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There Are No Easy Answers for Baker Mayfield or the Browns

Mayfield wants out. Cleveland has no better quarterback options. Both sides are angry, but they also may be forced to stick with each other.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

A day after the Cleveland Browns’ season-ending win over the eventual AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals—ah, wait, let’s try that again.

A day after the Browns barely beat the Cincinnati Bengals’ backups to end a disappointing 8-9 season, head coach Kevin Stefanski spoke to local reporters about that failure of a season. During the interview, he spoke supportively about embattled fourth-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, who had struggled with injury and performance for the entire 2021 season.

While Stefanski’s answer seemed emphatic, it was missing a little something. A few days before his presser, Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reported that a rift had developed between Mayfield and the coach. That report received a swift negative response from Mayfield on Twitter, who called it clickbait and scolded the Cleveland media for stirring up drama.

While Stefanski commented on his confidence that Mayfield would improve, and on a long list of issues including the challenges posed by player social media use, COVID-19 restrictions, and the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, he didn’t directly address the reported rift in his postseason presser. He didn’t comment on the reported rift at the NFL combine a month later, either.

Now, just because Stefanski didn’t rebut the report doesn’t mean it was true. Acknowledging a damaging rumor during a press conference can give it more validity. If Mayfield and Stefanski had a rift, then nothing Stefanski could say on that podium would ease it; if they had no rift, nothing needed to be said.

Well, now NFL fans and onlookers have some clarity: There’s a rift. Just one day into the league new year, Mayfield has requested a trade from the Browns.

Just two months ago, Mayfield was ripping into local reporters, disputing the idea that he was at all unhappy. Now, the source of his discontent is easy to trace. Two days ago, Mayfield tweeted a letter to the city of Cleveland. While he was quick to insist it was not a “message with hidden meaning,” it read exactly like the farewell note of a player who expected to be traded away from a beloved city—and appropriately so, as the Browns were attempting to trade for Deshaun Watson at the time.

This kind of letter usually comes after the player is traded away. Mayfield’s came while rumors were still swirling—and in the ensuing days, more news broke. The Browns were informed on Thursday that they were no longer in consideration for a Watson trade. But the following reports emphasized that the Browns were still comfortable carrying Mayfield as their starting quarterback in 2022, and that they had previously informed Mayfield’s camp that they would spend the offseason investigating the trade market for top-tier quarterbacks like Watson.

So the Browns didn’t land Watson. They also didn’t land Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, whom they likely called about during the offseason. They did their homework on the available top-tier passers, couldn’t land one, and were happy enough to enter the season with Mayfield playing on his fifth-year option—a perfectly manageable $18.9 million cap hit. If he struggled again, they could move on. If he bounced back—as they were so certain he would—they could sign him to an extension.

But the sheer fact that Mayfield is staring down the barrel of the fifth-year option tells you all you need to know. Of the 25 first-round quarterbacks selected from 2011 to 2018, only Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota played on their fifth-year option with the team that selected them. Inconsistent play led the Buccaneers and Titans, respectively, to doubt the long-term viability of their quarterbacks. Injury hampered Mariota, dulling the shine of a promising early-career start and playoff appearance, just as it did for Mayfield this past season. Winston endured a head coaching carousel that muddied his ideal scheme fit, just as Mayfield has seen three head coaches in four years in Cleveland. Neither Winston nor Mariota was retained by the team that drafted them. It’s a small sample, but history tells us that Mayfield was headed for the same fate.

We can also see that the rest of the league doesn’t think too highly of Mayfield’s talent, as Josina Anderson reported that Mayfield would likely return just one Day 2 pick in a trade package. That’s about what Sam Darnold went for last season, and less than what Carson Wentz went for in back-to-back offseasons. The Browns are a little low on leverage, of course, in that Mayfield is publicly demanding a trade—but in the NFL’s eye, Mayfield’s résumé is not worth a starter’s trade package.

