It seems like I should be one of a million writers talking today about what Baker Mayfield pulled off in his Rams debut. And that may ultimately be true. But I think we all know only a small percentage of those writers watched that game from start to finish and jumped out of their chairs with no regard for the laptop on their lap that went flying while fist-pumping the air and trying not to scream and wake up their wife. Okay that got a little specific.
But of those who watched the whole game, I bet a lot of those specifics are familiar. That was wild, and only gets wilder in the full context. Last night was the reason for this blog.
Number 1 overall pick by the Browns in 2018, led them to the playoffs and their first playoff win in forever and started doing hilarious commercials. In 2021, he hurt his shoulder and tried playing through it… a mistake that led to his downfall. The team famously went and gave $230 million guaranteed to an alleged sex offender and eventually traded Baker to the Panthers. After a season of ups and downs and injuries, Carolina went back to Sam Darnold as their starter and PJ Walker as the backup, leaving Baker Mayfield as the odd man out. He asked for his release, they gave it to him, and he went to the waiver wire where he was picked up by the Rams.
Before he even knew who would try to claim him off waivers, Baker had already booked a flight to LA. I don’t know if it just felt right or if someone tipped him off, but he took a shot and it happened. Sean McVay got him the playbook and he began studying on the plane. When he got there, obviously not having a place to stay, he and his wife booked a room at the hotel where they got married. Game hadn’t even started and the narrative was already being built.
Less than 48 hours later after landing, he put on a #17 jersey and took the field as the backup to John Wolford, who was a game-time decision with a neck injury. Wolford played one drive and came out. It was Baker’s time.
Throughout the game, we saw a lot of pieces that made sense in the context. Some strong throws into zone coverage to receivers he just met. A few broken plays, though far fewer than one would expect. The Raiders had some nice early drives, Davante Adams made some great plays, Derek Carr looked serviceable enough to get it into Davante’s radius, save for a rookie mistake at the end of the 1st half that cost them at least 3 points. After a scoreless 3rd quarter for both teams, Vegas added a field goal with just over 12 minutes left in the 4th quarter to go up 16-3. A lot of people went to bed.
The Final 12 Minutes
This is where Baker cemented something truly special, and some Raiders lost their jobs.
With the score 16-3, Baker led a 17 play drive down the field that almost ended in the red zone on a 4th and 1, but Cam Akers pulled in a catch and just barely grazed enough of the 1st down marker. The next play, Cam took it in for a touchdown, and it was 16-10.
The Raiders still had the lead and the ball with under 3 minutes, with the Rams only having 1 timeout and the 2 minute warning. Two plays later, after the Rams had used their timeout and it was 3rd and 1, and before the 2 minute warning, the Raiders hustled to the line (wait, what?) and tried to pick up the 1st down, only to get blown up in the backfield, leading to the 2 minute warning and 4th down. Remember, the Rams had no timeouts left so the Raiders could’ve let it go down to the 2 minute warning before the 3rd down play, then even if they didn’t get it, they would be punting and giving the Rams 40 fewer seconds to go the length of the field with, again, no timeouts, and again, a QB who had been on the team for 2 days.
Instead, they punted with 2 minutes left, and Raiders punter AJ Cole dropped one that scaled the sideline all the way down to the 2 yard line. And then I guess he thought it would be cool to make the cutting throat gesture to his sideline, and I get that he can’t do that to the other sideline cause it would be a penalty, but the context of that gesture doesn’t really work doing it towards your own team.
So Baker has now been on the team for 2 days (did I mention that?), and he has just under 2 minutes to go 98 yards with no timeouts. He was gonna need some help. From his team, sure, but apparently the Raiders wanted to help out, too.
On 3rd and long, he threw down the field for Van Jefferson, only to have it picked off on what should have sealed the game. But it turns out you can’t pull a guy’s arm back to keep him from going right where the ball is going so your own guy can get there first. Pass interference, 1st down.
One play later, Rams offensive line gets blown up and Baker gets sacked before he has even a millisecond to look up. In the ensuing Rams celebration, Jerry Tillery, a talented former 1st round pick recently picked up after being released by the Chargers, decided to knock the ball out of Baker’s hand. Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 15 yards, 1st down. This is one of those moments where you wanna say, “oh, the Rams just won because of a call.” Sorry, but no. Tillery was released by the Chargers for a reason, and I’m guessing boneheadedness was written down by his old coaches at some point. Every worthwhile defensive player in the league knows you can’t do that, and he went and did it like it was nothing.
Jerry, if you’re reading this, I hope you didn’t bother unpacking when you got to Vegas, cause you won’t be there long.
Now moving up the field, Baker puts one up the right sideline to Ben Skowronek, who makes an incredible catch on a really good throw. Baker keeps moving, another throw, another catch, another throw, another catch, time is ticking, 1st down throw at the 22 yard line and he clocks it.
Now, this is where something happened on the Raiders defense that is unforgivable. I don’t know if it was the playcall or a blown assignment, but at the 22 yard line with seconds left and the Rams with no timeouts, the Raiders came out with a single high safety and press coverage, also know as Cover 1. Baker couldn’t believe it. Richard Sherman later talked about how he couldn’t believe it. No one could believe it. This was an alternate version of a Madden Mistake, and I’ll now have to expand the definition to fit scenarios where a team actually does something you would only expect to see from a gullible Madden AI defense.
I was already standing before the play started. There had to be something else happening. They couldn’t possibly be running this defense. They dropped another safety, but with the Rams running vertical routes across the field, that safety bit in to help cover Tutu Atwell on a deep crossing pattern. Van Jefferson beat his man off the snap, and Baker dropped a dime right into his hands for the game-winning touchdown.
As is often the case in this league, someone will have to answer for that last play. Defensive coordinator? Maybe. Probably. There may have been a blown assignment or two, and you like to think your corner can win a press battle when you need him to. But there was no reason to put the corner or the safeties anywhere near a situation like this.
Josh McDaniels is probably still safe for at least another year. But expect some changes elsewhere. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will be hearing footsteps all day today. Jerry Tillery might as well call his agent and find out who else may be interested. With a 4% chance of making the playoffs, the Raiders are all but done, and this is gonna be a painful autopsy.
As for the Rams, they won’t be getting a high draft pick to start over with a new QB. Matthew Stafford has a spinal cord injury. I know it’s a contusion or something, but does it even matter what comes after “spinal cord” when talking about a football injury? He got his ring last year, and no one would blame him for hanging it up. So, depending on how he plays out the year, maybe Baker gets a 2 year deal in the $5-7 million per year range, giving him time to prove himself and still be young enough to land a big, longterm deal. This is an old team with some big contracts and not many draft picks to replace the old guys with young talent. A young-ish cheap QB like Baker could be exactly what they need.
Still waiting to get his belly scratched.