Mahomes vs. Mayfield II - The Growing Pains of NFL Quarterbacks

Profile Picture: Adam Spradling

October 31st, 2018

"Hold the clipboard." That was the duty of most NFL quarterbacks when they entered the league, no matter how good they were. There were always - and will always be - exceptions, but the point was simple. Allow quarterbacks to learn, develop and then throw them in to the frying pan and see what they've got. We've migrated to a different practice, one that both meets our impatience as fans but also creates a tough scenario for those entering the league.

This weekend, we're about to see a pseudo rematch of two prolific passers. Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes will try to recreate the spectacular duel they had in college. It's safe to say that Mahomes leads the most explosive offense in the AFC. Nobody really knows what to call the Cleveland Browns these days, but "tire fire" seems apt.

What's most telling about the trajectory that Mahomes and Mayfield find themselves in is how they're being developed as NFL quarterbacks. There isn't a "right or wrong" way necessarily, but there are certainly better paths to follow and putting these guys under the microscope offers a viewpoint of best practice. This is a must-see matchup for a lot of reasons, especially given that the Chiefs are getting a huge -8.5 line to cover.

Nobody Saw Mahomes Becoming an MVP Favorite

Those hoping for a recreation of the insane Mayfield-Mahomes clash from 2016 might be left a little short. Mayfield threw for 545 yards and 7 touchdowns while Mahomes piled up a jaw dropping 734 yards and 5 touchdowns. Do not adjust your screens - these are all real numbers. Even more staggering is that Mahomes unleashed 88 pass attempts.

Mayfield walked away with the victory in that shootout, while Mahomes would end his tenure at Texas Tech as a bit of an unknown pro prospect. Texas Tech, after all, produced wayward NFL backups like Graham Harrell who threw for 134 touchdowns in college and never panned out in the pros. The term "system quarterback" was tossed around with Mahomes, but Andy Reid knew what he saw when he drafted the quarterback 10th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.

"Mahomes is now the +175 favorite to win the NFL MVP ahead of players like Todd Gurley, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. As for Baker, he's a +175 second choice to win Rookie of the Year behind Saquon Barkley."

Since then, it's been a bit of a straightforward story with a surprise plot twist. Nobody ever doubted that Mahomes would be productive. After all, Reid has never slipped when transitioning to a new pivot. He's done it with rising stars like Mahomes, veterans like Alex Smith and past-their-prime prodigies like Michael Vick. The track record is astounding. So the writing was on the wall with Mahomes...we just never assumed that he'd be re-writing history.

After bombing the Los Angeles Chargers with 256 yards and 4 touchdowns in Week 1 as a -3.5 point favorite, Mahomes and the Chiefs have been awe inspiring through the first half with the second year quarterback racking up numbers like we've never seen before. He's the fastest player to accumulate 25 touchdowns in a career. He's also thrown the most scores of any quarterback in history over the first two games, three games, eight games and also became the youngest player to ever throw for six scores in a game (Week 2 against the Steelers). Mahomes is now the +175 favorite to win the NFL MVP ahead of players like Todd Gurley, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. As for Baker, he's a +175 second choice to win Rookie of the Year behind Saquon Barkley.

In Week 9 NFL betting, the Chiefs are a heavy -9.0 favorite against a Browns team that is falling apart at the seams. As Mayfield - a former Heisman winner and first overall pick - wallows in a wasteland, Mahomes is king of the mountain. Nobody would've predicted that this would be how their careers would go when they combined for a billion yards back in 2016. And yet, Mahomes' story provides hope for Mayfield.

For the better part of the entire 2017 campaign, Mahomes sat behind veteran Alex Smith, an oddly divisive player who is as respected for his overall football acumen and consistency while also suffering from full-blown praise because he hardly ever wins in the playoffs and lacks real arm strength. Smith is essentially a perfect mentor for a young quarterback, and Andy Reid is the grand master in this analogy. The combination was the perfect setting for a young quarterback like Mahomes, who has arm talent that borders on indescribable. We didn't get a glimpse of Mahomes until Week 17 last year, where he threw for 284 yards and no touchdowns in a meaningless game. It was a fine outing, but nothing that raised any eyebrows.

