119.0 passer rating (seventh) and 72.7 percent completion rate ( tied for sixth) in that stretch. His passer rating on play-action from weeks four through eight was just 87.8, which ranked 23rd.
The Browns’ first play from scrimmage against the Panthers in Week 14 serves as a great illustration as to how they’ve manufactured those big plays. Cleveland came out in a three tight end personnel group, typically a giveaway that a run play is coming. The defense bought it, and the Browns helped augment the deception by pulling a guard from right to left, another key read for the defenders on the play. Using an eight-man protection scheme, the line gave Mayfield plenty of time to drop back and throw, and he uncorked a rainbow downfield to a streaking Breshad Perriman, who reeled it in for a 66-yard gain. The Browns scored two plays later.
Another key step for Mayfield’s development over the past few weeks has been his ability to bounce back from adversity. He wasn’t at his sharpest against the Broncos’ tough defense on Sunday, and made a couple bad decisions and bad throws—including an ugly interception just before the half—in that game. But he didn’t let his early mistakes derail the entire game, and made a handful of crucial plays in the second half to help lead the Browns to a tough road win. The two biggest came early in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 13-10 with 13:29 to go, the Browns faced a second-and-9 from the Denver 35-yard line. From an empty shotgun set, Mayfield took the snap, looked right, and, seeing that nothing was open, began to drift to his left to avoid the rush. After pump-faking, he launched a back-shoulder throw toward the sideline to connect with Higgins for a 19-yard gain.
That play illustrated Mayfield’s tremendous awareness, anticipation, and improvisational skills. He knew exactly where to look when his first option wasn’t open, moved to a spot where he could make the throw, and let go of the ball well before Higgins had broken to the outside. It also highlighted Mayfield’s budding chemistry with his receiver.
Of course, the job wasn’t done there. Two plays later, Mayfield moved the Browns to the 2-yard line with a pass over the middle to Jarvis Landry. Sensing that Cleveland had the initiative, Mayfield hurried his offense to the line, preventing Denver from substituting. He then huddled the team up quickly, got them lined up, and took a look at the defense; he saw something he liked. Mayfield audibled to a pass, set the protections, and slung a quick slant to Antonio Callaway, catching Denver in a man-coverage look with no safety help over the top.
That would end up being the game-winning touchdown, and showcased not just Mayfield’s arm, but also his ability to lead a defense in the pre-snap phase of the game. Through the chaos and noise, he managed to set his offense, audible to a new play, and execute it perfectly.
The Browns are going to have some important decisions to make in the next few months. Primary among them will be whether to retain Williams as head coach, and that’s not going to be an easy call to make. The choice on whether to hold on to Kitchens, though, is not nearly as difficult. Per one recent report, it’s already been made.
Mayfield said recently that he believes he was “brought to Cleveland to help change it.” It’s already clear that he’s got the tools—as both a player and leader—to do just that, and while there’s always going to be ups and down in his development, the rookie passer has established himself as the foundational piece the Browns have been trying to find for... well, forever. But Mayfield needs some help, and Kitchens has shown that he’s up to the task of building a scheme that maximizes his uber-talented quarterback’s skillset. Together, Kitchens and Mayfield have the potential to turn into the next great quarterback-coordinator duo. At the very least, they give the Browns the chance to finally start competing again.
An earlier version of this story misstated the Browns’ Week 14 opponent. They faced the Panthers, not the Packers.