As Baker Mayfield writhed in pain Sunday during the Cleveland Browns’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals, having reinjured his previously dislocated left shoulder, the quarterback found himself in the middle of yet another unfortunate twist in a season that thus far hasn’t unfolded desirably for either him or his team.
This was supposed to be the season that the fourth-year veteran built on a successful 2020 campaign, in which he earned the first playoff win of his career. It should have been the year when he elevated a talented Browns roster to the ranks of Super Bowl contenders. And this was supposed to be the season when Mayfield elevated his own game to the ranks of the elite passers and joined contemporaries in securing long-term financial security.
But instead, Mayfield’s play has remained uneven as he came up short against other young passers in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray. He’s banged up, nursing a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder that will keep him out of Thursday night’s game against Denver and likely require offseason surgery to repair. The Browns own a 3-3 record and trail the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North. And Mayfield still has plenty of questions to answer about his potential, leaving the Browns in a quandary.
Instead of a year of growth and clarity, the Browns and their quarterback thus far remain in wait-and-see mode.
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When Cleveland selected Mayfield first overall in 2018, team officials saw him as the long-awaited remedy for the revolving door of quarterbacks the team had endured. They believed Mayfield could give their long-suffering fans a reason to believe as he spurred the franchise to new heights.
Mayfield has certainly brought rare stability to Cleveland’s quarterback position. These last four seasons have represented the longest run by a Browns starting quarterback since Bernie Kosar took the reins in 1985.
But the Browns still are largely waiting for Mayfield to arrive in a grander sense.
The 6-1, 215-pound signal-caller still hasn’t delivered the same kind of prolific and transformative performances as peers like Mahomes, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.
All three have multiple playoff appearances. Mahomes has multiple divisional titles and a Super Bowl title, and both he and Jackson have won NFL MVP. Meanwhile, Mayfield and the Browns haven’t finished higher than third in their division the last three seasons.
Through three-plus seasons, Mayfield has been solid but not elite. He’s still riding largely on potential.
It’s worth noting that Mayfield hasn’t benefited from the same kind of stability that has assisted Mahomes, Allen and Jackson in their development. While those three have played under the same head coaches and franchise power structures during their respective careers, Mayfield is on his third head coach (not including 2018 interim head coach Gregg Williams), second general manager and third offensive coordinator.
But Mayfield also lacks the same special physical traits that Mahomes, Allen and Jackson boast. He hasn’t displayed the same kind of wizardry with the ball as Mahomes does, can’t overpower would-be tacklers like Allen does, and can’t race past defenders like Jackson can.
But Mayfield does boast leadership skills, toughness and an unshakeable confidence, and he can move well enough to extend plays, and boasts a quick release.
Consistency remains an issue, however.
The Browns had hoped that this season, while aided by continuity from a second year under Kevin Stefanski and armed with a plethora of weapons, Mayfield could take the next leap forward. But the results have been mixed.
He is completing a career-best 67.1% of his passes while setting another personal best with a 97.8 passer rating. However, Mayfield’s 245.7 passing yards per game rank 20th in the NFL, and he has thrown only six touchdown passes while tossing three interceptions. For comparison’s sake, Mahomes ranks third with 314.5 yards while throwing 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Allen ranks eighth with 287.2 yards per game with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions, and Jackson ranks ninth with 281 yards along with nine touchdown passes and five picks.
What’s worse: Unlike those three, Mayfield has yet to establish himself as the unquestioned go-to guy in his own offense.
Similarly to last season, Mayfield has served more as a game manager than an offensive catalyst. When the game is on the line, the Chiefs, Ravens and Bills and their opponents all know that trio of quarterbacks will be asked to deliver in some form.
But Mayfield hasn’t yet risen to that level.
In Week 1, Mayfield threw an interception while trying to lead his team on a late-game comeback against the Chiefs.
Two weeks ago, with Cleveland leading the Chargers 42-41 and 2: 55 left, rather than put the game on Mayfield’s shoulders on third-and-9, Stefanski called a draw play to Kareem Hunt, who got stopped well short of the first down. Los Angeles would go on to score the game-winning touchdown on the following drive.
Stefanski has previously expressed confidence in his quarterback. But such a decision certainly didn’t reflect such trust.
Mayfield certainly doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the Browns’ inconsistencies. His season could have gotten off to a better start had Cleveland not suffered a rash of injuries that include missed time by both of his top wide receivers, starting offensive tackles and now both leading running backs.
However, Jackson has found himself in a similar situation and still has managed to deliver, winning five straight games.
Now, however, Mayfield is dealing with his own injury.
The hope within the Browns organization is that rest will help Mayfield. After Thursday’s game, Cleveland doesn’t play again until Oct. 31 against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers for a crucial divisional game.
Mayfield’s goal is to return to action as soon as possible and position his team for a playoff push. A strong string of performances would also help create leverage in contract talks this offseason. But for now, that remains secondary for Mayfield.
Evaluations for the future never end, however, and the Browns will continue to wrestle with the question of how to handle their quarterback’s future. Having picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, Cleveland brass technically could wait until the offseason following the 2022 season to make the call.
But until Mayfield can find the consistency needed to elevate himself and his team to the next level, the Browns will remain in a holding pattern.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.