The Heisman Trophy is not an award that is handed out “annually to the most outstanding player in college football whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity” as The Heisman Trophy Trust likes to claim.
Nope. It’s a popularity contest. A snapshot of who captured the season.
If this year’s award was lifted by the best player, then Lamar Jackson, the reigning winner who has somehow improved, would win back-to-back. And if it had to go to the best player in the nation, with past winners excluded, it would go to Saquon Barkley: the perfect running back. (And, hey, while we’re at it, maybe we should consider splitting it into two, offense and defense, just so Ed Oliver can get in on the fun.)
But it won’t. The award goes to the player who captured the pulse of the nation and embodied the season. It’s why the award now boils down to two categories: The most fun quarterback in the country; or the top running back on a completely overwhelming team.
That’s why Baker Mayfield is the Heisman favorite. Crotch grabs, be damned. He’s captured the season with special moments on the field, and viral sensations off it.
Mayfield has been disturbingly good this year. He leads all draft eligible quarterbacks in passer rating on short and deep throws, per ProFootballFocus.
He is the closest thing we’ve seen at the college level to Russell Wilson. Not the slick footed, overlooked Wilson who dazzled at Wisconsin. The NFL version of Wilson: A party on the football field.
Mayfield is capable of transforming the game into a spectacle.
That’s why he’ll be the deserving winner when the Heisman’s glitzy New York ceremony rolls around – no amount of pearl clutching will stop that.
Let’s go into the film room to look at what has transformed Oklahoma’s quarterback from a walk-on at Texas Tech into an all-time great Sooner, poised to take home college football’s most prestigious prize. And why he will have teams buzzing as we approach the upcoming NFL Draft.
Accuracy from within the pocket
Mayfield may give off punk rock vibe, but he’s more of a classical musician, with an influence of jazz, than he’d like to admit.
Comparisons to Johnny Manziel are lazy. Mayfield has Manziel’s doesn’t-give-a-damn, bad-boy demeanor, on and off the field. But the pair are different once the ball is snapped.
True, Manziel was also an off-beat player, a pure jazz artist. But he was reckless.
Manziel was a haphazard decision maker, blessed by the football gods, turning terrible plays into those special “Johnny Football” moments. Mayfield dabbles with jazz. He likes to drift away from the carefully constructed symphony from time to time. But he plays within the structure of Lincoln Riley’s sophisticated passing system — throwing on time and in rhythm – more than some of the dazzling highlights would have you believe.
His turnover-worthy throw percentage is fourth in the nation, per ProFootballFocus. His antics play up the act of a reckless guy, but his play is far from it.
Sometimes completion percentage can be deceiving when measuring a quarterback’s accuracy. It’s typically a team stat rather than an individual one. The blocking, receiver separation and offensive scheme are bundled together to spit out how often balls are completed — whether they’re truly accurate throws is irrelevant.
Mayfield’s numbers are not hoodwinking anyone. He leads the nation in adjusted completion percentage (83 percent, per ProFootballFocus), while sitting second in “big-time throw” percentage. That’s a pretty epic combination.
He has developed into the complete package from within the pocket.
Want him to attack man coverage, throwing to the back shoulder, outside the numbers, when his receiver and a cornerback are in phase? Then Mayfield has you covered:
Better still: How about the famed bucket throw – dropping throws over linebackers and in front of the secondary. Mayfield delivers those throws with a little extra pizzazz.
That is obscene.
Nowhere has Mayfield shown more growth than against zone coverage – the favorite principle in the Big 12. He is a wizard in attacking off coverage; he shuffles his feet, whips his eyes and Jedi-mind tricks defenders to bite, before flinging the ball to an open receiver.
He’s now a Ph.D-level passer, using a combination of brains, movement and pinpoint accuracy.
It’s not good enough for Baker to just complete passes anymore. No sir, that would be easy. Everything is about keeping the juggernaut that is Oklahoma’s offense on the move; first downs, tempo, more first downs, more tempo, touchdowns.
At first glance, this throw may look misplaced: It was an out route. Mayfield stuck the throw on his receiver’s inside shoulder.
It was a great ball. It allowed his guy to catch it and turn up field for a first down, rather than stretching toward the boundary and getting lit up like a Christmas tree by the defender squatting in coverage.
It’s important to re-emphasize: Mayfield isn’t just accurate, he’s precise. He’s not playing see-it-throw-it football. He puts the ball into particular spots to beat certain coverage concepts, and he’s always giving his guys a chance to go create after the catch.
Mayfield’s ball placement is as a good as any quarterback in the country. Five Oklahoma receivers have over 100-yards after the catch this season.
True, Baker has had some help. His offensive line has been superb. Lincoln Riley is a play-calling savant.
Six linemen have played over 100 snaps in pass protection this season. Two have yet to concede a sack or hit (Orlando Brown and Cody Ford). Mayfield has been sacked only 9 times all season and hit only 8. His mobility, inside and outside of the pocket also plays a big role in that, but more on that later.