Year two has been completely different for Mahomes. It can be for Mayfield as well. The growth from Year One for quarterbacks to Year Two is imperative, and a lot of highly touted quarterbacks have proven that the first season under center does not have to define a career (unless you're Nathan Peterman).

Trubisky, Watson Offer Hope For Second Year Quarterbacks

The player that is unfairly linked to Mahomes is Mitchell Trubisky of the Chicago Bears, and he might offer a better arc to what Mayfield is going through. Chicago was a franchise so desperate for a starter that they sent a mountain of draft picks to San Francisco for the right to select Trubisky second overall. Everyone likes to say "I can't believe Chicago traded a bounty when they could've picked Mahomes" forgetting that Mahomes was at no point a homerun draft pick. This was a questionable class, and Trubisky leading the way made him the go-to choice for a Bears team that so desperately needed to find someone they could build around.

Through year one, Trubisky was a literal and figurative running joke, throwing for just 7 touchdowns while surrendering 7 interceptions as well. Former head coach John Fox started Mike Glennon, that plan of action ran the expected course, and then Trubisky was trotted out there halfway through the year and literally couldn't stay in the pocket. He played scared. He looked absolutely terrified. By the end of 2017, and in to 2018, we were having genuine discussions about whether or not he was good enough to play in the NFL.

It's not Trubisky's fault that the Bears paid a king's ransom to acquire him but the fact that he was such a high draft pick created a mountain of expectation that he is just starting to climb. Obviously, the jury is still out on Trubisky because he's only in his second year, but a recent jump in his production has turned the Bears in to an actual playoff team. From a bird's eye viewpoint, Trubisky's gone from a 77.5 quarterback rating in 12 games through 2017 to a 97.8 mark this season. Over the last four games, Trubisky is notching a very handsome 112.4 RAT since finding his groove under new head coach Matt Nagy (who definitely overcomplicated things for the first month of the season). To put that in perspective, Russell Wilson has a 112.5 RAT this entire season, and is ranked 6th in this category.

(Measuring NFL quarterbacks by rating alone is sort of unfair, but it's a useful stat to measure efficiency without cracking out the stat shovel. If we can all agree that a high rating is good, and a low one is bad, then we don't have to get in to the nuts and bolts of passing yard totals and all the other categories. What rating does best is measure consistency of output over the course of a career, and that's why it's being used as a focal point in this article.)

The other quarterback taken in the 2017 NFL Draft that has any actual relevance is Deshaun Watson, who can't be fairly used as a reference point because his dynamite debut in 2017 saw him post a surreal 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in just 7 games before he blew out his knee in practice. Watson had a 103.0 rating and was getting league MVP chatter prior to the injury that slammed the brakes on a marvelous rookie campaign. This season, Watson has been a well-above-average quarterback with a 98.4 rating. He's starter worthy for the next few years unless he goes the path of Jameis Winston (I only say that because nobody seems to talk about how Watson has 11 turnover this year and 10 last year but shhhhhhhh).

Anyone Remember Goff or Wentz in Year One?

Two other NFL quarterbacks that exemplify this point, but require a bit more digging, are obvious. Carson Wentz was absolutely pedestrian as a full-time starter in 2016 after being drafted second overall. He posted 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns, 23 turnovers and a rating of 79.3. The yards produced is great, but he was ranked 25th in terms of efficiency. The next year? He jumped to a 101.9 rating and erupted as an MVP candidate. This season has been marred by injury recovery, but it's obvious that Wentz is more than capable of holding down a starting job.

Went'z draft counterpart is Jared Goff, who was taken first overall in 2016. Goff played sparingly in his rookie year. We can talk all we want about the Jeff Fisher impact, but let's also admit that Goff wasn't great out of the gates. He had a 63.6 rating in 2016 through 7 games. That number spiked significantly in 2017 to 100.5 (which is good), but it was masked by the actual play on-field. Goff was routinely protected by Sean McVay, a smart and strategic choice given the presence of Todd Gurley and the team's overall success. Goff's efficiency improved drastically, but his completion percentage and attempts were all below league average. There were very few - if any - moments in the 2017 campaign where Goff looked like he was the next coming. It's not unfair to say that Goff was used as a glorified game manager in his first, real season. McVay didn't shoulder Goff with wins because he didn't need to.

