Opinion: Kevin Stefanski’s conservative approach with Baker Mayfield paying off for Browns

The Cleveland Browns had exited their bye week, and after having time to assess the play of his quarterback, Kevin Stefanski made a prediction. 

“I think he’s ready to ascend,” the first-year coach said of Baker Mayfield. 

The Browns had drafted the Oklahoma star first overall in 2018 and hired Stefanski last winter in hopes his tutelage would ensure they received proper return on their investment. 

At the time of that Week 9 bye, Stefanski and Co. owned a 5-3 record, and Mayfield’s play had been solid as the Browns used him as more of a game manager than an elite-level passer.  

But with eight games under his belt, Mayfield had begun to fuel his coach’s confidence in his readiness to shoulder a heavy load.  

Six games later, Mayfield has indeed elevated his game and the Browns’ offense. Now he looks the part of a franchise quarterback capable of shining in big moments. He and the Browns are reaching new heights. 

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield talks with head coach Kevin Stefanski. (Photo: Scott Galvin, USA TODAY Sports)

Mayfield led Cleveland to a 20-6 victory against the New York Giants on Sunday night to secure the Browns’ 10th victory of the season and place them one step closer to qualifying for the playoffs. 

Cleveland had won 10 games in a single season once (2007) in the last 20 years, and the Browns haven't reached the postseason since 2002.

Against the Giants, Mayfield completed a career-high 84.3% of his passes for 297 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s the kind of performance Mayfield has begun producing with consistency during the Browns’ playoff push. 

Since the bye, Cleveland has won five of six games. Sunday was the fourth consecutive multi-touchdown game for Mayfield, and the third time in the last four weeks he has posted a passer rating above 115. Mayfield fell 3 yards shy of achieving his third consecutive 300-yard game.

“Baker was outstanding tonight,” Stefanski said after the game. “He was dialed in. It is really what I expect from him, and it is what he expects from himself. It is how he practices. I really thought he was sharp.”

Mayfield continued to display the confidence and improved decision-making that has served as the foundation of his game in the second half of the season.

But in another sign of increasing maturity, he deflected when asked about his play.  

“It goes back to talking to you guys earlier in the season about trusting these guys around me, trusting the guys up front, going through my progressions and just delivering the ball and let them make the plays,” Mayfield told reporters. “Our guys are making a ton of plays. Our protection continues to be great, and these guys continue to make plays for us. That is why the confidence is so high and I don’t have to do anything else. It is these guys doing their job.”

Trust is a common theme within the Browns organization these days, but especially when it comes to the relationship between Mayfield and Stefanski.

Stefanski worked to establish that early with the quarterback. The coach made sure Mayfield grasped the vision held for him and the offense, and the reasons behind it.

Stefanski understood that as Mayfield learned yet another offense and worked with a third play-caller in as many years, a conservative approach early would pay off in the long run.

He scaled back on the pass plays called for Mayfield and let a strong line and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt set the tone. Mayfield went from averaging 33 pass attempts a game in 2019 to 29 in 2020. 

The balanced approach of the Browns offense helped cultivate greater comfort in the system for Mayfield. A strong run game has also created more play-action opportunities, which keeps defenders off balance and buys Mayfield more time to scan the field.

Mayfield’s decision making has improved. He understands he doesn’t have to make something out of nothing every play. Sometimes, it’s better to live to see another play.

It’s not uncommon to see Mayfield settle for a checkdown — scramble for a moderate gain to set up a third-and-manageable situation — rather than gamble.

“We are not going to force the ball to anybody,” Mayfield said. “Trusting the progressions, trusting the play calls, taking what is there and keeping the chains moving. Eliminate negative plays and just let these guys make plays.”

A year after recording 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, Mayfield has 25 touchdown passes and just eight picks. In the last four games, Mayfield has 10 touchdown passes and one interception. 

Through eight games, Mayfield ranked 26th in the NFL with a 90.9 passer rating. In the last six games, he has averaged a passer rating of 107.2, which raised his season rating to 99.4, 11th in the league. (Last year, Mayfield had a feeble 78.8 passer rating).

Stefanski’s success with Mayfield and the Browns make him a strong candidate for Coach of the Year. But more important, he has played a large role in changing the mindset of the locker room to the point where players remain far from satisfied for reaching 10 wins.

“It is something that until I got into the league my rookie year that I did not realize how hard it was to win in the league," Mayfield said. "It is something to be proud of, but the best part is everybody in there is like, ‘Yeah, 10 wins, but we are on to the next one.’ A notch on the belt and then move on because we are not done yet. That is the best part about this team, and I keep stating it about them is they are on to the next one.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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