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BEREA, Ohio — The last 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, game ball still in hand, Cleveland’s other former No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett, was waiting. The two met in midair, bumping shoulders in celebration.
At that moment, it felt as if all doubt about Mayfield had been removed. Having wandered aimlessly through the quarterbacking wilderness for decades, the Browns finally had found their franchise passer.
A rejuvenated Mayfield, who had weathered early turmoil in Cleveland, seemed destined to be behind center for the Browns for the next decade-plus. A long-term contract extension appeared to be in the offing, too.
Much has changed as Mayfield and the Browns head back to Pittsburgh for Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). At 7-8, Cleveland already has been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with two games still to play — after entering the 2021 season with Super Bowl expectations.
Mayfield, while playing through multiple injuries, including a torn labrum to his non-throwing left shoulder, has struggled in his fourth NFL season. He ranks 25th in QBR, leading only four rookies and two others — Jared Goff and Sam Darnold — who were jettisoned last offseason by the teams that drafted them.
In the fourth quarter, Mayfield’s numbers have been even worse. He’s last among qualifying quarterbacks in fourth-quarter QBR (23.4 on a scale 0-100) and fourth-quarter completion percentage (51.6%) with the highest fourth-quarter off-target rate (27.3%). Mayfield has also gone 0-for-5 on potential game-winning drives this season, culminating with last week’s season-crushing, 24-22 loss in Green Bay, which ended on his career-high fourth interception of the day.
Beyond that, another high-profile player, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., forced his way out of Cleveland in the middle of the season, his father ripping Mayfield to help make it happen. Browns fans have since booed Mayfield during games. And, according to his wife last week, some have made death threats on social media.
After such a disappointing season, the Browns’ front office is likely to take a hard look at whether to move forward with Mayfield or make a run at bringing in someone else, despite having already exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, which will pay Mayfield $18.86 million for the 2022 season. Following another chaotic year in Cleveland, Mayfield could be ready to reevaluate his own situation, as well.
Just a year ago, it would’ve seemed unthinkable that Mayfield and the Browns could split. How did the pervading question in Cleveland go from, whether Mayfield would get an extension before his final season under contract, to whether Mayfield would even be the Browns’ starting quarterback in 2022?
In Cleveland’s season opener in Kansas City, Mayfield picked up where he left off last year. Behind Mayfield’s precision passing, the Browns scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to jump to a double-digit lead over the defending AFC champions.
Cleveland ultimately fell apart. And though Mayfield was tripped up on a potential game-winning drive that resulted in a game-ending interception, he bounced back in Week 2 by completing his first nine passes.
But on Mayfield’s 11th attempt, he threw an interception over the middle of the field. Instead of giving up on the play, Mayfield raced to the right hash and stuck his left shoulder into the body of Houston Texans safety Justin Reid to make the tackle.
The collision left Mayfield with the torn labrum — an injury that changed the trajectory of Cleveland’s season. Mayfield didn’t miss a snap in the game. But he never was the same. Mayfield completed 82% of his passes in his first two games, which was the best rate in the NFL; from the injury on, his completion rate has plummeted to 59.5%, fourth-worst in the league.
Mayfield has worn a harness on his left shoulder to keep it from popping out, which still happened in Week 6 when Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt drove the shoulder into the ground during a strip sack. Mayfield came back and finished that game, too. But he had the first missed start of his career five days later, when backup quarterback Case Keenum stepped in during the short 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 various injuries, which have also included knee and foot ailments. But throughout the season, at least up until last week, the Browns had refrained from disclosing much on what impact, if any, they believed the shoulder injury has had on Mayfield’s performances. During Cleveland’s bye week on Dec. 1, Browns general manager Andrew Berry simply noted that Mayfield was “healthy enough to win games for us.”
Finally last 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 said. “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 will have surgery on the shoulder shortly after the season, with the plan for him to be back in time to participate in OTAs.
By that point, free agency will have come and gone, as well as the NFL draft and the opportunity to make a trade for another 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 said 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 guy. But they’ve got to figure out how severe the injury was and how much they think 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 love to have [Beckham back] in this building — 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 able to get the ball so much, either,” 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 year, but that comes with the territory of the position that I’m in,” Mayfield said, when asked about all the unique drama he’s had to deal with this season. “I have to handle it the best I possibly can. I know I have said the cheesy, cliché comment, ‘There’s no manual on how to handle this,’ and there hasn’t been.”
The Browns have yet to engage Mayfield’s camp on contract-extension talks, multiple sources have told ESPN, dating to when he first became extension eligible this past offseason. That has added even more pressure to a season that has been fraught for Mayfield since the shoulder injury.
The Browns likely don’t have the draft capital to land a big-name quarterback like Russell Wilson this offseason, unless they packaged some of their young stars in a trade. The Browns would also have to convince a player like Wilson to waive a no-trade clause to come to Cleveland. But even if Cleveland pursued a bridge quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo, it would send another message to Mayfield that he’s likely no longer in their long-term plans. And perhaps prompt him to request his own trade. While the Browns could find themselves on the hunt for the next Ryan Tannehill, Mayfield could appeal as that very reclamation quarterback to another team. Mayfield, after all, finished in the top 10 in QBR just last season, then threw three touchdowns in a road playoff victory.
Talk of the Browns having anyone else under center in 2022 would’ve seemed inconceivable this time last year. And though the most likely scenario remains that Mayfield will be back as Cleveland’s starter, that’s no longer a sure bet following a season marred by drama and disappointment.
A year ago in Pittsburgh, Mayfield and the Browns were celebrating the biggest victory in recent franchise history. One year later, as the Browns return to Heinz Field, it’s fair to wonder what future Mayfield has with the franchise.
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