NFL insider notes: Baker Mayfield’s woes and what Panthers will do, Ravens’ wrong call and more from Week 4

NFL insider notes: Baker Mayfield's woes and what Panthers will do, Ravens' wrong call and more from Week 4

Through the first quarter of the season Baker Mayfield has not experienced the career renaissance he had hoped for. He’s 1-3 as a starting quarterback with career lows in completion percentage (54.7), touchdown rate (3.4) and yards per attempt (6.4). His 10 batted passes so far this season — including five in Sunday’s loss to Arizona — are the most in the NFL, according to PFF.

But I expect Mayfield will be the starting quarterback when the Panthers take the field next Sunday against the 49ers. In short, the Panthers don’t have any other option.

Carolina head coach Matt Rhule said after the 26-16 loss Sunday that he didn’t “think it’s right to speak on” a potential quarterback change. Though Sam Darnold is eligible to return from the injured reserve, I don’t get the impression he’s healthy enough to start right now, and he also lost the training camp competition at Mayfield.

The Panthers believe they have a top-10 defense that needs some help from its offense. The offensive line has played well enough. The team has assembled enough skill-position weapons with Christian McCaffrey, Robbie Anderson, DJ Moore and Laviska Shenault. The quarterback play has been well below average.

Sources in Carolina have repeatedly said over the past month-plus that the locker room is healthy, and they’ve credited the embattled Rhule for evolving from his first two years at the helm. Still, the Panthers are 1-26 in Rhule’s tenure when they allow at least 17 points.

Over the next three weeks the Panthers will face the three most recent NFC champions: the 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers.

Harbaugh made the wrong call, even if analytics support it

I slept on it and a morning later I still don’t like John Harbaugh’s decision to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 2. You weren’t beside me Sunday afternoon when the offense stayed on the field, but I was calling for the Ravens to take the all-but-guaranteed three points.

With 4:15 left in a 20-all tie ballgame, Harbaugh kept the ball in Lamar Jackson’s hands and tried to score. The pass—a prayer at the point of release—was intercepted. The Bills, armed with all three of their timeouts with their prolific offense, matriculated the ball down the field to kick the game-winning 21-yarder as time expired.

“Well, I felt like it gave us the best chance to win the game because seven [points], the worst that happens is if they go down the field and score – and I think we’ll get them stopped – but if they go down the field and score a touchdown, the worst thing that can happen is you’re in overtime, ” Harbaugh said after the game. “But you kick a field goal there, now it’s not a three-down game anymore, it’s a four-down game. You’re putting them out there, you’re putting your defense at a disadvantage because they’ve got four downs to convert all the way down the field and a chance to again score seven, and then you lose the game on a touchdown.

“The other thing you think you’re going to get the ball at the 2-yard line, so I’m very confident in the defense’s ability to stop them down there with the ball on the 2-yard line, so we have them backed up if we didn’t get it. It didn’t turn out that way, unfortunately, and we lost the game. So, hindsight, you could take the points, but if you look at it analytically, understand why we did it .”

The analytics do back Harbaugh. According to Next Gen Stats, the decision was a “go.” The win probability would have been 84.3% with a touchdown and 64.3% with a made field goal. (Important to note that Next Gen also had the actual yards to go as three and not two.)

But while the touchdown would undoubtedly have given the Ravens the best chance to win the game, a turnover on downs also gave them the best chance to lose the game. Buffalo’s win probability before the fourth-down play was 33%. After Jackson’s end-zone interception, it shot to 58% even as they were backed up on their own 2. [Full disclosure here: I’ve noted recently my side eye at win probability in today’s NFL.]

The Bills consume the most time per drive, most yards per time and have the second-most plays per drive in the league. They have the best third-down offense in the league (55.8 percent conversion rate) and are 5-of-7 on fourth down.

Harbaugh had faith in his defense, just as he had faith in his offense in what was somewhat better than a coin-flip play. But it was the same defense that two weeks before on the same field saw a 21-point lead against the Dolphins evaporate. And on Sunday, a 17-point lead disappeared.

Not only that, but four minutes and three timeouts with an MVP candidate as the opposing quarterback is an eternity.

Whether the Ravens kicked the field goal or got the touchdown, the defense would have still needed to prevent a Buffalo touchdown. There’s also nothing to suggest the Bills wouldn’t have tried to end the game with a 2-point conversion, on the road, in poor conditions, against a defense that would have just been gutted. If the Bills crossed the Baltimore 35 down three points, the game would very likely have reverted back to a three-down game. The Ravens also had two timeouts of their own at the start of the Bills drive to preserve time in the event of a quicker field goal to tie the game.

Going for the touchdown increased the Ravens’ odd of winning the game, and that’s the point of this magnificent experiment we call competitive sports. Failure to succeed in that one play also increased their odds to lose. The 2-2 Ravens would love to be 3-1 today, but they wouldn’t mind 2-1-1 either.

No Cowboys QB controversy despite Rush’s success

I can’t believe I have to say this, but there is no quarterback controversy in Dallas. The Cowboys will start Dak Prescott when he’s healthy to play, and that very well may be this week against the Rams.

Rush has exceeded expectations in his interim role, and he’s the first Dallas quarterback to begin his career 4-0 as a starter. He has a passer rating above 100 this season and hasn’t turned the football over as the Cowboys are undefeated under his watch.

His unblemished record is proof of the Cowboys’ belief in Rush, but it does not signal any sort of quarterback controversy. When a plan is carried out just as you hoped it’d be, it’s not time to change the plan.

Jerry Jones raised some eyebrows last month when he said he’d welcome a quarterback competition in Dallas. That’s because it would make his team interesting, and when his team is interesting he makes more money. The Cowboys are the highest-valued team in the NFL, in part, because of the things Jerry Jones says.

Benching an undefeated starter is one of those good problems that folks like Jones get lucky enough to have to deal with.

More Week 4 insider notes

  • I would expect the Patriots to, at the very least, sign a quarterback to the practice squad by Tuesday afternoon. Though it’s a good sign they didn’t place Mac Jones (ankle) on IR with a designation for return, it’s unclear if he will be able to play this week against the Lions. Brian Hoyer is in the concussion protocol and wouldn’t be able to practice until late in the week if he’s even cleared. Bailey Zappe is the lone healthy option at QB, and whether he starts against the Lions or (in the possible chance) backs up Jones, New England still needs someone to run scout team this week. No team is scoring more points or gaining more yards than Detroit, so New England’s defense has to get a decent look in this week of practice.
  • Emotions run hot, and the Ravens know exactly the type of personality Marcus Peters is. I don’t expect any fallout internally from his sideline reaction Sunday.

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