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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Baker Mayfield and the Art of the Bootleg

An in-depth look at the bootleg concept and Baker Mayfield’s mastery of it throughout his football arc

Baker Mayfield Bootleg_

Bootlegs have become a staple in the modern pro-offense. It is a copycat league and each year coaches iterate old concepts. In the current era, the horizontal-stretch has manifested featuring misdirection, outside-zone, jet-motion, play-fakes and of course, bootlegs.

In recent years, defensive coordinators have been forced to evolve to counter the explosiveness of the boot-action. The utilization of the boot has steadily risen across the NFL, where the quarterback, line and running back sell the outside zone and the flow kicks one direction following the snap. However, the quarterback then keeps the football and rolls to the outside away from the pass rush, surveying the field. 

Traditionally, in boot-action concepts, there is a deep post route, a tight end/receiver to the flat (short route) and a crossing route (intermediate route). Then the quarterback has the option to carry the ball himself – his own checkdown – if nothing is open. Usually, the quarterback will roll out, open up his hips and fire across the middle to a receiver on a crosser (traditionally the first read). Kevin Stefanski, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have weaponized the outside-zone-turned-naked-bootleg idea to hit explosive plays. The doctrine is centered around building the run game through outside zone to set up the drop-back passing game and play-action sets to stimulate boot-action designs out of similar disguised pre-snap looks. The addition of play-fakes and motions are aimed towards creating confusion for the defense at all three levels. 

Whether Stefanski's left boot or Lincoln Riley's manufactured play-action game out of the gun, Baker Mayfield made it work. Both Stefanski and Riley built a system around Mayfield's skillset to optimize growth on the gridiron. As a result, Mayfield became the maestro of taking shots from a non-traditional launch point. 

"His ability on those plays [bootlegs] is just a testament to all of his offensive coordinators just utilizing his toolbox," said Bucs' Quarterback Coach Thad Lewis. "He is not the tallest and he is not the fastest, but he is very cerebral. Play-action is a challenge because you make the quarterback turn his back to the defense. So, you ask, 'Does he have cerebral mindset to turn around and pick out where the safeties and corners are, and make the decisions?' Baker does. On the boot, you are on the move, and you have guys coming into your vision. It is just a testament to everybody playing to his strengths."

While playing in Riley's air raid-based system, boasting a robust rushing attack and inventive play-action game, Mayfield won Oklahoma's sixth Heisman while producing the highest passing efficiency in FBS history. In 2017, the former dual-threat walk-on at Texas Tech threw for 4,340 yards with 41 touchdowns to just five interceptions while leading the Sooners to a 12-1 record and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Riley, a highly-touted offensive guru, tailored his system to Mayfield, unleashing the gunslinger to carve up defenses both through the air and on the ground. 

Stefanski did the same in Cleveland. For Mayfield and his arm talent, Stefanski engineered concepts to highlight a vertical strike. In 2020, Mayfield was the only player to have at least 10 bootleg passing attempts that traveled at least 20 air yards per SIS. On those throws, Mayfield went eight-of-11 for 324 yards and two touchdowns. On rollouts to his right, Mayfield was three-of-five for 137 yards (one touchdown) but, he had more production on the left, where he went five-of-six for 187 yards (one touchdown). As a right-handed quarterback, Mayfield had to be efficient at both to not create a tell for the defense. Stefanski generated a system with a high volume of boots to the left, with a variety of complex route options. For Mayfield, being able to roll to the opposite side and turn his body without a conventional base – essentially separating the upper and lower body – is an arduous task. Undeterred, Mayfield made it look effortless, guiding the team to its first playoff appearance in 26 years. 

 "Practice makes permanent because no one is perfect," Lewis described. "Just like a basketball player, 'I have to layup with my left the same as a layup from the right if I am right-handed.' It needs to be ambidextrous. It is practice and muscle memory. Sometimes, if the quarterback is not able to get his shoulder around, that is when you see the off-platform throws going to the left with guys and opening up his hip or jumping in the air. It is almost a blessing and a curse. It is a testament to Baker, continuing to practice on his craft and sharpening his toolbox to make it look easy when he goes out there to do it."

Now as the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2023, Mayfield will command an offense with similarities to the previous systems he thrived in. Dave Canales, the Bucs' new Offensive Coordinator, has installed a system geared towards marrying the run and the pass, featuring outside and mid zone, jet sweeps, misdirection and bootlegs/scrambles. Throughout the offseason during OTAs and training camp, Mayfield has showcased the ability to throw receivers open, improvisation to extend plays, accuracy at all three levels, bootleg prowess and leadership skills. Embodying an always-doubted, never-thwarted mentality when he steps on the grass, Mayfield is vying for reinvigoration in 2023 with a fresh slate. 

"He has the arm talent," Lewis remarked. "People do not give him enough credit. He is very smart, and he is very accurate. I tell him, 'He is as good as his feet.' With the proper footwork, he is on time, in rhythm and he is seeing how he is supposed to be seeing it. Then, his drops match the route patterns that are going down the field. With the run game, the nakeds, the and the boots will all coincide. When he is clicking on all cylinders, he is one of the best in the league. He was a young guy when he came into the league still trying to figure things out and he had all these coaches, all these different coordinators, but when you see how smart he is and his skillset, you say, 'Ok, we can go in empty and pass the ball all the way down the field or we can run the ball and do the nakeds, boots and play-action.' He does not limit your offense, he actually expands your offense because of how smart and talented he is. There is no limit with him. But, obviously you want to play to his strengths. As long as he is comfortable with what he is doing, he will go out there and shred defenses apart." 

'Moxie' and 'charisma' are words that have often been linked to Mayfield. His confidence and insatiable passion for the game are fueled by the hunger to learn. Mayfield's dedication to mental fortitude and detail-oriented approach have fostered development in his sixth NFL season. Change and competition have bolstered intention and purpose. Spurred by a never-satisfied creed, Mayfield continues to battle in the shadows at perfecting his craft through mastery. 

 "We were calling a play after first installing it," Lewis stated in elaboration on Mayfield's football IQ. "We called it kind of backwards, but he can see the play in his head when you are calling it. So, Baker came to the sideline and said, 'That's not right.' He knows plays and situations, but you can give him tools to say,' Ok, if they give us this, we can get to this.' He will get you in the right situation. He is just that good when it comes to seeing things and protections, understanding route concepts, understanding spacing, feel and he is a coach on the field. Sometimes, you have guys who just play the position and rely on the coach. He can actually be the coach on the field. So, you can talk and discuss things and he can take that from the field and actually teach the guys. Then, you can fall back and watch. He understands the game of football. He puts the time in, and you can actually see it when we go out to practice."

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