Friday, September 28, 2018

Will Mayfield ignore Gruden hyperbole?

 It’s an old, but tried and true, practice employed and copied by just about every head football coach on all levels down through the years. Never, under any circumstances, publicly denigrate the opposition no matter how bad they are.

After reading the words of Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden during a Wednesday conference call with the Cleveland media in the run-up to Sunday’s game with the Browns, you would think he is the president and chief cheerleader of the Baker Mayfield fan club.

“Mayfield . . . if you draw a line under that name, he’s the man,” said Gruden of the Browns’ rookie quarterback, who will make his National Football League starting debut against his winless Raiders in Oakland. “He’s the story I think right now is going to become bigger and bigger in Cleveland this year.”

And why exactly is that? “He does an excellent job of keeping plays alive and has incredible vision downfield,” said Gruden, who reentered the NFL coaching wars this year after a nine-year absence.

“I mean the guy has eyes in the back of his head.  So you’ve got to know he’s a great, creative player and the system they run involves a lot of skilled people they didn’t have last year.”

Anything else? “He has the magic about him,” Gruden effusively continued his hyperbole. “He has the charisma about him that really allows everybody on that team . . . to play at a higher level.”

High praise, indeed, for a quarterback who has played roughly 32 minutes of one NFL game. Played perfectly by the veteran coach. Pump up the most recent star player and mean maybe a syllable or two of his utterances.

Mayfield doesn’t seem to have the kind of intelligence that would believe bullroar like that. If its intention was to build up the kid’s ego to distract him, it is unlikely going to work.

Mayfield has displayed the ability to prevent outside interference from messing with the task at hand, a trait surprising in one so young and focused. He will face an entirely different situation Sunday than he did in the Thursday night victory over the New York Jets.

The Raiders, who will move to Las Vegas either next season or 2020, are an angry football team. Gruden’s return to the sidelines after nine years away from coaching has staggered out of the starting gate.

The club’s inability to hold on to leads is the biggest stumbling block, having led all three losses at halftime with two of those margins good enough to lead heading into the final quarter. Finishing seems to be the biggest problem. Sounds a little like the Browns the last several seasons.

Defense is the biggest area of concern for the Raiders, who have posted only three sacks and one interception thus far. Rushing the passer is relatively non-existent.

Gruden laments that he needs not only a pass rusher, but a great pass rusher. “It’s hard to find a great one,” he said. “It’s hard to find a good one. It’s hard to find one. . . . With college football, they aren’t dropping back to pass and throwing anymore.”

He’s partially correct. More than a few NFL teams draft college quarterbacks who excel in the run/pass/option game, which features the short- to medium-range game. Plays develop quicker, thus neutralizing a strong pass rush. (Mayfield is a prime example.)

The Raiders put less pressure on quarterbacks than any other team. Only a league-low 19 pressures on 98 dropbacks by opposing quarterbacks, figures that would look a whole lot different had Gruden not sanctioned the trade of edge rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears.

Mack, who epitomizes the great pass rusher Gruden longs for, is a game-changer who wanted more money than the club was willing to spend to keep him in the Bay area and now he’s wreaking havoc in Chicago.

Offensively, the Raiders are much more dangerous – and careless – with the football. Quarterback Derek Carr has completed 76.6% of his passes, but has thrown only two touchdown passes and completed five others to the opposition. He has thrown for 642 yards and three scores in splitting a pair of games with Cleveland

His favorite targets are tight end Jared Cook, who has 18 receptions for 260 yards and wide receivers Amari Cooper (13 catches for 142 yards) and Jordy Nelson, coming off a six-reception, 173-yard afternoon in last Sunday’s 28-20 loss in Miami. Martavis Bryant, cut originally by the Raiders, is back and is a dangerous deep threat.

The ground game is handled by veterans Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin, both of whom are on the downward side of their careers. Lynch has scored all three of the Raiders’ touchdowns – they’ve scored only five total – infantry style. 

Two factors impact how this one turns out. The Raiders are due to bust out and the Browns, who finally broke their winless streak after 635 days against the Jets, face another losing streak, this one on the road.

It will be exactly 1,085 days (and 22 games) ago since the Browns recorded a road victory when they face the Raiders. It was Oct. 11, 2015 in Baltimore when they knocked off the Ravens, 33-30, in overtime on a 32-yard field goal by Travis Coons, his fourth of the afternoon.

There is no question the Cleveland offense is different with Mayfield at the helm. But the Raiders now have tape on the rookie even though it’s somewhat limited. It’s hard to tell if that will be enough to help form some sort of successful defensive game plan against him.

Everything in his one points to a Browns victory. They are a more talented team, a younger team, a hungrier team and a more balanced team. And yet there is that lingering thought that slams on the brakes and cautions not yet.

Seeing is believing. That was evident against the jets. But can Mayfield repeat, or come close to repeating, his performance against them? Winning on the road in the NFL is difficult to begin with.

Until Mayfield can show he can win in enemy territory, it is difficult to pick the Browns to win. But when he does, and he will, the landscape changes dramatically.  It just won’t be this Sunday.

Oh . . . and don’t forget about the spectacularly awful Browns special teams that have caused more problems in three games than most teams encounter in an entire season. Factor that into the equation and then . . . Make it:

Raiders 20, Browns 17

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