BEREA, Ohio — The final time he was in Pittsburgh, quarterback Baker Mayfield took a knee to clinch the Cleveland Browns’ first playoff victory in 26 years.
As Mayfield galloped off Heinz Field, sport ball nonetheless in hand, Cleveland’s different former No. 1 general decide, Myles Garrett, was ready. The two met in midair, bumping shoulders in celebration.
At that second, it felt as if all doubt about Mayfield had been eliminated. Having wandered aimlessly via the quarterbacking wilderness for many years, the Browns lastly had discovered their franchise passer.
A rejuvenated Mayfield, who had weathered early turmoil in Cleveland, appeared destined to be behind middle for the Browns for the subsequent decade-plus. A protracted-term contract extension seemed to be in the offing, too.
Much has modified as Mayfield and the Browns head again to Pittsburgh for Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). At 7-8, Cleveland already has been mathematically eradicated from the playoffs with two video games nonetheless to play — after coming into the 2021 season with Super Bowl expectations.
Mayfield, whereas taking part in via a number of accidents, together with a torn labrum to his non-throwing left shoulder, has struggled in his fourth NFL season. He ranks twenty fifth in QBR, main solely 4 rookies and two others — Jared Goff and Sam Darnold — who have been jettisoned final offseason by the groups that drafted them.
In the fourth quarter, Mayfield’s numbers have been even worse. He’s final amongst qualifying quarterbacks in fourth-quarter QBR (23.4 on a scale 0-100) and fourth-quarter completion proportion (51.6%) with the highest fourth-quarter off-target charge (27.3%). Mayfield has additionally gone 0-for-5 on potential game-winning drives this season, culminating with final week’s season-crushing, 24-22 loss in Green Bay, which ended on his career-high fourth interception of the day.
Beyond that, one other high-profile participant, large receiver Odell Beckham Jr., pressured his method out of Cleveland in the center of the season, his father ripping Mayfield to assist make it occur. Browns followers have since booed Mayfield throughout video games. And, in keeping with his spouse final week, some have made loss of life threats on social media.
After such a disappointing season, the Browns’ entrance workplace is prone to take a arduous have a look at whether or not to maneuver ahead with Mayfield or make a run at bringing in another person, regardless of having already exercised the fifth-year possibility on his rookie contract, which can pay Mayfield $18.86 million for the 2022 season. Following one other chaotic 12 months in Cleveland, Mayfield might be able to reevaluate his personal scenario, as nicely.
Just a 12 months in the past, it will’ve appeared unthinkable that Mayfield and the Browns might break up. How did the pervading query in Cleveland go from, whether or not Mayfield would get an extension earlier than his closing season beneath contract, as to if Mayfield would even be the Browns’ beginning quarterback in 2022?
In Cleveland’s season opener in Kansas City, Mayfield picked up the place he left off final 12 months. Behind Mayfield’s precision passing, the Browns scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to leap to a double-digit lead over the defending AFC champions.
Cleveland in the end fell aside. And although Mayfield was tripped up on a potential game-winning drive that resulted in a game-ending interception, he bounced again in Week 2 by finishing his first 9 passes.
But on Mayfield’s eleventh try, he threw an interception over the center of the discipline. Instead of giving up on the play, Mayfield raced to the proper hash and caught his left shoulder into the physique of Houston Texans security Justin Reid to make the sort out.
The collision left Mayfield with the torn labrum — an harm that modified the trajectory of Cleveland’s season. Mayfield did not miss a snap in the sport. But he by no means was the identical. Mayfield accomplished 82% of his passes in his first two video games, which was the greatest charge in the NFL; from the harm on, his completion charge has plummeted to 59.5%, fourth-worst in the league.
Mayfield has worn a harness on his left shoulder to maintain it from coming out, which nonetheless occurred in Week 6 when Arizona Cardinals defensive finish J.J. Watt drove the shoulder into the floor throughout a strip sack. Mayfield got here again and completed that sport, too. But he had the first missed begin of his profession 5 days later, when backup quarterback Case Keenum stepped in throughout the quick week and guided Cleveland to a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football.
Mayfield has been candid with updates about his numerous accidents, which have additionally included knee and foot illnesses. But all through the season, at the least up till final week, the Browns had avoided disclosing a lot on what affect, if any, they believed the shoulder harm has had on Mayfield’s performances. During Cleveland’s bye week on Dec. 1, Browns basic supervisor Andrew Berry merely famous that Mayfield was “healthy enough to win games for us.”
Dan Orlovsky breaks down all the methods the Browns have fallen wanting expectations this season.
Finally final week, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt acknowledged that Mayfield’s passing mechanics have been “handcuffed” by the harness.
