Browns aren't better off without OBJ, but Baker Mayfield might be

BEREA, Ohio – On the underthrown interception ultimately leading to Odell Beckham Jr.’s season-ending knee injury, Baker Mayfield admitted afterward that when he saw Beckham in one-on-one coverage, he wanted to "give him a chance.”

Later, in the third quarter, the Browns came back to the identical play. Only this time, Mayfield didn’t throw the ball up for grabs down the sidelines. Instead, he read the defense and completed his seventh consecutive pass to Jarvis Landry, who’d been open on the same curl route when the Browns previously had called the play.

Mayfield went on to complete a franchise-record 21 straight passes, while tossing five touchdown passes, including the game-winner with 15 seconds remaining, to lift Cleveland to a 37-34 victory in perhaps the finest performance of his pro career.

Mayfield thriving without Beckham on Sunday wasn’t exactly an outlier, either.

As the Browns look to overcome the injury to one the game’s most electrifying playmakers, the analytics counterintuitively suggest that Cleveland’s quarterback could be just as efficient going forward.

Maybe, even more so.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mayfield’s numbers have actually been slightly better over the last two seasons when Beckham has been on the sidelines.

With Beckham on the field, Mayfield has completed just 59.9% of his throws and averaged just 7.2 yards per attempt. With Beckham off the field, Mayfield has connected on 70.4% of his passes and averaged 7.7 yards per throw.

Even when Beckham had been on the field, Mayfield was consistently more efficient targeting other receivers. Mayfield’s completion percentage targeting other receivers this season is 78.6%, with an off-target rate of just 10.7% and QBR of 96.2, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But targeting Beckham, Mayfield’s off-target percentage rose to 28.2% while his QBR dropped to 73.7. Mayfield’s completion rate to Beckham, meanwhile, was just 59.9%.

In fact, over the last two seasons, Mayfield and Beckham have the worst completion success rate (55.6%) of any duo in the NFL (with at least 100 attempts).

“I'm not smart enough to make an argument for that,” answered Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, when asked to explain such startling splits. “I will just tell you, I would much rather have No. 13 [Beckham] on the field.”

Wednesday, both Stefanski and Mayfield pushed back on the budding narrative that Mayfield might be better off without Beckham.

Stefanski said he rejected the premise entirely. Mayfield rightly called the notion “completely insensitive to a guy that just tore his ACL.”

Mayfield, however, has admitted in the past to forcing the ball to Beckham too often. And Wednesday, he conceded in Beckham’s absence, he'd have to change his own approach.

“Without him, there might not be as many one-on-one opportunities, but that means we just have to be more efficient in zone coverages and things like that to make those plays,” Mayfield said. “Not just because we don’t have him but teams are going to play us differently. So I think it’s about just understanding the looks we’re getting and going through our offense based on the looks and just efficiently working through that.”

That’s exactly what Mayfield did against the Bengals.

He went through his progressions to find the open receiver. He didn’t force passes. And he found a scorching rhythm spreading the ball around, which harkened back to his 2018 season, before the Beckham trade, when he broke the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes to finish second in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting.

ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, who has remained one of Mayfield’s most steadfast defenders, said this week that Beckham’s presence had at times negatively affected the way Mayfield had played these last two seasons since his rookie year.

“With Baker Mayfield and OBJ, it’s like this, Baker Mayfield gets his play call and his immediate first thought, with OBJ on the field, is where’s OBJ, what’s OBJ’s route? Now if you take Odell off the field, his thought process goes, what’s my call, what’s the defense and he just lets the play operate itself and he throws to the guy who gets open,” Orlovsky said on NFL Live. “That’s the thing, Baker gets so consumed or the willingness or want-to, all right, 'Odell’s got this route. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the play is, I want to throw this ball to Odell.' When Odell is off the field, he goes, 'The play is the play. And I’m just going to operate it off what the defense is giving me.'

“We can’t run from the fact that Baker operates better and Baker operates more efficiently with Odell Beckham not in his thought process. And that’s crazy to say. But it’s the truth.”

As Stefanski pointed out, it is crazy to suggest that the Browns won’t miss Beckham’s talent.

The Dallas win in Week 4, when he scored three touchdowns, including the game-clinching 50-yard scoring run off a reverse, underscored what a difference-maker Beckham can be. As Mayfield also noted, defenses will be able to scheme the Browns differently, too. Landry, as one example, is sure to see more double-coverage moving forward.

“You can never replace the type of energy and the type of play-making ability that he's brought to our team,” Landry said. “We all know the type of player that Odell is and the effect that he has on the defense when they’re trying to prepare for a team like us. Now with him out, who knows how things will play out.”

Moreover, Mayfield’s performance in Cincinnati in of itself could prove to be the outlier, as well. After all, Mayfield in his career is 5-1 against the Bengals with a QBR of 87; against everyone else, he's only 12-18 with a QBR of just 51.

Beating up on the worst team in a division is one thing. Beating winning opponents, against whom Mayfield is just 5-12 with a QBR of 46, is something else entirely.

But from last season all the way up to that first series in Cincinnati, there’s no denying that Mayfield and Beckham struggled to find their chemistry together. That was on full display once again on Mayfield's first pass Sunday.

The Browns on the whole won’t be better off without Beckham. But as the rest of the game showed, Mayfield himself very well might be.