"Rookie QBs that hit the ground running their first year never regress to the degree Mayfield has this season. It's the sophomore slump of all sophomore slumps."
Defenses are figuring him out
There are multiple factors for the 2018 #1 overall pick's apparent breakneck regression, but first among them is that teams have figured out how to defend him. It amounts to...take away where he initially wants to go with the ball and he's just not a very good QB. Whether it's post snap scheme changes or shading to eliminate his first target, Mayfield's shown he doesn't recognize and read it fast enough to produce a positive pass play.
Paired with that, he's also shown a poor ability this year to improvise a counter when things don't go to plan. He doesn't look as spry in 19' for whatever the reason, and he's been reluctant to run. And so, his pocket mobility and instincts to escape and save the play have correspondingly regressed. His early play translated to a 67.7 QB rating, 6TDs, 12ints, 21 sacks and a 2-5 start to the season. And he didn't have a single run for more than a yard until week 6.
Executing positive scripted plays or looking at relatively static coverage...Mayfield shines. His arm talent readily stands out. Often in his rookie year and at times this season, he's simply picked a target at the back of his drop and ripped it to them, regardless of the defense. It's worth noting that he dominated at Oklahoma in this regard.
Unscripted plays?..or if the defense doesn't show it's cards too soon?....it's increasingly become a disaster. Mayfield was likened to Manziel in college for his improvisational plays ..among other things. The occasional unscripted Sooner play usually resulted in a positive gain with a lot of flair. In his 2nd year as a pro, an unscripted play is increasingly an exercise in futile lateral scrambling, a desperate throwaway, or a sack.
From Mayfield's first start as a rookie...he's late to his 2nd read but rips in a throw, heedless of the coverage, slightly behind his receiver, resulting in a tip pass and pick six.
While he was fortunate as a rookie with the majority of those reads & decisions, they almost all bit him in his 2nd year.
The second key factor is his lapse in accuracy out of a clean pocket, and there are numerous suspects here. Timing is a key factor and it's affected by how quickly a guy is processing things. But confidence, chemistry, and footwork quickness are all also worthy culprits.
The acquisition of an all pro WR talent in Beckham looked like the steal of steals in the off season but it's backfired in a tragicomic way. Defenses are anticipating OBJ being Baker's first read and shading the defense towards him, often taking him out of the play. And Mayfield has then struggled to quickly read it and find a good 2nd or 3rd option.
In 2018, throwing to relative unknowns Antonio Callaway, Brett Perriman, Rashard Higgins or a lackluster Jarvis Landry, defenses didn't specifically key on any one Browns WR, and so, his first read was generally open.
Damaging chemistry between Baker & OBJ
The third key factor is the awful chemistry between Mayfield and Odell Beckham. Even when a defense shades up to stop a receiver it doesn't always necessarily work. Beyond scheming a guy open, a QB and WR can play pitch and catch when they're on the same page. Ball placement, timing and talent are virtually impossible to consistently defend. Baker & Beckham are the antithesis to this and it's been brutal to watch.
Past those three key factors you'd be remiss not to consider Freddy Kitchen's scheme and playcalling as a contributor. Of all people Kitchens should've been keenly aware of Mayfield's strengths and weaknesses heading into and during the season and scripted counters that his 2nd year QB could work with.
Running with your most successful sets, scheming your RBs into the flat faster as checkdowns, scripting QB draws, leaning on your all pro talent RB, getting the playcall in faster, recognizing time/situation management, not wearing dumbass t-shirts in public...Kitchens has made his share of mistakes as an inexperienced playcaller and head coach. ..although none of it entirely unexpected.
The plan was for his record setting rookie QB, a wealth of skill weapons and a pass rushing defense to effectively mask the head coach in training this year. But Mayfield's dramatic regression was a marker that highlighted Kitchens faults as the leader of the franchise. In John Dorsey's defense, rookie QBs that hit the ground running their first year never regress to the degree Mayfield has this season. It's the sophomore slump of all sophomore slumps.
What's it look like?
It's a unique situation that has very few, if any, comparisons. A star, record breaking, volatile, rookie QB that carried an unreasonable amount of sway within an organization, whether explicitly or implied, and influenced the personnel or direction of the team going into just their 2nd year. Then decidedly played like trash that year, leaving that personnel to shoulder the blame. Hmmm...
While Mayfield's not near the same class of mobile athlete, Griffin's the closest thing we've seen to what's happening with Mayfield. While the common narrative is that RG3's rookie knee injury derailed his career, his knee recovered predictably enough by his 2nd season.
Fact is, going on 6 years now and counting, he's still failed to regain that rookie form he had with Kyle Shanahan. His first year was the outlier. Dorsey should explore every possible option to avoid this outcome for his QB.
Is there a quick fix?
Mayfield's second half stat upturn on the season appears encouraging....88.3 QB rating, 13 TDs - 6 int, 13 sacks and a 4-4 record....and while his pocket presence did improve, those stats also belie the fact that he continued to make late reads and force throws but was fortunate enough to not have as many defenders hold onto those poor passes as earlier in the season. ..not to mention strength of schedule.
Processing speed and improvisation are probably two of the most innate traits a QB possesses. It's rare to just add or upgrade either to your game. But experience and physical prep should translate over time. Chemistry can be a lot more elusive and not always a determination of how much work's been put in. Safe to say, while Dorsey and the Browns need to appear steadfast in their support of Mayfield heading into his 3rd year, they also need to acquire a significant fallback if their guy's play doesn't improve; despite that essentially putting their guy on notice.
For his part, I think Mayfield needs to be physically prepared to scramble and run much more than he has. Even though he's not a plus athlete, he's capable of managing a pocket better and avoiding negative plays with his legs. However, from a historical perspective, I think it's fairly unlikely he dramatically improves his play.
A great coordinator might bring out a better game manager but so much of what makes a guy great isn't taught. To state the obvious, the immediate telltale if Mayfield can be the rare guy to turn it around, will be much improved chemistry with his star WR and a major reduction of reckless, errant passes.