NFL Insider Notes: Baker Mayfield woes and what the Panthers will do, Ravens’ wrong call and more from Week 4

During the first quarter of the season Baker Mayfield did not experience the career renaissance he had hoped for. He is 1-3 as a starting quarterback with career lows in completion percentage (54.7), touchdown percentage (3.4) and yards per attempt (6.4). His 10 touchdown 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 to be the starting quarterback when the Panthers take the field next Sunday against the 49ers. In short, the Panthers have no choice.

Carolina coach Matt Rhule said after Sunday’s 26-16 loss that he doesn’t “think it’s right to talk about” a possible quarterback change. While Sam Darnold is eligible to return from injured reserve, I don’t get the impression he’s healthy enough to start right now, and he also missed the training camp game to Mayfield.

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

Carolina sources have said repeatedly over the past month – plus that the locker room is healthy and have credited the embattled Rhule for his development since his first two years at the helm. Still, the Panthers are 1-26 in Rhule’s tenure when allowing at least 17 points.

Over the next three weeks the Panthers will face three of the four conference championship finalists from a season ago: the 49ers, Rams and Buccaneers.

Harbaugh made the wrong call, even if the analytics back it up

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 by my side Sunday afternoon when the offense stayed on the field but I was asking the Ravens to get the only guaranteed three points.

With 4:15 left in a 20-all game, 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 timeouts with their prolific offense, drove the ball down the field to kick the game-winning 21-yarder as time expired.

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

“The other thing you think you’re going to get the ball on 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’ve got them backed up if we don’t get it . It didn’t turn out that way, unfortunately, and we lost the game. So in hindsight, you could take the points, but if you look at it in detail, you understand why we did it.”

Analytics bring Harbaugh back. According to Next Gen Stats, the decision was a “go.” The probability of winning would be 84.3% with a touchdown and 64.3% with a field goal. (Important to note that Next Gen also had the actual yards to go as three rather than two.)

But while the touchdown would undoubtedly have given the Ravens their best chance to win the game, a turnover on downs also gave them their best chance to lose the game. Buffalo’s chance of winning before the fourth game was 33%. After Jackson’s end zone interception, it skyrocketed to 58% even when they had backed up 2 on their own. [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, the most yards per drive 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 as he did in his offense in what was somewhat better than a coin flip game. But it was the same defense that two weeks ago 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 scored the touchdown, the defense would still need to prevent a Buffalo touchdown. There’s also nothing to suggest the Bills wouldn’t try to end the game with a 2-point conversion, on the road, in bad conditions, against a defense that would have just been destroyed. If the Bills had outscored Baltimore’s 35 points by three points, the game likely would have reverted to a three-point game. The Ravens also had two timeouts of their own early in the Bills game to preserve time in the event of a quicker field goal to tie the game.

Going for the touchdown increased the Ravens’ chances of winning the game, and that’s what this wonderful experiment we call competitive sports is all about. Their failure to succeed in this game also increased their chances of losing. The 2-2 Ravens would like to be 3-1 today, but they wouldn’t mind 2-1-1 either.

No controversy for Cowboys QB 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 could very well be this week against the Rams.

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

His unblemished record is a testament to the Cowboys’ faith in Rush, but it doesn’t signal any kind of quarterback controversy. When a plan is performing exactly as you hoped, it is not time to change the plan.

Jerry Jones raised some eyebrows last month when he said he would welcome a quarterback competition in Dallas. This is 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.

Fielding an unbeaten starter is one of those good problems that people like Jones are lucky enough to face.

More week 4 confidential notes

  • I would expect the Patriots to, at the very least, sign a quarterback to the practice squad by Tuesday afternoon. While it’s a good sign they didn’t place Mac Jones (ankle) on IR with a return indication, it’s unclear if he’ll 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 only healthy option at QB, and whether he starts against the Lions or (on the off chance) backs up Jones, New England still needs someone to run the scout team this week. No team scores more points or gains more yards than Detroit, so New England’s defense should have a decent showing this week of practice.
  • Emotions are running high and the Ravens know exactly the type of personality that Marcus Peters is. I don’t expect any repercussions internally from his side reaction on Sunday.

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