Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has helped elevate the talent surrounding him, and Rashard Higgins is the obvious example.
The cliché that good quarterbacks elevate the play of players around them is true in the case of Baker Mayfield – just ask Rashard Higgins, who had an outstanding year with Mayfield at quarterback. Mayfield makes decisions quicker than recent Cleveland Browns quarterbacks, and gets it to the receiver much faster. That is the definition of a quick release.
If you are an old geezer like me, you probably think of Dan Marino, with his hands held high, and a very short motion to get the ball airborne. Nowadays, Drew Brees probably draws the highest praise for his ability to analyze the playing field and get the pigskin airborne in a hurry. It’s not unlike being the pilot of a jet fighter, which requires the pilot to be aware of hundreds of data inputs while making decisions in split seconds.
Stat-minded analysts have tried to use Time to Throw (TT) as a numerical way to estimate a quick release, but this is flawed. Time to throw is the time it takes from the instant the ball is snapped to the time the ball leaves the quarterbacks fingertips, and thus includes the time it takes to decide to throw the football, and then the time to actually deliver it. In 2016 I had an animated e-mail exchange with a Cleveland sportswriter about the usefulness of TT. The problem is that there are too many factors that affect TT that do not relate directly to the ability to interpret a defense and deliver the ball.
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For example, locking onto Josh Gordon early, the modus operandi of previous Browns quarterbacks, is usually not a good example of fast decision-making. Throwing prematurely when the offensive line is providing good protection is not an example of quick release.
Just because the quarterback takes a lot of three-step drops instead of a seven step drop or operates out of the spread, does not mean he has a quick release. When the quarterback takes the sack when all the receivers are covered, it does not necessarily mean he has a slow release. If the quarterback scrambles to give the receivers a little more time, that does not mean the quarterback automatically has a slow release.
All these points I felt were completely on target, but to make a long story short, I lost the argument. OK, dude, if you want to say Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick are better than Aaron Rodgers, fine. But there is more to it than that.
Quick decision-making and a fast release transforms an ordinary receiver into a very good one. A case in point is Higgins, a player who runs good patterns and usually catches the ball when it is thrown to him. For two years, however, he never seemed to be open and the ball rarely came his way. This is evidenced by calculating his receiving yardage per snap. As a rule of thumb, a good receiver should accumulate, on average, close to a yard per snap. In 2017, Higgins was almost invisible with 0.47 receiving yards per snap (RYPS). In 2018, he had fewer snaps but more yards, or 1.18 yards per snap. That is an astounding improvement, and is actually higher than Jarvis Landry at 1.02 RYPS. Landry, of course, was more likely to draw attention from the other team’s top defensive back, but the point is that Higgins was a dangerous man when he was on the field.
Much of the statistical improvement is no doubt due to hard work on the part of Higgins, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Mayfield made Higgins dangerous, whereas previous Browns quarterbacks were not able to use Higgins effectively.
Notice also that Duke Johnson’s RYPS went down a little from 2017. So what was wrong with Johnson? Answer: nothing! On a per-snap basis, Johnson put up wide-receiver-like numbers with 1.09 yards per snap.
There has to be some drop-off in receptions because Mayfield was hitting his primary receivers and did not need the safety valve as often. That is better for the team, but makes Johnson’s numbers a little less impressive. On the other hand, he also averaged 5.0 yards per carry on the ground. What is there to complain about?
David Njoku, on the other hand, had very similar numbers in both 2017 and 2018 on a per-snap basis. He had more snaps in 2018 than in 2017, which is very important, but he did about the same amount of damage when he was on the field. On the other hand, in 2017 there was another big contribution from Seth DeValve at the tight end position, but his production fell off a cliff in 2018 (395 receiving yards in 2017 versus 74 last year). So overall production from the tight end position was down last year as Mayfield was hitting the wide receivers more than ever before.
The past few years, the Browns used a lot of two-tight end formations. They had to, because the wide receivers were not able to catch the ball. With Mayfield and the talent now surrounding him, the Browns will continue to be less dependent on the tight end than they were in the Hue Jackson era. We can expect to see more multiple wide receiver formations and fewer formations with two or more tight ends.
With the addition of Odell Beckham, Jr., the rediscovery of the wide receiver in the Browns offense can only continue the trend. Johnson has grumbled loudly about his role in the Browns offense, but his play on the field has been very good. Still, if Baker throws more to the wide receivers, it’s going to mean the stats from running backs and tight ends are going to take a hit.