The spacing in empty makes it tougher to disguise and execute everything a defense wants to do. The Cardinals do try to disguise their slot pressure on this play, but the formation being so wide means there is a ton of space in the intermediate area, especially if Arizona intended to rush with five. With the Cardinals starting in two-high and having their only two intermediate middle defenders coming from the line of scrimmage, it’s tough to cover everything in time. In turn, Mayfield finds no issue sticking a throw in between the canyon of space between the two linebackers.
Of course, going empty comes with other drawbacks—static formations, five-man protections, non-receivers lining up at receiver—but all of those things were seen as necessary costs in order to do what Mayfield was most comfortable with as a dropback passer. If anything, perhaps the simplification of the protection plan and “pick a side” nature of passing concepts out of empty is what made it workable for Mayfield. He isn’t the only quarterback like that either. The same argument could be made for Josh Allen; he’s just a better talent so everything works at a higher level than it does for Mayfield.
Mayfield could be successful with all of that framework again. It’s clear that last year’s struggles were at least partly injury-related and that a clean bill of health should return him to about league-average, maybe better. The problem in Carolina is that offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo doesn’t look like the same natural fit for Mayfield that Stefanski was.
For one, McAdoo may not have been excited about bringing in Mayfield to begin with, if his old takes are to be trusted. During the run-up to the 2018 draft , McAdoo ranked Mayfield as the sixth-best quarterback in the class, citing Mayfield’s height, middling athletic profile and lack of pro-style experience. Of course, that means he had guys like Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Mason Rudolph ahead of Mayfield, which nobody would say now, but McAdoo’s ranking and commentary back then probably still hold weight considering Mayfield has never really broken into the upper echelon of quarterback play to disprove McAdoo’s concerns. That’s not to say McAdoo is going to sabotage Mayfield, just that the pairing may not be particularly inspiring for him.
The differences start with personnel deployment. In three of his four seasons as the Giants offensive coordinator or head coach, McAdoo’s offense used three-plus receivers on at least 80% of snaps and even led the league in 2016 at 94%. The lone exception was McAdoo’s final year, 2017, in which that figure fell to 62% as the team let Victor Cruz leave in free agency and lost both Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall due to injury for most of the year. It’s hard to imagine McAdoo would have let his three-plus-receiver usage fall that far if the wideout room had been healthy given his history.
McAdoo’s personnel preferences extend into formational tendencies. His preference for three-plus receivers often meant a single back in the backfield—his offenses ranked first and fourth, respectively, in single-back usage in 2016 and 2017. McAdoo doesn’t use fullbacks, split-back shotgun formations or tight ends in the backfield very often. He mostly abandoned those ideas altogether after 2015. McAdoo instead prefers to be in the shotgun, spread things out a bit and hammer the short to intermediate passing game with true dropback passing. All of that is a stark contrast to Stefanski’s general philosophies.
McAdoo also tended not to favor play-action. From 2015 to 2017, McAdoo’s play-action rates were 17% (23rd), 15% (29th) and 21% (21st), respectively. Some of that is because the Giants were often behind on the scoreboard, but in 2016 specifically, the Giants ranked third in defensive DVOA and kept the offense in decent positions to stick to their game plan.
Funny enough, for all the spread and dropback tendencies, McAdoo wasn’t a fan of empty formations in New York. Maybe that was an Eli Manning problem, but his 2015 Giants used empty about 6% of the time, good for 19th in the NFL, before back-to-back last-place finishes in 2016 and 2017 with a roughly 2% usage rate. Again, that’s a far cry from all the empty Stefanski was willing to call to widen everything out to the highest degree to accommodate Mayfield.
Something is going to have to give. Either McAdoo’s offense won’t look much like his old offenses did, or Mayfield will need to become a significantly better dropback passer and take on a bigger workload than ever before. We can assume McAdoo will make some tweaks to accommodate his quarterback, but there is little reason to believe McAdoo will blend the two styles perfectly or adapt to Mayfield entirely.
In the event McAdoo does change his stripes, it’s hard to imagine he can match Stefanski’s standard. Stefanski had years of experience coaching and calling Mayfield’s preferred style before they worked together. McAdoo was a Mike McCarthy disciple before becoming a playcaller on his own, and all of his offenses in New York very much felt like a watered-down version of McCarthy’s stuff (or the Eli Manning variant of it, whatever you want to call it). Few coaches are sharp and experienced enough to comfortably call a new style of offense basically overnight, and nothing about McAdoo’s past suggests he is one of those guys.
For all of the concerns laid out in this piece, the Panthers offense will probably be OK. Mayfield is a clear upgrade over Sam Darnold, the receiver group is solid and the offensive line should be some degree better than it was a year ago. They can be a watchable group, and going from horrific to watchable would be grounds for excitement in most other cases. “Watchable” likely won’t be enough to save Rhule’s or anyone else’s job, though. It’s a stretch to think this quarterback-offensive coordinator marriage could be enough to propel the offense into the top-third of the league unless one of them turns into a different (and better) version of himself than he has ever been, but that’s what the team is betting on happening. That’s possible—it always is—but nobody outside of Charlotte should hold their breath for it.