Football snobs will bemoan the lack of traditional concepts in the Sooners’ offense – particularly when projecting their star quarterback to the next level. But much like Deshaun Watson before him, Mayfield has shown traits that are concept proof, and exactly what the NFL is looking for: Throwing with rhythm; timing; making quick decisions; and throwing with precision.
Oh, and when he needs to rip a throw to the inside shoulder of a receiver on a deep post, he’s got that one stored in his locker, too.
There aren’t a bunch of quarterbacks playing on Sundays who routinely hit that throw.
Mayfield has mastered all of Riley’s creative wrinkles. The coach likes to use vertical releases out of the backfield to attack man coverage or to bamboozle the defense off a play fake. Whether it’s a running back or fullback, he doesn’t quite care.
One of the duo’s favorite is to put opposing linebackers in conflict by masquerading a vertical route concept with a power read. Linebackers crash down, eager to get after the quarterback on a play in which they’re actually allowed to hit him.
The initial action starts as a classic power read: Mayfield sticks the ball in the belly of a back, the backside guard starts to pull around in sync, the quarterback reads an unblocked front side defender before deciding whether to hand the ball off or pull it for himself:
Linebackers download everything in an instant, keying on Mayfield or the running back.
But wait! That was all window dressing. There’s no power read. Instead, Mayfield targets Dimitri Flowers, the Sooners’ Swiss Army knife of a football player (call him an H-back, call him a fullback, call him whatever you want. He does a little of everything).
Flowers was initially disguised as a lead blocker on the read option. But in reality, he leaks out of the backfield on a vertical release, knifing between a pair of defenders and galloping into open space.
In the blink of an eye, the Sooners have bombed a big play downfield. The play relies on Mayfield doing Mayfield things: Selling the run, making a quick decision, sliding in the pocket where necessary and delivering an accurate throw while stumbling around and from a peculiar arm angle. Those are innate traits.
Sometimes it’s simpler, like when Mayfield gets to pull up a deck chair behind his enormous offensive line and wait patiently for Flowers to do his thing downfield (he is going to make an NFL staff super excited).
Riley also uses quirky route combinations. It’s not typical to see a receiver run a wheel curl out of the slot:
Mayfield has absorbed it all. Riley’s system boasts guile, creativity, and unpredictability. It takes a special talent to orchestrate it all – the rhythm dropbacks paired with funky route concepts.
He has gotten better at everything. His passion, (borderline buffoonery) grabs headlines, but it’s his savviness and accuracy from within the pocket that’s made him as devastating a weapon as anyone in the sport.
Finding throwing lanes
Two facts: Oklahoma’s offensive line is ginormous; Mayfield is not.
Orlando Brown, the Sooners’ left tackle, is a 6-foot-8, 260-pound future first-round pick. The three-year anchor is the lightest of the group. Every other lineman totals over 315 pounds. The group averages out at 6-4. Mayfield is listed as 6-foot-1 (and that’s being generous).
Finding throwing lanes through that forest of arms and girth can be tough.
Mayfield has faced rough comparisons to Johnny Manziel and other smaller QBs who like to take off and run the moment things get messy in the pocket — usually offered, unsolicited, by skeptics.
Mayfield’s pocket mobility, however, is akin to one of the best to ever do it: Drew Brees.
Brees shattered the mold of prototypical pro passers almost entirely because of his ability to slide and move in the pocket, creating throwing windows between lineman, rather than having to throw over the top of them (that, and rare anticipation, accuracy and that intangible ability to make a ball somehow easier to catch).
Being a 6-5 quarterback is nice. But it’s no longer a prerequisite to success.
Mayfield has mastered the art of maneuvering in the pocket to create angles before releasing the ball:
For every fun highlight, there’s a moment of pure, pro-style magic that’s often so subtle it goes unnoticed:
Above, Mayfield channels his inner Brees. He shuffled in the pocket to open up a nice window, while avoiding the pressure slanting in from his right. He nailed his receiver on the crossing route.
Not only that, but the ball is in the perfect spot: beyond the dropping TCU linebacker, yet out in front of his guy, where the trailing defender couldn’t make a play on the ball, but where his receiver can go create after the catch.
Mayfield has turned a “weakness” into an asset. Linebackers lose sight of him as he bobs and weaves around the pocket. And cornerbacks sitting in off coverage can’t quite read his eyes, at least not until he bails out and all hell breaks loose.
Be prepared for months of NFL draft chatter on Mayfield’s stature; whether that can win at quarterback in the NFL; and if you can take that player in the first round (here comes those anonymous scouts).
Yes! As long as they have that Brees-like ability to navigate the pocket and create throwing lanes. Baker does.
More important than height in the modern game is the ability to throw off-platform. When chaos envelops around you, can you get the ball out from awkward arm angle, throw on the move, with pressure in your face or from a muddied pocket, like when your center gets trampled into your lap?
Mayfield is an off-platform maestro. He can sling fire from every conceivable release point or platform he likes.
