Opinion: Cleveland Browns have a Baker Mayfield dilemma – and it's not just the QB's injury
When Baker Mayfield writhed in pain during the Cleveland Browns' loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday and injured his previously dislocated left shoulder, the quarterback found himself in the midst of yet another unfortunate turn in a season that has so far been undesirable either he or his team.
This was supposed to be the fourth year veteran building on a successful 2020 season that saw him take the first playoff win of his career. It should have been the year he rose a talented Browns squad to join the ranks of the Super Bowl contenders. And this should be the season in which Mayfield raised his own game into the ranks of the passer-by elite and secured himself long-term financial security with contemporaries.
Instead, Mayfield's game remained uneven as it fell short against other young passers-by the Kansas City Chiefs Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert of Los Angeles Chargers and Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals. He's freaked out and nurses a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder that will keep him away from Thursday night's game against Denver and could require off-season surgery to fix it. The Browns have a 3-3 record and are behind the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. And Mayfield still has plenty of questions to answer about his potential, which puts the Browns in a bind.
Instead of a year of growth and clarity, the Browns and their quarterback remain on hold so far.
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Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) warms up before the game between the Browns and the Arizona Cardinals at FirstEnergy Stadium.
When Cleveland first voted Mayfield overall in 2018, team officials saw him as the long-awaited cure for the revolving quarterbacks the team had endured. They believed Mayfield could give their troubled fans cause for acceptance as he spurred the franchise to new heights.
Mayfield has certainly brought rare stability to Cleveland's quarterback position. Those last four seasons represented the longest run of any Browns starting quarterback since Bernie Kosar took the reins in 1985.
But the Browns are still largely waiting for Mayfield in the larger sense to arrive.
The 6-1,215-pound signaler still hasn't delivered the same productive and transformative feats as peers like Mahomes, Josh Allen of Buffalo Bills, and Lamar Jackson of Baltimore Ravens.
All three have made multiple playoff appearances. Mahomes has multiple division titles and a Super Bowl title, and both he and Jackson have won NFL MVPs. Meanwhile, Mayfield and the Browns haven't finished third in their league for the past three seasons.
For over three seasons, Mayfield has been solid but not elitist. He's still largely riding on potential.
It's worth noting that Mayfield didn't benefit from the same stability that Mahomes, Allen, and Jackson helped develop. While these three have played under the same head coach and franchise power structures throughout their respective careers, Mayfield is his third head coach (excluding 2018 interim head coach Gregg Williams), second general manager, and third offensive coordinator.
But Mayfield also lacks the same peculiar physical traits that Mahomes, Allen and Jackson boast. He hasn't shown the same kind of ball wizardry as Mahomes, can't overpower would-be tackles like Allen, and can't run past defenders like Jackson can.
But Mayfield boasts of leadership, toughness, and an unwavering confidence, and he can move around well enough to keep games going and has a quick release.
However, consistency remains a problem.
The Browns had hoped that Mayfield could take the next leap forward this season, supported by continuity from a sophomore year under Kevin Stefanski and with an abundance of guns. But the results are mixed.
He completed the best 67.1% of his passes in his career, while setting another personal best with a pass rating of 97.8. However, Mayfield's 245.7 passing yards per game ranks 20th in the NFL, and he's only thrown six touchdown passes while throwing three interceptions. For comparison: Mahomes is in third place with 314.5 yards, while he throws 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Allen ranks eighth at 287.2 yards per game with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions, and Jackson ranks ninth with 281 yards along with nine touchdown passes and five picks.
What's even worse: In contrast to these three, Mayfield has yet to establish himself as the undisputed point of contact on his own offensive.
Similar to last season, Mayfield served more as a game manager than an offensive catalyst. When the game is at stake, the Chiefs, Ravens and Bills and their opponents all know that the trio of quarterbacks are called upon to deliver in some form.
But Mayfield has not yet reached that level.
In Week 1, Mayfield threw an interception while trying to lead his team to a late comeback against the Chiefs.
Two weeks ago, when Cleveland led the Chargers at 42-41 and 2:55, Stefanski Kareem Hunt, who was stopped well before the first, demanded a draw instead of putting the game on Mayfield's shoulders in 3rd and 9th place. Los Angeles would score the game-winning touchdown on the next trip.
Stefanski has previously expressed his confidence in his quarterback. But such a decision certainly did not reflect such confidence.
Mayfield certainly doesn't deserve all of the blame for the Browns' inconsistencies. His season could have started better if Cleveland hadn't suffered a rash of injuries, including lost time from its two top wide receivers, incipient offensive tackles, and now both leading running backs.
Jackson is in a similar situation, however, and has still managed to win five games in a row.
Now, however, Mayfield is concerned with his own injury.
The hope within the Browns organization is that the calm will help Mayfield. After Thursday's game, Cleveland won't play the Pittsburgh Steelers again until October 31 for a crucial division game.
Mayfield's goal is to get back into action as quickly as possible and position his team for a playoff push. A strong series of appearances would also help create leverage in contract talks this off-season. But that remains secondary for Mayfield for the time being.
Future predictions never end, however, and the Browns will continue to wrestle over how to deal with the future of their quarterback. After taking the fifth year option on his rookie contract, Cleveland Brass could technically wait until the off-season after the 2022 season to make the call.
But until Mayfield finds the consistency needed to take himself and his team to the next level, the Browns will remain on hold.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baker Mayfield Leaves Cleveland Browns with a quarterback problem
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Oct 31, 8:00 p.m.
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