That's changed this season, with Goff jumping to a 112.5 rating amongst all NFL quarterbacks, and while he's averaging the same amount of attempts per game this year, he's taking more risks. There are more long bombs, more throws in to coverage. Goff is seizing control of the aerial assault in a way he categorically did not in 2017, and it's been incredible. He's simply a better player than when he walked in to the league three years ago. The only difference, outside of coaching, is experience.

What If NFL Quarterbacks Don't Improve?

Of course, this framework doesn't apply to all quarterbacks. The aforementioned Winston and Marcus Mariota were taken first and second overall in 2015 and have gone on to show almost zero growth. Mariota has averaged a 87.5 RAT throughout his career, peaked by a 95.6 rating in his second year and valleyed by a 79.3 rating. I don't need to sewer Jameis anymore than he's already done to himself, but his career average rating of 86.1 speaks for itself, as does his insane turnover potential.

The longer point with both of them is that they were thrown right in to the pits of hell, with a cruise ship's worth of expectations heaped on to their shoulders. Out of the box, they were both really good. And then...nothing really changed. In fact, both of them got worse. We can point the finger to institutional dysfunction running rampant through the Titans and Bucs' organizations, but there are also very little signs that Mariota and Winston are getting better at their positions. Trial by fire, especially in this day and age, can burn players to the ground.

The fact is that a lot of the prospective passers taken in the first round of the draft sometimes take a while to get things going. For every Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, there are dozens of NFL quarterbacks who tried and failed after being thrown immediately in to the furnace.

Baker's rookie campaign has been underwhelming despite its rip roaring beginnings, but there is hope. His accuracy and talent are unbelievable. Who knows what Mahomes would have become had he been forced to play last year? It's a worthy discussion.

Nature vs. Nurture

If you want the perfect justification for why NFL quarterbacks should be sitting for the better part of their first year, you don't need to look any further than the marquee matchup of the weekend between Green Bay and New England on Sunday Night. Both Tom Brady (6th round) and Aaron Rodgers (1st round) were forced to sit and wait behind Drew Bledsoe and Brett Favre respectively. Given the right situation, holding the clipboard is the right way to go. Historically, it's seemed to pan out more often than not.

The right situation is hard to come by, and that speaks for itself. Not every franchise can check off a list that includes a productive veteran quarterback, great coaching staff and strong culture along with a talented supporting cast. NFL quarterbacks by nature are hardwired to be alpha males, but that can work in a positive way and a negative way. Others are yearning for some guidance. There are a ton of variables to producing an elite passer, which we don't need to get in to. To be fair, there are exceptions where a rookie or first year player steps on the field and is immediately great for no discernible reason other than their own gifts. Cam Newton and Andrew Luck spring to mind. To a large degree, exceptions to the rule are carved out by exceptional talents.

The situation Mayfield's in makes his career and outlook a huge gamble. You have to pray that Mayfield is wired strongly enough to withstand the criticism, failure and scrutiny while also refraining from learning  career-killing bad habits. That in and of itself is a coin flip. Every quarterback needs to be put in to a position to succeed, and Cleveland cleaning house of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley is a step in the right direction. There's a lot about Mayfield's character that suggests a strong mental toughness. First round picks are never disregarded because of their physical potential or talent. They bust mostly because they're not agile enough between the ears.

There's enough glimpses out of Baker Mayfield to know that he has everything required to rank amongst elite NFL quarterbacks. The uphill grind of a rookie is rigorous sledding, but grading Mayfield in year one is unfair given context. It's especially inequitable to compare him to Patrick Mahomes, a player in his first year who had a chance to grow accustomed to the NFL in one of the most ideal ecosystems for a young prospect. Comparing the Mahomes and Mayfield head-to-head is less about the players themselves, and more about the environment they were thrust in to.  There's a way to produce NFL quarterbacks properly. Mahomes is a by-the-book example of following a blueprint that has trackable success rates.

As for Mayfield? Like betting on them this Sunday, it's a shot in the dark.