The Browns have had a horrible season this year. We all know this. The expectations before the first kickoff was an aim at winning the AFC North Division, a deep playoff run and hopefully, a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
That is what all Browns fans were expecting. All of them.
Remember all the talk about “just how good” this Cleveland team was? On paper?
Two exceptional tight ends, QB Baker Mayfield’s amazing second half of the 2020 season, two stud running backs with a hand-picked fullback, an All-Star offensive line. And then look at who the Browns would be throwing to: five-time Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry, three-time Pro Bowler Odell Beckham, Jr. who had gotten back into absolutely amazing physical shape, Mayfield’s favorite target Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones was a star in the making, plus GM Andrew Berry drafted Anthony Schwartz in the third round who was an Olympic Juniors track champion and also the scatback Demetric Felton.
This came right off the heels of head coach Kevin Stefanski being named NFL Coach-of-the-Year.
The 2021 offense was loaded. Positively can’t miss loaded. The running game was ranked fourth in the league while the passing attack was a decent compliment.
The defense was considered the Achilles heel, so Berry went to work and signed seven defenders to futures contracts, then brought in 10 players in free agency including three of his first four signees. Next, the annual draft netted five defensive players which were featured in the first and second rounds.
That was then. The reality is a losing record after all that hype and ink dedicated to just how wonderful this year would become.
The defense has held its own for the most part. The offense reeks though and since the Cincinnati win in Week 9 is averaging just 15 points a game. OBJ is gone, Higgins is AWOL, Hunt has been hurt for most of the year while the offensive line has been Band-Aided for much of the year. Mayfield has played almost the entire season hurt. Landry is having a sub-par year production-wise compared to his salary. Felton and Schwartz are both a wash so far. Neither tight end has shined.
And the play calling is atrocious.
And with losing, the teeth begin to gnash. Fingers start to point. Blame gets spread around. The locker room becomes toxic and everyone wants somebody else to do something.
Apparently, now it is Stefanski and Mayfield were are at odds with each other. According to Mary Kay Cabot of cleveland.com, she is reporting that her sources inform her that there are extreme tensions rising up between the two men. She describes it as “a low-key vibe emanating from Mayfield and permeating the offense.”
Hate to tell Mayfield this, but the offense has been permeating for the entire half of the schedule.
This is the starting quarterback and the play caller here. If they are going to be on any same-page operation next year they certainly must resolve their differences sooner than later so that any situation doesn’t fester and then linger into the off-season when the contact between the two is limited. The question then looms: what about next season?
Mayfield’s contention is he is dissatisfied with the play calling. Well, jump on the bandwagon there Baker if you can find a seat.
Conservative is much too pretty a word to describe it. The Browns are built to run. They have not one but two fullbacks. All of their offensive linemen were rated high in run blocking and oh, by the way you may have to pass block on occasion. Yet in a game against, let’s say the last game versus the Steelers, Pittsburgh was ranked dead last in the league against the run. And yet the Browns rushed how many times? 20? And All-World running back Nick Chubb only carried the rock 12 times for 58 yards?
This is not an isolated game. Again, Cleveland is built to run. Why aren’t they running the friggin’ ball? 496 passing attempts versus 444 rushing carries are the season totals.
Mayfield’s grievance about the play calling was first divulged after the victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 14 when they were without their star quarterback Lamar Jackson. The star signalcaller also has a major issue with how he was utilized within the Browns offense.
His thought? The offense was “too conservative.” Against the Steelers, the offense featured rookie James Hudson at right tackle. Hudson has played fairly well this year - at guard. But tackle is another animal. Pittsburgh features T.J. Watt, so you better have your best on the outside. Wrong. Then you better station a tight end out there to help Hudson. Nope. Then you better leave a running back or one of those fullbacks in to help Hudson out. Again, that’s a negative.
Watt had four sacks. The Steelers collectively had nine sacks. The Browns offense had multiple issues and sure enough only scored 14 points which comes in right on par.
Mayfield also inquired as to why OC Alex Van Pelt was not calling plays. Well, he did against the Las Vegas Raiders. How did that go? 147 yards passing from their practice squad QB Nick Mullen, 89 yards rushing, but zero sacks or turnovers in the 16-14 defeat.
Mayfield has 13 interceptions, six fumbles (lost three) and a 35.3 Total QB Rating.
So what is Coach Stefanski’s response about the quibbling between the two?
“In terms of relationship with any of the players, it’s something we always as coaches work on and try to challenge our guys and support our guys, so I feel no different with Baker. I know it’s easy to look at the frustration that we’ve had offensively and you want to pin it all on one player, and that’s just totally unfair.”
Coach is not going to throw his starting quarterback under the bus. What he could have said, were the short-armed throws, the numerous high tosses and missed targets, plus the amount of untimely drops. Maybe Coach should have just stated that the execution of the offense this year was putrid.
The reporting by Cabot throws a monkey wrench into Mayfield’s contract negotiations this off-season. Even if the two become cordial again and mend fences, it does not mean that Berry and Stefanski haven’t made up their minds to move on from Mayfield and bring in a veteran player or draft a guy pretty high come April.
The goal was for Mayfield to come in and change the way the Browns play the game and that has been accomplished at times. When healthy, he could become a Top-10 quarterback and undoubtedly has full potential.
And anytime a team has garnered some success, it is obvious the fanbase will expect this trend to not only continue but to escalate and do something bigger and grander the following year.
And then this: Heavy.com has run a story that apparently sends this little episode from tiff to rift. The disappointing season has raised some red flags within the organization about whether Mayfield is the solution in the long-term. They quote Mayfield as saying that if he doesn’t get “reassurance” of a change with the offensive scheme, he will request a trade to a club that caters more to his strengths.
“If Mayfield doesn’t get reassurance that things will change next season, he’ll consider asking to be traded. He’s under contract for $18.858 million in his fifth-year option year, but at this point, it’s uncertain if the Browns even view him as their starter for 2022.”
It appears that the changes Mayfield is seeking has to do with the offensive philosophies a.k.a. Coach Stefanski. Mayfield is quoted as saying this regarding his playing while hurt, his poor performances as of late, and what is next:
“I’ve continued to lay it out on the line when I haven’t been healthy and tried to fight for our guys,” Mayfield said after the loss to the Steelers. “Now it’s time for me to start looking at what’s in the best interest of me and my health.”
Baker and his wife Emily live in Texas during the off-season, so it’s not like himself and Stefanski will be bumping into each other on a weekly basis. To top that off, in a recent Instagram from Emily, she posted a photo of a local gym with the wording “Going to miss this place.”
But the Browns do not need Mayfield’s permission to trade him, or keep him. So he can request a trade all day and it won’t matter. He did not play well this year and it is assumed to be the direct result of his assorted injuries. And if they do indeed trade him, how much will the fanbase object? Right now, there are two quarterback camps: keep Baker and watch him flourish, and get rid of Baker he is a bust.
NBC Sports had this to say about Mayfield’s erroneous trade insinuation:
“And if the Browns want to turn the page on the Mayfield era, they likely won’t experience much pushback from the fan base. Mayfield’s prickly side has emerged just enough this season to make it easier for fans to welcome the possibility of a new quarterback for a team that otherwise has plenty of solid pieces in place to contend.”
And of course Mayfield’s assertion that the offense needs to change or else he may seek a trade is a centuries-old tactic: “I’ll break-up with you before you can break-up with me.”
It is not news that head coaches and their star QB’s haven’t been at each other in the past. But it is news for this team - our team, it is Mayfield’s contract year, plus the State of the Browns going forward depends upon a mutual union between the two.