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Heading into this year’s NFL Honors ceremony, there wasn’t a ton of drama surrounding many of the categories this go-round, but one was especially intriguing: the battle between Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants and Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
On the surface, both are more than worthy candidates. Barkley amassed over 2,000 total yards in his first season as the Giants’ tailback. The man taken one pick before him, Baker Mayfield, set a rookie passing touchdown record and won more games in 2018 than the Browns won in the three years that preceded it.
We didn’t have a chance for Steve Harvey to announce the winner (correctly, hopefully) on TV before the suspense was spoiled. As ESPN reported, Barkley was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press, edging out Mayfield 26.5 votes to 21.5.
Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson received the other two, which may have been the most jaw-dropping part of the whole thing. A guard. For reals. What a slide back and pick that turned out to be for the Colts.
For the most part, it’s hard to find too much fault with the decision. Barkley was phenomenal in his first year and is already one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
But I’m going to do so anyway. Because gaudy statistics aside, it’s nigh impossible to argue that there was a better rookie—a rookie who made a bigger impact in the ways that really matter—than Mayfield.
He’s the true rookie of the year, trophy or no trophy.
Before the mob of angry villagers meets to hand out the Big Blue pitchforks and torches, it needs to be said again: Barkley was outstanding as a rookie. By all indications, he’s the real deal.
In 16 games, Barkley carried the ball 261 times for 1,307 yards, averaging five yards a pop and scoring 11 touchdowns on the ground. He also added 91 receptions (an NFL record for a first-year running back) for another 721 yards and four scores. In seven of his 16 games, Barkley topped 100 rushing yards.
After facing Barkley twice last season, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson saw enough to know the Giants got a keeper with the second overall pick last April.
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
“This kid is a special player, a special talent,” Pederson said, per ESPN. “He’s such a big, powerful guy that has breakaway speed. Sometimes, it’s impossible, but you kind of have to get two or three bodies on him. He’s a tremendous running back, and a load to bring down.”
No one with functioning eyes will argue that Barkley isn’t a special talent. He’s already one of the top five tailbacks in football.
He just wasn’t the best rookie in the NFL this season.
For starters, while Barkley’s statistics were indeed impressive, it’s not like Mayfield’s were cat food.
Graham Barfield @GrahamBarfield
Baker Mayfield’s rookie season resume:
• Broke rookie TD record in 14 games
• Posted second-most pass YPG in rookie season ever (266.1)
• 10th in yards per attempt (7.66) despite #Browns 6% drop rate (second-worst)
• Trailed only Drew Brees in red-zone passer rating (113.7)
In 14 games (and 13 starts), Mayfield completed 63.8 percent of his 486 pass attempts for 3,725 yards and a rookie-record 27 scores. He threw 13 more touchdown passes than interceptions and logged a passer rating of 93.7 while leading the Browns to within a half-game of the .500 mark.
It’s that last part that’s important because it’s where Mayfield starts pulling away from Barkley. While both had impressive raw statistics, when it comes to wins and losses—the only numbers in the NFL that truly matter—it wasn’t close.
The year before Barkley’s arrival, the Giants stumbled to a 3-13 finish that placed the team dead last in the NFC East. That got the Giants the pick they used to select Barkley.
But with Barkley on the field, the Giants weren’t markedly better. In 2018, New York finished the season 5-11—and once again dead last in the NFC East.
In Cleveland? The difference was night and day.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
In 2017, the Cleveland Browns became the second franchise in the history of the NFL to pull off the doughnut in a 16-game regular season. Zero wins. That came on the heels of a 1-15 season in 2017. And a 3-13 campaign the year before.
Then, in Week 3 against the New York Jets, Mayfield took over after Tyrod Taylor got hurt, and it was like someone flipped a switch.
If you count that game against the Jets as a “start,” then Mayfield won half his games as a rookie, seven in all. That’s three more than Cleveland won as a team the last three years combined.
Mayfield wasn’t the only reason the Browns enjoyed the biggest turnaround in franchise history (firing Hue Jackson didn’t hurt), but he was far and away the biggest.
Per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, NFL Network analyst Michael Irvin believes the only reason Mayfield wasn’t the runaway winner was those two games he missed at the beginning of the year.
“If Baker had gotten the start at the beginning of the season, he probably wins this hands down, because he’s the quarterback position and I believe Cleveland would’ve had a chance to really get in the playoffs,” Irvin said. “He’s that kind of a gift and that kind of a talent. But Saquon Barkley had a great year. And he started early, played well and played well all year.”
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
As reasons go, that’s a silly one, especially given that Irvin said with a straight face that the Cleveland freaking Browns could have made the playoffs and the room didn’t erupt in hysterical laughter.
Even Barkley himself allowed that Mayfield was every bit as deserving as he was.
“Yeah, I knew it was going to be a really close race,” Barkley said, per Cabot. “I didn’t know who was going to win. It was up for grabs and I don’t think it’s been like that for the Rookie of the Year award … so that’s awesome just for the NFL and the fans but like I said, Baker had an unbelievable season. And what he did for Cleveland is unbelievable. He deserves it (too). I wish we could go ‘co.’ But for me to win this award, it’s amazing.”
Now this is the point where Barkley’s supporters will say that the award isn’t “Most Valuable Rookie.” That a player’s impact on his team isn’t as important as the performance itself. That of course Mayfield’s impact was bigger—he’s a quarterback.
But the reality in the NFL, again, is that the only number that matters each Sunday is the final score. And while Mayfield and Barkley’s statistical impact in 2018 was at least in the same ballpark, with each setting an NFL record, their impact on the fortunes of their respective teams was not.
And yes, that particular scale tilts heavily in favor of quarterbacks. Welcome to the modern NFL.
The Browns are getting more than a little run as a legitimate contender in the AFC North in 2019. The Giants are essentially right back where they were a year ago: in the NFC East basement with no clear path out.
If you don’t think that matters, ask Barry Sanders how much fun it is to be a transcendent tailback on a lousy team.
One franchise’s trajectory hasn’t changed much at all. Another’s rocketed upward so hard Jimmy Haslam’s neck is still a little sore.
David Richard/Associated Press
None of this is to take away from the season Barkley had. To say that Mayfield was “robbed.” Or to say that Barkley didn’t deserve the award he won and the chain he’ll get from Mayfield as part of a friendly wager.
But it doesn’t take much more than peeling away the raw stats for a quick look at each player’s effect on their respective franchise’s present and future to say that Mayfield deserved it more.
He’s the true NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
You can light those torches now.