During last night's game between the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, there were a few moments that said a lot of good about Browns signal-caller Baker Mayfield. On Cleveland’s final drive of the game, Mayfield scrambled away from pressure, shrugged off what would have likely been a game-ending sack by Baltimore's Justin Houston and managed to throw the ball away down the sideline. Sure, that seems like a fairly standard play for any quarterback but if you consider the fact that Mayfield is dealing with injuries to his shoulder, knee, foot and who knows what else, it became even more impressive.
Other than putting said injury-riddled body on the line during a third-down rush up the middle, that's all that can be said about Mayfield's performance against the Ravens. The Browns lost 16-10 despite their defense holding former MVP Lamar Jackson to under 300 total yards and picking off Baltimore's quarterback four times. The responsibility for this loss falls squarely on the Browns’ offense, and more specifically Mayfield, who completed just 18 of his 37 pass attempts for 247 yards and a touchdown.
Remember that play where he somehow muscled his way out of Houston’s arms? That could have been a game-winning drive engineered in the final minute. Instead, Mayfield followed that escape with three weak incompletions and then a turnover on downs, sealing the game for the original Browns.
But, were you expecting anything more from Mayfield? You probably shouldn’t have, if you’ve been paying much attention to what he and the 6-6 Browns this season. With last night’s performance, it has now been seven weeks since Mayfield threw for more than 250 yards in a game. That includes a 73-yard performance in Week 10 in a loss to the Patriots, and a Week 11 win against the winless Lions in which he played so poorly that the home fans booed him off the field. Mayfield refused to talk to reporters after that game, and then said some rude things about those fans the next day.
A lot of Mayfield’s struggles this year can be fairly blamed on the various injuries he’s had to play through, but last night was supposed to be something of a fresh start. Or at least that’s what the anonymous sources who told NFL insider Ian Rapoport before the game that Mayfield was “feeling as good as he has in a month” wanted you to believe. Those sources wanted everyone to know that Mayfield was ready to “make plays with his legs again” and would be facing the Ravens with “no limitations.”
Mayfield carried the ball twice for four yards against the Ravens, sprayed inaccurate throws all over the field and was limping before the first quarter was even over. Maybe Rapoport's source was Emily Mayfield, Baker's wife, who will always find a way to defend her husband while bashing his teammates on Instagram. It certainly would have made for a turn for the better if Mayfield had followed up last week’s embarrassing performance by running and gunning his way to victory against the Ravens in a nationally televised game. Instead, Cleveland's quarterback stood at the podium postgame and gave the same standard-issue losing quarterback answers to questions from the media until his eyes glazed over.
But, don't worry about Mayfield's wife for stirring the pot as the Browns head into their bye week. Those honors instead go to running back Kareem Hunt's father, who took to Facebook after the game to rake the coaching staff, the playcalling and the quarterback across the coals. Hunt's father also takes up the mantle from Odell Beckham Jr.'s father as an angry parent causing drama as well so it's a double whammy.
It's become increasingly clear that the Browns are broken on offense. A lot of the blame can be placed on the shoulders of Mayfield, who was showing a dramatic regression even before he suffered his litany of injuries. More often than not, Mayfield has struggled to read what defenses are giving him and has been overthrowing receivers or making mind-boggling passes into tight coverage. The magic that helped Mayfield win the Heisman at Oklahoma and the hearts of Cleveland fans appears to have worn out and he needs to adapt.
Speaking of adapting, the blame also falls on head coach Kevin Stefanski, whose innovative offensive scheme has become stagnant. Stefanski has looked overwhelmed at times as opponents shut down Nick Chubb and Cleveland's rushing attack, daring the Browns to beat them with Mayfield's arm. The failure to adapt his offense to his quarterback's current limitations (more on that in a bit) in order to help the team succeed feels like a step back from the innovative offensive game planning Stefanski is known for.
Finally, some blame falls on general manager Andrew Berry as well, who failed to get reliable receivers that can create separation to make Mayfield's life easier. In theory, Beckham was supposed to be the answer to that but it just never came to fruition during his time with the Browns. But, having Mayfield throw it to Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, David Njoku or Harrison Bryant any given Sunday isn't going to cut it. Sure, Donovan Peoples-Jones has the potential to be that player. But, Cleveland cannot afford to wait for him to develop right now - especially when they were considered a Super Bowl threat this season.
So, what do the Browns do in order to right the ship and save this once-promising season? To start, go ahead and throw out any and all preconceived notions about winning the Super Bowl this year. After that, ownership cannot overreact to what has been happening, despite being known to do that, and wait until the offseason to fully evaluate what went wrong. That means that Stefanski and Berry should be safe, for now, and should remain in their respective positions going forward.
But, one thing should change with Stefanski, though - he should relinquish playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. Sometimes science is a little more art than science and a lot of people don't seem to get that. That means Stefanski can still scheme for opponents on a week-to-week basis but Van Pelt will be the one who executes his vision since Stefanski has lost his feel for the game. A fresh set of eyes on Cleveland's offense could be exactly what the Browns need in order to turn them around. It's also worth noting that Van Pelt coached Aaron Rodgers for several years in Green Bay, which might help pull Mayfield out of his rut as well.
That is, of course, if Mayfield is able to be a bit healthier coming out of Cleveland's bye week. If so, there's a chance he could turn things around for himself and play his way back into being the team's franchise quarterback again. But, if he's not able to be better and his health is what's holding him back, then he's doing a disservice to his teammates he claims to lead every week.
That means the Browns have to bench him for Case Keenum until Mayfield is feeling healthier. When asked about this Stefanski, meanwhile, was asked directly if now was perhaps the time to bench Mayfield. “No. No,” he responded. “Let me ask you a question: Why would we do that? We’re not doing that.”
Sure, that doesn't exactly feel like the strongest endorsement of Keenum - one of the NFL's highest-paid backup quarterbacks. But, that quote from Stefanski also could've been in the heat of the moment as well as a way to not embarrass Mayfield after the quarterback did plenty of that to himself against Baltimore.
If Mayfield isn't healthy, he needs to be benched for Keenum since everyone's jobs could be on the line going forward. Winning doesn't cure everything but it does help cover up the stench of years of losing that the Browns are all too familiar with. Cleveland has to try everything it can in order to right the ship and bounce back from one of the more disappointing seasons in recent history.