A decision faces the Cleveland Browns organization next off season, one the team hasn’t confronted in their history. They haven’t been good enough as a team, or at the quarterback position, in the salary cap era (it started in 1994) to face such a choice. Baker Mayfield has changed that. Is he good enough? Mayfield, after a brilliant rookie season, faded last year and in the early stages of this season. But then Sunday happened. The confident, swaggering QB returned, unlocking Cleveland’s offense. That Mayfield raises their ceiling. That Mayfield can win playoff games. Where has he been? Will he remain?
Except for his height, Mayfield has the tools. What separates him has always been his cocksure attitude. It returned Sunday after a year and a half hiatus. Mayfield was unsure of himself in the pocket and afraid to make mistakes. He’s been fantastic on the move this season, advancing the offense on play action and designed rollouts and bootlegs. But he’s questioned his reads when sitting in the pocket, leading to turnovers and inaccuracy. Not so against the Bengals. He threw receivers open instead of waiting for them to create their own space. Mayfield wouldn’t have made this throw to Rashard Higgins a week ago.
He hits his back foot on the drop and the ball is out. That hasn’t happened since his rookie season. The ball pops. Look at this touchdown throw to David Njoku. The confidence is there. He knows where he’s going in an instant and places the ball where only his tight end catches it. Beyond gorgeous.
Where has this been? Did the hype, and failures, of last season sap his nerve? How much pressure did he feel to resurrect a miserable franchise? And what of Odell Beckham Jr.? The Pro Bowl receiver tore his ACL Sunday and will miss the rest of the season. A talent like his is irreplaceable. But we must ask, why did the old Mayfield return once Beckham exited? Has he recognized pressure to feed the superstar since the trade brought him and Super Bowl expectations to the Browns from New York? Was Mayfield intimidated by Beckham’s presence? If Baker continues to feast on opposing defenses without one of the best wideouts in the league, we’ll have answers.
Mayfield’s four-year rookie deal expires after the 2021 season, with a fifth year team option available in 2022. Teams in Cleveland’s position like to extend, or pick up the option, with a year remaining on the contract, or next off-season. With their history at the position, are the Browns prepared to declare Mayfield their franchise quarterback? Jared Goff makes 33.5 million per year, Kirk Cousins 33. That’s where negotiations will start. He’ll ask for the 40 million per that has held up Dak Prescott’s negotiations in Dallas. If he plays the rest of the season as he did on Sunday and the Browns make the playoffs, the team will have to pay him. They can’t afford to let the best quarterback the franchise has employed since Bernie Kosar to walk because of money. Is he good enough to devote 20% of the salary cap to, however? What does that contract do to their finances? Myles Garrett’s making $25 million per season now, and Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward are due soon. The new GM’s decisions next off-season will shape the Browns for the next decade.
Cleveland GM Andrew Berry didn’t draft Mayfield. What are his thoughts concerning John Dorsey’s pick? Kevin Stefanski inherited Baker, too. Are they prepared to marry their careers to the sporadic quarterback? The 5-2 start is terrific, especially for this organization. But the Baker decision looms. It’s a career definer for all involved. Mayfield makes the choice easy by playing the way he did on Sunday. That Baker is a top ten quarterback, someone deserving of a huge, long-term contract. But is the indecisiveness gone? Will he continue to fire darts? Has Stefanski unlocked his most important player? The Browns offense is unstoppable, with or without Beckham, with an accurate, resolute Mayfield. To become a perennial playoff contender and AFC North juggernaut, the reborn Baker Mayfield from Sunday must be the new norm. Do you trust what you see? Would you bet your job, and $40 million, on him?
The Whip Around
1.What was Anthony Lynn thinking, starting the season with Tyrod Taylor as his starting quarterback? Justin Herbert is impressive. He’s completed 67% of his passes and thrown only 3 interceptions. Taylor is a pro, and getting stuck in the lung by a doctor with a needle is awful, a cruel way to lose a starting QB job. But Herbert is a star, and the Chargers organization benefits from their doctor’s malpractice. L.A.’s future looks sensational. Funny how superb quarterback play changes the dynamics of a franchise. Perhaps Chargers stock is more valuable than their co-tenant’s, the Rams, with their future salary cap problems.
