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Browns, Baker Mayfield Reach the Point of No Return

Cleveland’s agreeing to meet with Deshaun Watson in such a public manner has backed the team into a corner with its current quarterback.

Here are two things we know for certain about the current iteration of the Browns:

• As a franchise, they are dutifully obsessed with the idea of organizational alignment and understandably detest the perception of their recent tumultuous past before 2020. General manager Andrew Berry once told me about the frequency of surveys being sent out by the team’s upper management. After meetings. After tentpole events. Feedback is given anonymously and hopefully honestly. There are follow-up meetings about incorporating the feedback. There is feedback about the feedback.

One of Berry’s coworkers once told me that he talked at great length about Diversity of Thought during one of his first organization-wide addresses. His selling point seems to be a club finally devoid of distracted infighting and wayward politics. The Browns have had their minor, internal scuffles since the current regime arrived, but nothing compared to years past, when almost every general manager and coach was in a footrace to undermine one another anonymously to the press.

• Because of this obsession with organizational alignment, very few things happen by accident. That brings us to this week in free agency.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield

The Browns met with Deshaun Watson on Tuesday, which they would not have done if the club wasn’t fully prepared to move on from Baker Mayfield. Cleveland knew full well that the meeting with Watson would be widely reported. Mayfield’s statement following the team’s meeting with Watson reflected his heavy heart on the matter and his relative uncertainty about where he stood. If you were the Browns and you cared about how Mayfield felt, wouldn’t you try to do your due diligence on Watson more privately, especially considering you may not get Watson, which would ultimately leave the team with a jaded starter unafraid to speak his mind?

Well (stick with me here), since you know that meeting with Watson is ultimately a backbreaker for Mayfield, and you know it signals a desire to move on, and you know not getting Watson would leave you in an uncomfortable position that you’re desperate to avoid because of the horrendous optics—wouldn’t meeting with Watson mean that, regardless of what happens in the coming days, there’s a decent chance Mayfield won’t be around no matter what happens?

How can you be aligned organizationally when your most important offensive player just put out the statement equivalent of: Help, I’ve been run over by a bus.

We’re not here to argue the merits of Cleveland’s chasing Watson. That is for their own fleet of decision-makers, analytics people and private investigators to reconcile. We’re not here to carry the bucket for Mayfield, though there are some position coaches out there who still believe he can be an upper-tier franchise player.

We are here to say that there is no going back now. We’re here to point out that these Browns are smart enough to realize that. We’re here to recognize that they’ve likely run through all the scenarios. Having Mayfield enter the public conversation to (indirectly?) corral some sympathy was probably not a surprise. Nor is what might happen next, should the situation get seriously uncomfortable.

Mayfield would be a formidable late addition to this year’s quarterback market. One would assume most general managers would have him slotted, at least slightly, above the top quarterbacks of the 2022 rookie class. He would come as a one-year rental, having played some inspired football before sustaining a serious shoulder injury early in the ’21 season and playing through it.

Presumably, when healthy, he has a higher ceiling than what we saw this past year.

He could also start over at 26, before it’s too late. While the latter part of his rookie contract was spent with a version of the Browns that favored stability, Mayfield was still epically tossed about in choppy waters over the first few years of his career. From Hue Jackson to Freddie Kitchens, Mayfield’s development was put at constant risk. At the end of his rookie deal, with a team talented enough to contend for a Super Bowl, he is (theoretically) being jettisoned for the idea of Watson for not overcoming those pitfalls quickly enough.

The Browns were ultimately right in their evaluation to pass on Carson Wentz, when they traded that pick to the Eagles. Time will tell on Mayfield as well.

The true test of their organizational alignment will be how they might fall behind a player like Watson, who still faces civil charges (with some accounts of his actions corroborated independently by Sports Illustrated). Or how they might fill the vacant space they’d suddenly face if Watson decides to play for the Falcons, Saints or Panthers, given the remaining pieces available to them in this rapidly closing market. We’re not here to say that this might be the moment this regime heads off the rails into a more recognizable, vintage Browns-like atmosphere, but we are factually stating that choosing this direction heightens that chance. 

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