Every game, including the recent debacle against the New England Patriots, is a referendum on Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and given the rollercoaster both he and the team have been on this season, that's hardly surprising, but included in this whirlwind season are some unexpected developments for the former overall #1 pick as well as the team.
After the Browns and Odell Beckham Jr. agreed to part ways and the team played at a high level against the Cincinnati Bengals where Mayfield was outstanding, there was a collective sigh of relief that perhaps Beckham was indeed holding the team and Mayfield back and they'd rebound in a similar fashion to 2020 even if it was largely a mental block.
Unfortunately, the Browns were then destroyed by the New England Patriots and the offense, including Baker Mayfield was terrible. Without Beckham to scapegoat, the blame overwhelmingly fell on Mayfield, which is leading to feelings of desperation and doubts that he's the answer at quarterback.
A lot can happen in a week.
Reality is a little more nuanced and unfortunately for Mayfield, the combination of being in his fourth year and wild inconsistency this season has eroded the benefit of the doubt. Games like the Chicago Bears, where Mayfield missed big play opportunities, the Minnesota Vikings, where Mayfield's accuracy was uncharacteristically horrendous and then the Arizona Cardinals game where he created so many of his own problems make it increasingly difficult to even consider the fact that Mayfield had virtually no chance in this game.
The Patriots were a nightmare matchup for the Browns offensively.
For starters, Blake Hance, the team's fourth tackle who has struggled the last few weeks including against the Bengals, was woeful. Unfortunate but increasingly predictable.
The surprise was on the other side with just how many bad snaps Jedrick Wills turned in at left tackle. Wills is a really talented player that can improve significantly. He's still 22 years old on a team where he's been in the lineup since he got to Berea. It was his worst game since the Las Vegas Raiders last year in a blustery, rainy day in Cleveland.
If that wasn't bad enough, the Patriots took advantage of how little the Browns have at the wide receiver position by having J.C. Jackson shadow Donovan Peoples-Jones the entire game. Mayfield tried to go to Jones five times, but Jackson was able to limit him to just one reception for 16 yards.
Anthony Schwartz, a raw but explosive athlete that kept defenses honest down field left the game with a concussion. He played just 9 offensive snaps, targeted once. So the Browns ended up with a combination of Jarvis Landry (47 snaps), Rashard Higgins (26 snaps) and Jojo Natson even made an appearance (7 snaps).
Landry, who is still struggling with a knee injury, caught four of his five targets for 26 yards and one of those was for 11 yards. Higgins was targeted just once.
This prompted initial reactions that Mayfield was failing to get receivers the ball. In reality, they were simply unable to get open.
This was a major reason why the Browns were willing to go three years with Odell Beckham Jr. because he at least could get open and draw extra help at times with the potential to be a major contributor.
Without him, Donovan Peoples-Jones has become the defacto top receiver for this offense. That's a mixed blessing for Jones, who the opposing team thinks is threatening enough to put one of top corners on him the entire game, but has to be frustrating for him as he is still a second year player learning the intricacies of the position. The rest of the group looked completely incapable of creating any separation against man coverage in this game.
The Patriots exposed just how deep the issue is at wide receiver. It also didn't help that tight end David Njoku had his worst game of the season.
As a result, the team's leading receiver in the game was running back D'Ernest Johnson with seven receptions on eight targets for 58 yards.
That doesn't excuse Baker Mayfield from the interception where he was fooled by the defense, failing to see Kyle Duggar dropping to the sideline, nor does it absolve him from other plays he didn't make.
Whether the Browns lose 47-42 like they did against the Los Angeles Chargers or 45-7 as they did against the Patriots, Mayfield is going to absorb a portion of the blame. It just comes with the position he plays and he's learned into that every game he's been with the Browns.
The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick exploited the weaknesses of the offense, leaving them without viable avenues to move the ball consistently.
Along with other concerns in the wake of the overwhelming defeat, one of the criticisms raised was that Mayfield has regressed from last season.
Believe it or not, Mayfield has actually been more efficient in 2021 than he was in 2020 as part of an offense that has yet to put out the same lineup twice and despite injuries including a torn labrum, broken humerus as well as the knee and foot issues he's dealing with currently.
Yards Per Attempt
He's completing more passes further down the field while still avoiding interceptions. The lack of touchdown passes is definitely a concern, but may be at least partly due to the issues at receiver. The red zone passing offense has been particularly bad this year.
That does not mean Mayfield is playing better than he did in 2020 in part because of how that season unfolded. Mayfield went from playing poorly early in the year to playing great the second half, which balanced out to the averages he had. Should Mayfield step up his game similar to the latter parts of last season, those numbers will only continue to go up as the year continues.
Mayfield is making incremental improvements, but most don't care to notice for simple, obvious reasons.
The first is the standings where the Browns currently sit 5-5 in an uber competitive AFC North division. No one highlights the importance of winning more than Mayfield. This was a year where the team had high expectations and was expected to take another step forward. Coming off the season where they lost in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs, the belief was they could at least get another round further if not find a way to the Super Bowl.
Just to get to the postseason is going to require a significant run. They may need to win five of their last seven just to have a chance to get in with help. Their best path forward is still to win the AFC North division which means beating the Baltimore Ravens twice, beating the Bengals again and defeating the Steelers on the road.
The second reason the efficiency goes largely unnoticed that Mayfield has always shown he can do just about anything from the quarterback position since he first set foot on the field against the New York Jets. There are no shortage of jaw-dropping throws or great moments throughout his career thus far.
Likewise, there are rage inducing plays where he misses open receivers, holds onto the ball too long causing him to get sacked and turnovers he can avoid. Adding to the frustration is the fact he knows better. Every single time, he knows better.
So what you're left with when it comes to Mayfield isn't questioning whether he can do the job. He clearly can. It's this overwhelming feeling within that makes you want to yell at him, "Just do it already!" A sentiment that could apply to the whole team this season.
That's where the Browns currently sit with Baker Mayfield. All indications are the team not wavered from their belief he will get there, even if they are not satisfied with how this season is going.
Nevertheless, this team will do their due diligence as they do with everything and learn what it would potentially cost if they were to trade for a top flight quarterback such as Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, who could both be in play this offseason. When they do, they are going to run into a major problem. In addition to no-trade clauses that come into play, there are no fewer than two teams that are willing to dwarf anything the Browns might offer.
The Philadelphia Eagles have two first round picks and two second round picks, plus up to four fifth round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. Unless they believe Jalen Hurts is the answer, they will likely have their choice of the top available options.
The Miami Dolphins have reportedly already offered three first round picks and a pair of second round picks for Deshaun Watson this year. Maybe that changes in the offseason, but it also happens to be where Watson reportedly wants to go.
The Denver Broncos were trying to pry Rodgers away from the Packers when his status was in flux before the season and have been linked to Wilson during the season.
In the event the Browns were able to muster up enough for someone like Wilson or Rodgers, they'd have to somehow convince them that this team has enough offensive talent to want to play in Cleveland, which might have been a conversation with a healthy, productive Odell Beckham on the roster. As it is, the Browns need receivers themselves, which undermines their case to any of the top quarterback options.
The fact of the matter is Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns need this to work out and have every incentive to continue down this path. Mayfield obviously wants to be this team's franchise quarterback and the Browns need him to be capable of leading this team to the Super Bowl if they plan on getting there in the near future.