Even aside from his injury-riddled 2021 season, this assessment seems fair. If Mayfield were to “bounce back” in 2022, as both Browns GM Andrew Berry and Stefanski so boldly predicted, he’d presumably bounce back to 2020 form. That was Mayfield’s best season as a pro, as well as his first season in Stefanski’s offense. But that season, while solid, wasn’t the emphatic stamp of a future star quarterback. Mayfield was eighth in EPA per dropback that year, just two spots above Kirk Cousins, the leaguewide barometer for functional quarterback play in the ever-popular wide zone, play-action offense. Deep shots off play-action were Mayfield’s saving grace in 2020, as defenses stacked the box against the run and left open windows downfield. Those vanished in 2021 as the running game struggled. Baker’s 2020 was far from Lamar Jackson’s sophomore season, when he won MVP, or Josh Allen’s third season, when he launched himself into the league’s elite echelon. It wasn’t Joe Burrow’s sophomore year or Justin Herbert’s sophomore year. When a rookie quarterback earns a mammoth second contract, the reason why is plain to see. It didn’t look that way for Baker, and it never has.

That stark, binary reality—that a quarterback either is or isn’t the guy—is what’s motivating the Browns’ moves. Sure, Mayfield can be your “starter,” in that he can take the first snap from under center, and then play the remainder of the game—but he isn’t a second-contract guy. He doesn’t elevate an offense. He’s fine, but not good enough to keep a team from swinging for the fences when one of those rare quarterbacks actually becomes available.

That is the truth of the matter. Fortunately for the Browns, they can tell a different story—with Mayfield’s help. Ever the brash character, he tossed himself to the dogs with his preemptive public statement. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen said the Browns want “an adult” at the position, and that sentiment was echoed by ESPN’s Ryan Clark and NFL Network’s Steve Smith—two ex-players who understand how personalities play in locker rooms.

The Browns were fine with Mayfield’s demeanor during the season, when he was toughing out injuries for the sake of the team. His scathing clapback about the rumors of the rift likely played well in the locker room and for the coaching staff. Heck, when the Browns drafted Baker, his personality was a big reason why—this is the same guy who walked on to two college teams and won two starting jobs, planted the Oklahoma flag in Ohio State’s turf, and grabbed his crotch while facing Kansas’s bench after they didn’t shake his hand before a game. Mayfield has always taken things personally—for better or for worse.

The Browns knew that, told Mayfield’s camp that they’d be talking to other quarterbacks, and now get to act affronted when Mayfield takes the news poorly. At this point in his career, he should be enough of a professional to take things in stride, sure. But the Browns didn’t explore moving on from Mayfield because he isn’t that professional yet—they explored it because they want a better quarterback.

So they’d be fine with Mayfield as their 2022 starter, and have responded to his trade request with a flat denial. Why go through all the trouble of trading Mayfield for another mid-tier quarterback? The Browns are hunting big game, and unless Stefanski and Berry are the world’s biggest Matt Ryan fans, there’s none left on the market. As far as they’re concerned, with Mayfield as their 2022 starter, they have an outside shot at another playoff appearance.

It’s tough to see what Mayfield can do to force the Browns’ hand. A holdout would incur massive fines and guarantees that Mayfield’s most recent film featured a bad offense and a hurt shoulder. With criticism of his professionalism swirling, any outspoken frustration or obvious uninterest during the season would only further tarnish his reputation. If he wants to get out of Cleveland as soon as possible, he needs another team to want him so badly that they’d move off a top quarterback in exchange. Good luck with that.

Mayfield and the Browns are at a standstill—a mighty weird one. The Browns want someone else at quarterback, but have no options; Baker wants to go somewhere, but the teams that could use him—Seattle, Indianapolis—don’t have the quarterback the Browns are searching for. Each side is mad at the other, but if we’re grading exclusively on a scale of potential 2022 season wins and losses, both parties are likely best for each other.