Cleveland Browns: Why is Baker Mayfield better without Odell Beckham Jr.?

It makes no sense, but Baker Mayfield is better without OBJ

If you still can’t comprehend what the Cleveland Browns just did against the Cincinnati Bengals, you’re far from alone. Quarterback Baker Mayfield looked terrible from his first attempt, underthrowing Odell Beckham Jr. on an interception that led to Beckham and J.C. Tretter suffering injuries. Mayfield finished the first quarter 0-5 with a pick.

Then, he transformed into a football savant, going 22 of 23 for 297 yards and five touchdowns for the rest of the game, with his lone incompletion coming on a spike that was followed up by the game-winning toss to Donovan Peoples-Jones. Mayfield was flat-out unbelievable for three quarters, and ended up winning the duel with Joe Burrow.

Mayfield hasn’t looked that good as a pro player. Heck, he may not have even been that dominant in college. Simply put, he was perfect in those three quarters. His presnap pickups, his postsnap reads, decisiveness, aggressiveness, and accuracy. Everything was cranked up to 11. That’s the franchise QB that Browns fans have been waiting to see for a long.

And oddly enough, Mayfield’s Super Saiyan performance came without his No. 1 target, one of the most dynamic receivers in the league. Beckham is feared to have a serious knee injury, and could be out for the rest of the season. If that is the case, the Cleveland offense will be losing its most talented playmaker. It will be a good case study for a very interesting trend over the past two year-and-a-half; for whatever reason, it seems like Mayfield actually plays better when Beckham is not on the field.

There’s not a great sample size, but there may still be something there. Beckham has been a model teammate since arriving in Cleveland, but there’s no question that he enjoys the spotlight. He’s competitive and emotional, and is often ridiculed unfairly for that. At times, his body language reflects the amount of involvement he’s seeing in the gameplan. Perhaps Mayfield feels pressured to get Beckham the ball and presses to do so. That was certainly the case last season; Mayfield would force the ball to OBJ when he wasn’t open, yet wouldn’t look his way when he was.

It’s an odd dynamic, and while the two players’ skillsets should be perfect matches for each other, they just have not seemed to be on the same page. Even in 2020, Mayfield and Beckham have had miscommunications where Beckham appeared open for a touchdown, but Mayfield’s pass was awfully inaccurate. Mayfield’s reactions on these plays seem to indicate that he was expecting Beckham to run one route, while Beckham improvised based on what the defense was doing.

Mayfield was a timing and rhythm passer at Oklahoma who relied on his targets being in the right place at the right time. That’s why Jarvis Landry has found so much success with Mayfield; Landry is a less-than-stellar athlete who relies on pristine route running to get open, and that means Mayfield knows exactly when he’ll be in a certain spot.

Beckham, on the other hand, possesses elite athleticism and freestyles because of it. Mayfield just doesn’t have the chemistry with Beckham to know when and how he’ll go off-script, either because they just haven’t had enough time to build that connection, or because that’s not the type of passer that Mayfield is. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Without Beckham on the field, Mayfield completed passes to many different receivers, throwing touchdowns to Kareem Hunt, David Njoku, Peoples-Jones, and Harrison Bryant. He spread the ball around, finding the open man on each play, and not zeroing in on a specific target. Rashard Higgins was his favorite targets, hauling in six passes for 110 yards. Those two have had elite chemistry dating back to Mayfield’s rookie year, and Higgins always seems to play well when actually given the opportunity

Granted, all of this success came against the Bengals, who have a poor defense that was without top corner William Jackson III. But it’s not just that Mayfield had a good game. It was how he did it. He wasn’t missing high. He was stepping up in the pocket. He was picking up on things the defense was showing and taking advantage. He was pushing the ball downfield with confidence. All things he hadn’t been doing in previous weeks. And he did it all without Beckham.

There may be nothing to this little quirk, and Mayfield may go back to being the bad QB we saw over the first quarter-plus of the season. Or perhaps he’ll continue this success and go on a 10-game tear, leading the Browns to the playoffs and earning his fifth-year option. No matter what happens, he’ll likely be doing it without Odell Beckham Jr., and that matters.