After the Browns’ wild win against the Bengals on Sunday, Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski mentioned the rapport between quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Rashard Higgins, who had a career-high 110 receiving yards, calling Higgins by his apparent nickname: “Obviously, there’s something there. [Mayfield] has a great feel for throwing to Hollywood,” Stefanski said. “Again, I give great credit to the kid when earlier in the season. He was not getting the reps that I am sure he wanted.”
If you were unfamiliar with Higgins or just unaware there was another wide receiver nicknamed “Hollywood” in the AFC North, you’re not alone. Higgins was a fifth-round draft pick out of Colorado State in 2016 who, until Sunday, had never had a 100-yard game and was a healthy scratch twice this season. In a twisted bit of irony, his name came up because of how well he filled in after his teammate of much greater fame, Odell Beckham Jr., left the game in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury while attempting a tackle following a Mayfield interception. On Monday, the Browns announced that Beckham was lost for the season with a torn ACL, making Higgins’s contribution all the more important.
Beckham’s injury was the latest and most significant suffered by a Browns starter or significant contributor: wide receiver Jarvis Landry is playing through a broken rib, running back Nick Chubb is out with an MCL injury and could return in November, right guard Wyatt Teller has missed two games with a calf injury, tight end Austin Hooper is recovering from emergency appendix surgery, and second-round draft pick and safety Grant Delpit was lost before the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon. That puts players like Hollywood Higgins, who was fighting for special teams snaps early in the season, center stage with Mayfield. It’s a difficult place to be for Cleveland, 5-2 and on track for its first playoff berth since 2002: The team’s rebuild during the past few years has been predicated on diligently accumulating draft capital to acquire stars, either in the draft, where they selected Mayfield no. 1 in 2018, or via trade, which is how they added Beckham in March 2019. The talent base the Browns have developed has been beset by injuries just as the team is positioning itself as a legitimate playoff contender. Now, they will need to reach deeper down the depth chart and rely on lesser-known players to sustain a postseason push.
“Just the mindset of last-minute having guys step in and do things that they weren’t practicing all week,” Mayfield said Sunday night. “Obviously, Odell going down mid-game is not great, but we had a ton of guys step up. You never want to have to go through that, but this team is resilient, and our guys showed that today.”
Beckham’s season-ending injury is another inflection point in his complicated Cleveland tenure. Entering Sunday’s game, he had 23 catches for 319 yards and three touchdown receptions, plus a 50-yard rushing touchdown that sealed Cleveland’s win against the Cowboys in Week 4. He was mostly hurt in 2019 but still had over 1,000 receiving yards. It’s never quite been kismet for Mayfield and Beckham, but theirs has been a productive relationship that was showing signs of growth.
Most likely, it’s one that will continue. Beckham is due $15.75 million in total compensation in 2021, according to Spotrac, almost $13 million of which is guaranteed for injury, with the rest becoming guaranteed in March. Since Beckham is unlikely to fully recover by then, the Browns cannot cut him before that without being on the hook for the $13 million injury guarantee, practically ensuring that he will remain on his current contract through next season. The Browns could try to trade him, but it’s hard to envision a rush of teams offering premium draft picks for a player, even one of Beckham’s caliber, who can’t help them this season.
Then there’s the question of what Beckham’s absence does for the Browns offense this season.
The good news for Cleveland is that Mayfield had one of his best games Sunday throwing to Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones, both of whom will take on larger roles, with Higgins likely to get the majority of Beckham’s snaps and Peoples-Jones to fill the need for a vertical threat. Stefanski lauded Higgins’s connection with Mayfield—the fifth-year receiver has caught 10 passes, two of them for touchdowns, in the last three games. Those catches have come on 11 targets, and Higgins caught all six passes Mayfield threw to him against Cincinnati.
“I think this game could have given this offense confidence to realize we can believe and trust in everybody. We always have a chance if we believe in that,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield had the first five-touchdown game of his career on Sunday. After starting the game 0-for-5 passing, he completed his last 22 passes, if you ignore a clock-stopping spike on Cleveland’s final drive. Mayfield had a 1-in-19,062 chance of completing all 22 of those passes in a row. His last was the game-winning touchdown throw down the right sideline to Peoples-Jones, which, according to Next Gen Stats, had a completion probability of 21.7 percent and was Mayfield’s most improbable completion of the game. Mayfield finished 22-of-28 passing with 297 yards, five touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 135.6.
“He has been in the same predicament as me,” Higgins said, talking about Peoples-Jones after the game. “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. It showed up. We knew once Odell went down, DPJ was going to play a big part in this offense. He did his thing.”
The trade deadline is November 3, though teams may want to get deals done this week since COVID-19 restrictions require newly acquired players to have five consecutive days of negative tests before joining their new teams. The Browns could call the Texans about Will Fuller V or the Jets about Breshad Perriman, among other options, and are now more likely to hang on to tight end David Njoku than they were before Beckham’s injury. Cleveland’s activity in the trade market might be focused on the defense. Stars like defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward are playing extremely well, but the Browns badly need safety help—they’ve struggled to defend the middle of the field and rank 20th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA.
Whether they make a move or not, though, the rest of the season doesn’t hinge on what Cleveland can grab during a midseason shopping spree; it depends on Mayfield and his ability to make do with what’s currently on the roster.
Cleveland’s first playoff appearance since 2002 remains a very reasonable possibility. None of the Browns’ next four opponents—the Raiders, Texans, Eagles, and Jaguars—have a winning record, and there are late-December matchups against the Giants and Jets. There’s every incentive to remain invested in this season. The question is whether Mayfield can sustain his performance from Sunday against the better teams on the schedule, and potentially in the postseason.
The Browns, after all, have beaten up on the Bengals a lot lately. Mayfield’s career quarterback rating against the Bengals is 111.4; his rating against the rest of the NFL is 83.5. He has 64 career touchdown passes in 37 games; 17 of those have come in six games against Cincinnati. Against the other two teams in the AFC North, the Steelers and the Ravens, Mayfield is 3-6 with a minus-71 point differential. The Browns have yet to beat either of those teams, who are a combined 11-1, this year.
Overall, Mayfield is 19th among starting quarterbacks with a passer rating of 94.5, just behind Jimmy Garoppolo (97.2) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (95.0). He’s 25th by passing yards (1,392), tied for sixth in touchdowns thrown (15), but tied for third in interceptions thrown (seven). That’s the kind of territory where a quarterback can do very well with the right supporting cast, but Mayfield’s cast suddenly features several new faces.
Mayfield said after the game that during halftime, he found Beckham in the locker room with the medical staff and told him that he loved him.
“Go be great,” Beckham told him in response.
There’s an unsaid end to that instruction: without me. Against the Bengals, Mayfield did that. Now, the test is if he can crack the ceiling against better opponents that’s prevented the Browns’ growth. Beckham was the player who best represented the Browns’ all-in approach to support Mayfield but, now, Cleveland’s chances rest on whether Mayfield can go be great without him.