This week, we’re taking a look at two under-scrutiny quarterbacks who have had their ups and downs in 2020. But for all their trials and tribulations, their trajectories took quite different turns on Sunday. One overcame a dodgy start in the most spectacular way to achieve near perfection, while the other had a day that went from bad to worse.
Baker Mayfield: Zero to Hero
Unfortunately for us Bengals fans, a match-up against Cincinnati is often seen by other teams as a ‘get-right’ game – especially after a loss to the Steelers, it seems. Titans fans are already excited about bouncing back against Cincy after their narrow loss to Pittsburgh and last Sunday, the Browns were looking to do the same after their 38-7 whooping at the hands of the same opponents the previous week.
Coming into the second Battle of Ohio in five weeks, the main narrative in the Browns camp was the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Baker Mayfield’s campaign. Is he the guy to lead them to the playoffs or isn’t he? We’ve seen flashes, sure, but his 1,392 passing yards leaves him a lowly 25th in the NFL, trailing the likes of Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones. That total wasn’t helped much by his performance at Heinz Field, a quite horrible 10-of-18 for 119 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. He eventually gave way to Case Keenum to save him from a battering, and doubts about Mayfield’s abilities resurfaced.
A week after that miserable outing, Mayfield continued where he left off. His first quarter stat line in Cincinnati read 0-for-5. He opened with an interception that saw Odell Beckham Jr tear his ACL in trying to recover the ball, followed by four incompletions.
But just as the whole of Twitter was agreeing Baker was not ‘the guy’, to put it kindly, something suddenly clicked into place. Despite losing his No. 1 receiver (for the season, as it turns out) and failing to connect with anyone, Mayfield suddenly went nuclear and could do no wrong for the rest of the game.
He went from (quite literally) zero to hero, completing his next 15 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns to tight ends, which was only right and proper on National Tight End Day, I suppose. With Austin Hooper unavailable, rookie Harrison Bryant hauled in two scores while David Njoku made a tight 16-yard touchdown grab despite Vonn Bell being all over him.
If you ignore a deliberate clock-stopping spike in the game’s final moments, Baker eventually completed all 22 of his attempts following that miserable start. Yes, a 100% completion rate over three-quarters of a game(!) and his five passing touchdowns included a peach to Donovan Peoples-Jones, sealing the W with just 11 seconds left. Mayfield finished with a passer rating of 135.6 – not bad for someone who missed his first five throws. For comparison, he was rated at 54.9 against Pittsburgh.
The lead constantly changed hands, with six TDs and a FG scored in the last seven (full) drives – ignoring Joe Burrow’s Hail Mary with 00:04 on the clock – so it felt like whoever had the final possession would win. The Bengals didn’t eat up enough time in taking a 34-30 lead and so the stage was set: with just over a minute remaining, Mayfield led a five-play, 75-yard drive in just 55 seconds. It comprised passes of 13 yards, 8 yards, 30 yards and, after the spike, the spectacular, toe-tapping 24-yard game-winner. As a Bengals fan, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion.
On a day when Burrow became the first rookie QB in NFL history to throw for 400 yards, score three passing TDs and run one in, Mayfield had to play out of his skin to steal the headlines. But steal the headlines he did and you have to take your hat off to the fella. He was the guy.
Cam Newton: Free Agent to Freefall
Talking of headlines, one of Monday morning’s should have been how New England QB Cam Newton became the first player in NFL history to pass 30,000 passing yards and 5,000 rushing yards. Yet this achievement was overshadowed by a whole heap of other stories emerging from the Patriots’ 33-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers – not least the fact that it was their worst home defeat in the Bill Belichick era.
The former Panthers play-caller was a free agent well into June before he was snaffled by New England on a cheap, one-year deal. Maybe the reasons why there wasn’t a queue of likely suitors are now starting to emerge.
To put it bluntly, #1 is not in form. Cam is forcing throws into crowded areas that should really be avoided, reacting slowly, struggling with decision making and not finding his receivers. And it isn’t a one-off; Newton seems to be deteriorating week by week. His passer rating has declined in each of his four previous games (100.7, 94.6, 73.8 and 51.6) and losing to the Niners on Sunday was his worst outing yet (39.7).
He now has 2 TDs and 7 INTs – not an auspicious record. One of his three picks on Sunday was aimed at Jakobi Meyers but fell directly to Niners’ linebacker Fred Warner who was shadowing him closely. One was a long ball down the middle – again intended for Meyers – but it was overthrown and landed in the arms of Emmanuel Moseley. The other was thrown behind Julian Edelman, forcing a tipped ball that was gratefully snapped up by Jamar Taylor. Newton finished with a sorry-looking 9-for-15 and a paltry 98 passing yards before being given the Order of the Bench in favour of Jarrett Stidham.
This outing was similar to the one he put up against the Broncos after returning from the COVID list, going 17-for-25 and 157 yards with two picks in an 18-12 reverse. He’s on record as saying his current woes are not the after-effects of the coronavirus but still, you have to wonder.
Since getting to 10-1 in 2019, the Pats have gone 4-8 in their last 12 games so obviously, it’s not all Cam’s fault. The defence allowed the Niners almost 470 yards of total offence, including 270 on the ground, and the team had less than 22 minutes of possession. Their offensive weapons look blunt, with Edelman a shadow of his former self and the tight ends missing in action. They managed a mere 59 yards and four first downs in the first half, only serving to accentuate Newton’s woes.
Cam admitted afterwards that he was embarrassed but not surprised by the demotion. As he said on his regular Monday radio stint, “The first thing I said to myself coming home was ‘You keep playing games like that, bro, and it’s going to be a permanent change.’”
In his place, Stidham only mustered 64 yards from 10 attempts and also threw a pick during his short cameo, so Cam’s role as QB1 is not at risk… at least for now. The talk out of Foxborough is that Newton will indeed start this week against Buffalo but if he dishes out more performances of the same ilk, things may yet have to change.