2. The Cam Newton questions are coming fast, and after his past two weeks they’re logical. Zero touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 5 sacks, and 18 points scored won’t pacify a fan base used to dominating. Is this a typical, early season Patriots swoon, or is Bill Belichick just a good coach without the greatest quarterback ever? Something exists in between, and Newton deserves a bit of a pass. He’s only two weeks removed from kicking the coronavirus, and the long-term effects are unknown. Cam could deal with lingering symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or headaches. But to think it hasn’t caused him any problems is foolish. If Belichick can drag this New England team to the playoffs, it’ll be astonishing.
3. DeAndre Hopkins has the best feet in the history of the NFL.
4. Why is Antonio Brown on an NFL roster? The league’s love affair with the malcontent is embarrassing for everyone involved. Civil lawsuits for tossing furniture off a balcony and nearly hitting a 22-month-old. Reckless driving outside Pittsburgh at over 100 MPH. Allegedly pushing the mother of one of his kids to the ground. An unpaid $38,521 tab. Another unpaid $7,194, this time a trainer. Sexual assault allegations from a personal trainer that he’s still facing a suit for. Brown has problems and shouldn’t get rewarded for his continued misconduct with a spot on a Super Bowl contender’s roster. The league will never learn its lesson. And why do the Bucs need him? A receiver room that contains Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and an emerging Scotty Miller isn’t desperate. Head scratcher.
5. And why, while we’re discussing poor league decisions, wasn’t Jon Bostic suspended for this hit on Andy Dalton, which caused a concussion? Bostic should have to sit as long as Dalton does. This is the exact helmet-to-helmet type hit the NFL supposedly wants out of the game. The referees tossed Bostic from the game, but that isn’t enough. The leagues ‘nothing to see here’ approach to these incidents is why they continue. Player safety to the NFL is only a talking point to make them seem compassionate. They aren’t.
6. The Devin Bush ACL tear didn’t hurt the Steelers defense for at least one week. Vince Williams, tallying 10 tackles (2 for losses), a sack and another quarterback hit, already has set his career high for tackles for loss and earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’ team of the week. Pittsburgh’s defense is the epitome of next man up. They give up points, but what defense doesn’t in 2020? They’re relentless on opposing quarterbacks. Those hits take a toll. Can they get Lamar Jackson on the turf this weekend? Their toughest test so far, if they can put the nimble Jackson on his back, the Steelers will take a huge two game lead in the AFC North.
7. Looked like DK Metcalf tried to make up for his early season blunder of dropping the ball before crossing the end zone by running down Budda Baker on a sure pick six on Sunday night. Metcalf caught Baker, saving the touchdown by sprinting the length of the field to keep the Arizona safety from pay dirt. Russell Wilson’s uncharacteristic three interceptions gave the Cardinals life, however, and they look capable as any of winning the brutal NFC West. Three teams have 5 wins, and the cellar dwelling 49ers only destroyed New England 33-6 this week and are the reining NFC champs. Is Kyler Murray capable of competing at Russell Wilson’s level for the next two-and-a-half months? He did it Sunday, but continuing that for the rest of the season seems a stretch. A ruthless division.
8. Is this a great catch or a drop? Or both?
9. Are the Bucs the best team in the NFC? Back to back powerful victories over Green Bay and Las Vegas suggest so. Tampa’s plus 80 point differential leads the league. They have the eighth best defense, the third rated offense. And yeah, 43-year-old Tom Brady. 369 yards and 4 touchdowns Sunday seems incomprehensible. His arm looked shot last year and earlier this season. No one’s smarter or more hungry at the position, however. Now 6th in the league in passing yards and second in touchdown passes, Brady is on the periphery of the MVP race. Think he wants to prove a certain former coach of his wrong?
10. Tampa looks great, but they aren’t the Chiefs. A ho-hum, 43-16 waxing of Denver in the snow, featuring a pick six and kickoff return touchdown, was easy. Patrick Mahomes threw for only 200 yards, yet they hung 43 on a division rival. As the season progresses, many will pick a litany of other teams to win the title, but don’t fall for it. Barring injuries, it’s the Chiefs.
All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com