THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Baker Mayfield crashed, hard.
The Rams quarterback led his new team to a historically-improbable Thursday night win against Las Vegas in Week 14, driving 98 yards and throwing a go-ahead touchdown in about a minute and a half, all after being claimed by them off waivers from Carolina just 40 hours prior.
After that, Mayfield said, he slept for “probably about a day and a half.” He has since processed that night in a series of flashes — “guys communicating with me … clocking the ball late in the game … (center) Brian Allen yelling in my face what the cadence is … Sean (McVay) yelling in my ear … little things like that.”
Then, it was back to work, to prepare for his first start as a Ram — against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football, in freezing Lambeau temperatures.
Mayfield has four games to present his best possible resume, most likely (the Rams believe) for another team interested in signing him as a starter in free agency. The 4-9 Rams, while all but mathematically eliminated from the postseason, would like to go out swinging and get a good evaluation of their younger players in the process, with so many stars injured.
“I think you just take it a day at a time. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself,” McVay said after the wild win. “I think we’ll just at least have a little bit more normalcy to a weekly rhythm. You still don’t want to be naïve to the fact that there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to continue to try to be able to build on.”
It’s mid-December. Consider this: Mayfield is not just learning the Rams’ playbook for the first time. He’s also balancing that effort with game planning for opponents each week, starting with the Packers.
“I still think you have to be cognizant of the amount of information that a quarterback’s responsible for,” McVay said. “You want to give it to him in bite-size increments, you want to be mindful of (getting) a good, tight game plan together that is reflective of what the 10 guys around him are comfortable with (and) what he’s comfortable with.”
Some of the philosophical or foundational principles cross over. Mayfield worked with Kevin Stefanski and Bill Callahan in Cleveland, two operators of the McVay/Kyle/Mike Shanahan offensive system that is so prolific throughout the NFL. As it pertains to the general responsibilities of the offensive line and protection calls, the language is universally shared within that system regardless of where it’s being run.
Because he already “speaks” the language of the protections within this system, Mayfield didn’t have to start from scratch within a key part of the playbook — one offensive assistant compared this benefit of stockpiled information to a kid skipping from first to sixth grade.
“It’s big,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “It cuts out so much learning and teaching. That … isn’t a ‘huddle call,’ really. It’s not something that occurs (there). It’s on the line of scrimmage, happening fast. Adjustments, communication, things like that, that are really difficult.”
Still, though all of the variations of this offense come from the same root ball, they’ve pollinated into their own versions as coaches have been hired elsewhere, then built and called schemes outside of the original base. Some systems share the same core “rules,” but concepts sound or look different in call or execution depending on the coach.
For example, Mayfield threw a pass to receiver Van Jefferson on a “sail” route. Some systems call that same route “banana,” while others call it “rattle.” A standard quarterback play call like this (as illustrated by backup quarterback John Wolford in a recent op-ed for The Athletic): “Lens to Deuce Rt Claw Z Short Lander Z Strong X Revo Z Lockback (can) 2 Jet Z-Monday Astro Read Alert Money Deacon Flow F Panama On the Omaha” can feature a different word in each space depending on which offensive system it exists in or the game plan for that week. But both calls could ultimately look the same in execution.
For the language that doesn’t translate, Mayfield processes and applies new information using other tools he takes with him everywhere: a thick, lined notebook with a black cover and a pencil pouch full of pens and multicolored highlighters.
Mayfield started color-coordinating his notes in a code specific to him in 2020 when he went through yet another coordinator change (he has now had a combined seven head coaches/coordinators in five seasons since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2018, including a mid-season change in Carolina prior to his release).
Each color means something different and correlates to variables underneath different “umbrella” categories such as pass or run plays, or priority plays. Mayfield’s neat, compact script stacks into the lines of each page, and different words within the concepts he has written out are highlighted over in different colors depending on reads, criteria for the play or other important details.
When Mayfield sees a color, he also sees a mental picture of a play or a piece of a play. Because of this, certain words that may have translated into one concept in Cleveland and mean another in Los Angeles still present the same picture in Mayfield’s mind’s eye because he’s highlighted key variables with the same color. He believes it helps fast-track the process between exiting out of one offense’s language and onboarding into the next.
“Trying to be as efficient as possible, to where when you hear a play call you can process it extremely quickly,” Mayfield told The Athletic. “I look at it after taking notes, and I’m like, ‘It’s this play.’” Mayfield pointed to a color highlighted over a word, then another, then another. “What’s the criteria to get to a different look? This is what we’re looking for. Trying to eliminate time and be the most efficient.”
Meanwhile, offensive assistant Jake Peetz has been pulling tape from some of the successful concepts Mayfield ran in Cleveland to see if there can be any combinations or concepts to carry over. McVay recalled the Rams staff doing the exact same thing when they added another former Browns player, Odell Beckham Jr., in November last year. Coen and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson have taken the lead on the more granular responsibilities of immersing Mayfield in their system.
“He did a great job studying over the last few days,” Coen said Friday. “Was in here every morning at 6 a.m. and was here pretty late at night, too. … (He is) confidently professional.”
The coaching staff can help Mayfield streamline information just as his own color-coded notes can. McVay shared advice he received from Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens about teaching: “‘Give ’em just enough to try to go play great,’” McVay recalled. “‘You can immerse these guys in information and sometimes not all of it is necessary.’”
“Unnecessary” information, he added, includes the caffeine-fueled tangents he’s caught himself barreling down on more than one occasion.
“They don’t need to know all of that kind of stuff,” McVay said, smiling. “I think it’s just making sure that you’re very direct, to the point and clear so that the clarity exists.”
Mayfield is preparing to start his first game as a Ram, in the freezing cold at Lambeau Field. He’ll be sure to pack his pencil pouch in his carry-on bag for the flight.
“Yeah, it’s pretty nerdy,” Mayfield said. “But it works for me.”
Players trending up, players trending down as Rams eye last leg of season
Mid-game in Mayfield’s first appearance for Los Angeles, the Rams coaching staff needed pens and markers on the sideline — they scribbled all over his call sheet, adding some concepts, tweaking some and subtracting others or simplifying some of the language he’s still trying to make second-nature.
In addition to the playbook, Mayfield is also still getting to know his teammates, and they him. Some got a shocking introduction already: A helmet-less Mayfield crashed his forehead into the helmeted heads of cornerback Robert Rochell and Tyler Higbee after last Thursday’s win.
“I was not expecting that,” Higbee said drily, “but I’m glad I had my helmet on.”
“Passionate is the correct word,” running back Cam Akers said smiling. “I ain’t experienced the head-butt yet, so I can’t tell you about it, but it looks painful. … He’s energetic, fired-up.”
The Rams had nothing to lose when they claimed Mayfield, and he has everything to gain. Along the way, it’s likely this group will lean into the unorthodox nature of his arrival, and the frenetic pace that has followed. That’s when McVay has always been at his best and learned the most, and it seems that’s when Mayfield thrives, too.
Why not, McVay indicated with his small shrug while discussing the Rams’ decision to bring in Mayfield, “What the hell?”
(Top photo of Baker Mayfield: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)