What the AFC North Taught Us About Rookie QBs

This is the first part of an eight-part series. Click here for the series primer.

 

After the Cleveland Browns defeated the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10,  Baker Mayfield told the press that he “woke up feeling dangerous,” which has since been permanently etched into meme history. Coming just one week after a surprisingly competitive affair against powerhouse Kansas City, the Browns’ win over the Falcons marked the turning point of the season, the first look at what we can now call the Freddie Kitchens Browns. Conveniently,   Cleveland’s head coach and offensive coordinator (Hue Jackson and Todd Haley respectively) were ousted at exactly the midway point in the season, making the comparison between the two coaching staffs remarkably easy.

 

Mayfield started the season on the bench, and was famously inserted into Cleveland’s Week 3 Monday Night faceoff against the New York Jets, following Tyrod Taylor’s injury. Mayfield promptly led his team to its first win in over a calendar year.

Still, in the first half of the season, Mayfield’s numbers look pedestrian: eight touchdowns and six interceptions with just a 58.3% completion rate and 20 sacks. Cleveland went 2-4 during that span. After Jackson and Haley’s firing, the Oklahoma product’s numbers are far more inspiring: 19 touchdowns over eight interceptions, a completion rate of 68.3%, and just five sacks. We know what changed off the field; the question is, how did the new coaching staff put Mayfield in such a dramatically better position for success?

 

. . .

 

Baker Mayfield arguably wasn’t even the most successful rookie QB in his division. At least, not in terms of his team’s turnaround and performance. That distinction belongs to the Baltimore Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson. Jackson’s situation was different than Mayfield’s, but equally unique—instead of a turnaround from the firing of an incompetent coach, Baltimore flipped a switch when its incompetent quarterback was injured. Through Week 8, Joe Flacco’s final full game at QB, the Raven’s sat at 4-4. Then in a Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh, Flacco went down with a hip injury, and Lamar Jackson took his place. Jackson started the final seven games for Baltimore and won six of them.

 

As is often the case, it should be noted that the Baltimore defense deserves the lion’s share of credit for the team’s success. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, the defense outplayed the offense in five of Jackson’s seven starts. Nonetheless, what’s interesting about the 2018 Ravens is that they didn’t just swap QBs; they fundamentally changed their offensive style midseason. During the first eight weeks, the AFC North champions attempted 44.1 passes per game; during Jackson’s tenure as starter, they attempted just 23.1 passes. For the sake of comparison, the Seattle Seahawks attempted the fewest passes in 2018, averaging 26.8 per game. The league average was 34.5 per game. On the other hand, during Jackson’s tenure, Baltimore averaged 229.6 yards rushing, dramatically more than Seattle’s league-leading 160 yards per game. The Ravens didn’t just fundamentally change their offense midseason, they morphed it into a system that is completely unique in today’s NFL, and that’s remarkable.

 

. . .

 

The common thread between the Ravens and Browns is that both teams reached a high level of success during their transition to a rookie QB. I hesitate to call this unprecendented, but it is certainly uncommon. Let’s try to dig a little deeper and see how exactly each team put its young gunner in a position to succeed.

 

The key number for Baker is not the touchdowns or the completion rating (although those are certainly encouraging), but rather the impressively slim sack total. New OC Freddie Kitchens gave up on the Desmond Harrison experiment at left tackle and inserted Greg Robinson in his stead. But, the majority of the credit should go to Kitchens’ scheme.

 

Unfortunately, NFL advanced stats are still in their infancy, and so statistics like “time to throw” are not available on a week-by-week basis. Furthermore, statistics like Pro Football Focus grades use hundreds of factors that are not public-facing. This means we can look up which players PFF thinks played the best, but we don’t get to see their reasoning. Still, there are little tricks we can use. During the first half of the season, under Jackson, Mayfield was blitzed on about 37% of his dropbacks, and had an average PFF grade against blitzes of 59.9 during that time. Under Kitchens, opponents blitzed less often (at 33%), and Mayfield was more productive against them, with a PFF grade of 66.3. Baker Mayfield’s improved performance could theoretically just be from growth, but it’s more logical to attribute it to Kitchens’ scheme, full of backfield motion and quickly developing plays. It would be surprising if opponents continued to blitz less and less frequently as the league’s respect for Mayfield’s play increases.

 

Lamar Jackson’s story is slightly different. We’ve already discussed the rushing prowess the Ravens achieved when Jackson was taking snaps. Not only does this make sense for Jackson, whose legs by all accounts are more impressive than his arm, but it also makes sense for Baltimore’s personnel overall. Offensive efficiency is key for a team like Kansas City, who relies on sheer offensive firepower to maximize point totals while their defense limps through sixty minutes of football. While efficiency necessarily leads to more points scored, the Ravens were better off sacrificing it for ball control. By running the ball as frequently and successfully as they did with Jackson under center, Baltimore was able to keep its defense fresh. That is to say, Lamar Jackson did not improve his own side of the ball; he made his teammates on defense better:

 

Week Starter Time of Possession% PFF Defensive Rating
1 Flacco 0.5872222222 86.2
2 Flacco 0.4694444444 64.4
3 Flacco 0.5038888889 64.8
4 Flacco 0.5841666667 82.1
5 Flacco 0.5616666667 65.3
6 Flacco 0.6261111111 70.3
7 Flacco 0.4413888889 61.6
8 Flacco 0.4330555556 68.1
9 Flacco 0.3919444444 61.6
11 Jackson 0.6358333333 87.3
12 Jackson 0.57 74.7
13 Jackson 0.6608333333 72.8
14 Jackson 0.4816232772 55.7
15 Jackson 0.6194444444 80.9
16 Jackson 0.5236111111 80.7
17 Jackson 0.6416666667 61.8
Weeks 1-9 Flacco 0.5109876543 69.37777778
Weeks 11-17 Jackson 0.5904303094 73.41428571

 

Those numbers are only more impressive when you consider that the “Flacco-era” team faced several really poor offenses, like the Buffalo Bills, Hue Jackson Browns, Tennesee Titans, Denver Broncos, while the “Jackson-era” team faced the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Freddie Kitchens Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Atlanta Falcons.

 

For years, teams that decided to start the season with a rookie QB at the helm have had low expectations for success, but the 2018 Browns and Ravens changed that. The fundamental difference is that instead of trying to fit a young QB into a system, their offensive coordinators fit the system around the QB. From the 2018 AFC North, we’ve learned that rookie quarterbacks can lead a team to success right out of the gate.

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