He has this unique way of slumping into his footwork. He moves backwards, planting both feet, before taking a brief pause, almost as if to say, “You best believe I’m about to do this” before he rips a fastball right by the defender’s ear hole, typically to the perfect spot.
I mean, how do you defend that?
He is daring, and uses funky arm angles to engineer passes even the best cannot generate.
Check out these wild release points:
Hardly textbook. But all of them went for positive yards. Three of them for first downs.
That knack for painting outside the numbers allows him to steal a split-second on the defense. That’s no small thing. The ball arrives a beat before they’re expecting it.
Getting creative helps Mayfield whip the ball out on bubble screens, slip screens and RPOs. And it keeps the Sooners’ offense chugging along. The wackier the throw, the more the entertainer relishes it.
It’s not every day a quarterback catches the ball before whirling around to deliver a laser to the opposite side of the field:
The ball was out of Mayfield’s hand so quickly that the pair of Kansas State defenders could not crash down in time. The ball got into the receiver’s hand, gifting him an extra beat to get past a defender, force a missed tackle and turn what should have been a stalemate into an explosive play.
As with any great performer, there’s a constant battle to stave off complacency. Sometimes the off-platform studs get too comfortable throwing from awkward angles, and they start to indulge in the seemingly impossible even when there’s a much easier route.
Bad habits form. Mayfield can get sloppy with his footwork; nonchalantly walking back to a spot before unfurling a three-quarter armed throw aimed between two defenders.
Check the footwork:
Now the final body position:
There’s no way he could squeeze that ball between the two defenders with enough velocity and accuracy … right?
Pffft, Baker cares not for your preconceived notions on quarterback mechanics. The reality: A perfectly-thrown ball to split the two-deep defenders. Once again, put in a spot where only his guy could get it.
Heck, he even has the Aaron Rodgers both-feet-in-the-air-throwing-against-the-grain-throw down.
When it comes to off-platform throwers, Mayfield is in a rare class: Rodgers, Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford. They’re all guys who can make unique throws no matter how their body contorts.
Mayfield has earned a spot in the rarified air of the best off-platform magic acts to do it; not many guys can make this throw with defenders draped over them while they move backwards:
That should be bottled and harnessed, like a genie willing to answer his future coaches’ drive-saving wishes. Not drilled out of him to conform to some semblance of pseudo Bill Walsh-ism.
Let Baker be Baker.
Yes, he has issues that need cleaning up on a down-in-down-out basis. Whipping the ball across your body is fun and effective in college. They’ll give you a Heisman Trophy for that. They typically send you to the bench in the pros.
But he has an unusual gift that shouldn’t be sedated when he moves on to the next level. It’s more important than ever, at every level of the game, for a quarterback to be able to extend a play and make awkward throws. No one makes the tough look easy like Mayfield.
How about those legs?
Mayfield doesn’t have deceptive speed. He’s legit fast. It’s why he’s able to conjure up acts of sorcery just as he’s about to get walloped.
He has the burst to make any kind of option a lethal component of the Sooners’ offense. They’ve even run the en vogue toss-option, made famous by Clemson:
And Mayfield has this tough to describe slinky running style. It’s like he’s in a perpetual state of falling over, but he never hits the deck. He slinks and slips up the field, gathering pace as he uses the slightest of shoulder feints to make guys miss in the open field.
He has breakaway speed.
Where he’s at his best, though, is making pass rushers look like fools in the pocket. He’s there, then, suddenly, he’s gone, as if he’s performing The Prestige act.
And he does it all while keeping his eyes downfield, as though missing the sack wasn’t painful enough, Mayfield is going to tack on an extra 10 yards and a first down just for good measure.
Baker best be careful, witchcraft is illegal in the continental U.S.
The sack total I referenced earlier – 9 sacks and just 8 hits all season – has as much to with his mobility as it does the guys who’re tasked with standing in front and protecting him.
He’s proven to be as accurate throwing on the move as standing in the pocket:
That taps into a fresh level of creativity for Riley and his offensive staff. Watching Mayfield is fun, designing plays for him must be awesome.
Trying to pick holes in Mayfield’s game this season has proven folly. He’s mastered QB play at this level — there’s nothing else to say.
He will cap his wonderful year with the most prestigious of individual awards. And if things fall the right way for his team, he’ll get a crack at competing for the national championship in the College Football Playoff.
Attempts to downplay his brilliance due to his off-field conduct (insert Simpsons pearl clutching GIF at your own leisure) is equally fruitless. College football is resplendent with the personality-less. It’s nice to have a star who knows how hard he’s worked to become one of the best to do it.
He’s better than you, and he knows it. Forget sportsmanship. If you don’t like him, stop him.
When we look back on his marvelous year, the flag planting, sideline yelling and pregame trolling will likely dominate the memory. But let’s not lose sight of what a spectacular, whirlwind of a player we’ve been treated to throughout his career.
Mayfield is the embodiment of all that is college football: passionate, unpredictable, imperfect, oozing talent and fun. Who better to receive its most iconic award?