Entering the season, the question for the Cleveland Browns as it pertained to quarterback Baker Mayfield was whether the franchise should give him a big-money, long-term contract.
As a disappointing 7-9 campaign skids to an end, with an underperforming Mayfield placed on injured reserve and headed to surgery rather than playing in the regular season finale Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, it’s now whether Cleveland should trade him and move on.
It's been quite a fall from Super Bowl expectations to potentially getting evicted from his well-insured downtown home where he hands out nachos at Halloween and gossips about neighbors. (“If I have to hear about Subway tile one more time ... ”)
The truth is that while Mayfield has proven to be an elite commercial pitchman, his actual quarterbacking is anything but. This was a bad season. There is no other way to put it. Mayfield may be the Browns' best QB in decades and may have led them to the playoffs (and a victory over Pittsburgh) just last year, but this season was a disaster.
He completed just 60.4 percent of his passes, threw just 17 touchdowns and gave away 13 interceptions. There were 43 sacks and a dozen batted down passes. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 30th-best quarterback in a 32-team league. He ranked 26th in yards per attempt, at 7.2.
So is this a bad season, one in which he admirably played through a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder?
Or is this simply who he is?
The Browns have an offseason to evaluate that. There are plenty of reasons to cut bait. If nothing else, Mayfield has not proven himself to be the kind of quarterback that inspires faith he can lead a team to the Super Bowl.
Even in the AFC North, he’s nowhere near as good as Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow or Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, which makes even reaching the playoffs, let alone hosting any games, a challenge. And that’s before Pittsburgh figures out what it will do in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era.
It is difficult for a team to find success in the NFL if quarterback isn't a position of strength. And four years into his career, Mayfield hasn’t shown that.
While his season numbers are troubling, it was even worse down the stretch. Since Week 10, his yard per attempt is just 5.5, his interceptions (10) outnumbered his touchdowns (nine) and PFF ranked his adjusted completion percentage as 32nd in the league.
All of that said, bringing Mayfield, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, back for the 2022 season may still be the smart play.
If nothing else, the question is who would replace him? Unless Aaron Rodgers wants to come to Cleveland, there may not be an obvious choice. (And is Rodgers really going to leave one of the best-run organizations in NFL history for one of the historically worst?) Russell Wilson? Perhaps, but that’s not a guarantee either. And with Pittsburgh in need of a quarterback and presumably a better setup for a free agent, why would the Browns be anyone’s destination?
Mayfield’s cap hit next season is just $18.8 million, a decent bargain by starting quarterback standards. That allows the Browns to keep their otherwise star-studded roster intact and have an estimated $39 million available to bolster things.
Maybe Mayfield rebounds and plays better — or at least to the standards of 2020 where he was good enough to lead the team to the playoffs. It’s not like the Browns offense asks him to do too much anyway. He should be good enough to piece together a successful, if not championship season, with all the talent surrounding him. If nothing else, you know he's a gamer.
“It’s not always going to be pretty or smooth, but I’m a fighter,’’ Mayfield said Monday. “If anybody ever questions how much I want it, just turn on this tape. It wasn’t pretty, but I kept going, kept swinging. That’s who I am and it’s who I’ll continue to be. That’s who I’ve always been.”
Maybe that fight can bounce him back to respectability. Or better. If so, then the Browns may run the risk of losing him to free agency, but they’d also have a good chance of re-signing him.
If not, then they go looking for an answer at QB in the 2023 draft that should be much deeper with talent at the position like Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.
Maybe Cleveland can use a mid-round pick on a prospect in 2022 just to see, but it’s not like there is going to be a big run on quarterbacks at the top of the draft that drops a Mac Jones to the middle of the first round.
While Mayfield needed to be a lot better, the Browns, especially the offensive linemen, were a hobbled mess down the stretch. Mayfield was sacked nine times on Monday night against the Steelers, in part became T.J. Watt feasted on rookie backup James Hudson.
“We’ve obviously been pretty banged up,’’ he said. “When it comes to what we’ve had to deal with all season, there’s been a lot of ups and downs. Do I believe I could play better? Absolutely. Do I believe there’s positions that we as an offense could’ve been put in that are better? Absolutely. There’s so many critiques throughout the year. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here at 7-9. So it is what it is.’’
What it is now is an offseason of unexpected questions. Not whether Mayfield is the answer for the long haul, but even the short.
There is this, though: Running it back one more time with a guy who is probably better than what he just displayed isn’t the worst idea for Cleveland, if only because a better one may not be available.