“It’s definitely something that’s hindered him,” Van Pelt mentioned. “You can just see in his mechanics down that left side [of his body] get stuck in there at times, and it’s a struggle for him. … Hopefully next year without the harness, you’ll see Baker back to normal with his normal throwing mechanics. He has fought through [it]. We have a lot of respect for the fact that he has battled through that, and we know he’s injured. That’s where I’ll leave that.”
According to sources, Mayfield may have surgical procedure on the shoulder shortly after the season, with the plan for him to be again in time to take part in OTAs.
By that time, free company may have come and gone, in addition to the NFL draft and the alternative to make a commerce for an additional quarterback.
“They want Baker to be their guy. I do believe that. But they also have to be fair and responsible to everybody else within that building,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky mentioned in an interview. “How much do the Browns organizationally believe that the shoulder injury negatively impacted his play? Only [they] really know it. Because if they believe, yes, that was such a big deal, then I think they’ve got the fifth-year option already picked up, they probably go ahead next year [with Mayfield] and maybe bring in a third-round pick or something at quarterback. But if they believe, ‘You know what, no, he didn’t play good.’ … it’s fair, whether he likes or not, to go, there’s got to be somebody brought in.
“I’m a Baker man. But they have to determine how extreme the harm was and how a lot they suppose it impacted him.”
The shoulder injury was hardly the only adversity Mayfield faced this season.
Two days after a 15-10 loss to the Steelers on Oct. 31 — in which Beckham caught only one pass for 6 yards — Beckham’s father, Odell Beckham Sr., posted a video on social media noting all the times Mayfield didn’t throw Beckham’s way or missed him when he was open this season. Odell Beckham Sr. trashed Mayfield in the comments, as well.
Within a few days, OBJ was on his way to the Los Angeles Rams, leaving Mayfield in Cleveland to answer questions about their nasty divorce. One Browns source noted then that Mayfield had handled all the questions “like a f—ing franchise quarterback.” But the split put Mayfield in a tough spot, underscored by veteran safety John Johnson III noting later that week that “the majority of this locker room would like to have [Beckham back] on this constructing — flat-out.”
The split also put Mayfield in a tough spot with his go-to receiver, Jarvis Landry, who is one of Beckham’s closest friends dating to their time together at LSU. In the past, Mayfield had confided to those close to him that Landry is one of the — if not the — best teammates with whom he’d ever played.
Yet since Beckham’s departure, Landry, who has one touchdown catch this season, has spoken publicly only once, on Nov. 16, during his Thanksgiving charity event, when he noted that he “hasn’t been capable of get the ball a lot, both,” though he went on to praise Mayfield’s toughness.
In Cleveland’s next game against the then-winless Detroit Lions, Mayfield tried to find an open Landry downfield for a big play early in the first quarter. But Mayfield overthrew him, leading to an interception. By the second half, Browns fans began to boo Mayfield. As time expired in Cleveland’s 13-10 victory, Mayfield immediately walked off the field, then, for the first time in his career, skipped his postgame press conference.
“There have been a lot of firsts for me this 12 months, however that comes with the territory of the place that I’m in,” Mayfield said, when asked about all the unique drama he’s had to deal with this season. “I’ve to deal with it the greatest I presumably can. I do know I’ve mentioned the tacky, cliché remark, ‘There’s no handbook on the right way to deal with this,’ and there hasn’t been.”
The Browns have but to interact Mayfield’s camp on contract-extension talks, a number of sources have informed ESPN, relationship to when he first grew to become extension eligible this previous offseason. That has added much more stress to a season that has been fraught for Mayfield since the shoulder harm.
The Browns doubtless do not have the draft capital to land a big-name quarterback like Russell Wilson this offseason, until they packaged a few of their younger stars in a commerce. The Browns would additionally need to persuade a participant like Wilson to waive a no-trade clause to return to Cleveland. But even when Cleveland pursued a bridge quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo, it will ship one other message to Mayfield that he is doubtless not of their long-term plans. And maybe immediate him to request his personal commerce. While the Browns might discover themselves on the hunt for the subsequent Ryan Tannehill, Mayfield might enchantment as that very reclamation quarterback to a different workforce. Mayfield, in any case, completed in the prime 10 in QBR simply final season, then threw three touchdowns in a highway playoff victory.
Talk of the Browns having anybody else beneath middle in 2022 would’ve appeared inconceivable this time final 12 months. And although the almost definitely state of affairs stays that Mayfield might be again as Cleveland’s starter, that is not a positive guess following a season marred by drama and disappointment.
A 12 months in the past in Pittsburgh, Mayfield and the Browns have been celebrating the largest victory in latest franchise historical past. One 12 months later, as the Browns return to Heinz Field, it is truthful to marvel what future Mayfield has with the franchise.