When is the right time to break up with someone if you’re fairly sure they just aren’t for you? Some might argue it’s best to act quickly and decisively when you suspect there’s no long-term future for the relationship. Others might look past the red flags and preach patience: Things may not have been perfect up to now, but perhaps your partner can change.
The Cleveland Browns are faced with the prospect of parting ways with quarterback Baker Mayfield this offseason, and they appear to be firmly in the latter camp when it comes to breakups. Mayfield is coming off an injury-plagued year with career lows in a host of statistical categories, but Browns general manager Andrew Berry is hopeful that better days are on the horizon.
“We fully expect Baker to be our starter and bounce back,” Berry said in his postseason press conference. “… We’ve seen him as a talented passer in this league, and we’re looking forward to him getting healthy and continuing to make improvements. We expect him to bounce back next year.”
Berry’s confidence in his quarterback is laudable — it’s a good feeling when your boss has your back after a disappointing year. But how confident should the Browns be in a Baker rebound? Going into the season, Cleveland was a trendy pick to go to the Super Bowl, with pundits arguing that, on paper, they were the best team in the AFC. Vegas was also bullish: The Browns’ preseason win total was set at 10.5, third highest in the conference. Mayfield was coming off a 2020 in which he posted the highest Total Quarterback Rating of his career (65.5, 10th-best among starters) alongside first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski, and in 2021, the table seemed to be set for a career year.
Instead of a career year — or perhaps a modest regression after the league adjusted to Stefanski’s scheme and style in Cleveland — the wheels completely fell off. Mayfield ranked 27th in the NFL in QBR (35.3) in 2021 and 29th in off-target throw percentage (19 percent), according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group; he set a career high in sacks with 43, good for 28th in the league; he was 24th in the league in yards per dropback (5.93), sandwiched between Daniel Jones and Davis Mills; he was 27th in Next Gen Stats’ completion percentage over expected (-3.5 percent); and Pro Football Focus graded him as the 27th best passer in the league (62.4 passing grade).
Explaining the gap between expectations for and the reality of this season isn’t straightforward, but one of the more plausible explanations is poor injury luck. Mayfied spent most of the season dealing with a completely torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder after injuring it in Week 2, and he faced other assorted lower-body ailments. The players around him also struggled with injuries: The Browns sported one of the best offensive lines in the NFL when healthy, but tackle Jack Conklin was lost for the season in November after earlier missing three games, and tackle Jedrick Willis Jr. battled nagging injuries starting in Week 1. In an impressive display of grit, the unit managed to end the season as the league’s eighth-best offensive line despite the injuries, according to PFF.
The hog mollies did a terrific job opening holes for the running backs in particular, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry despite injuries to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at various points of the season. Chubb lost three games to injury or illness early in the year but still managed to finish second to the Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor in rushing with 1,259 yards on the season.
All told, according to Man-Games Lost, the Browns lost 35 points of the weighted Approximate Value of the injured players’ careers going into the season — well over the median of 26 for teams in 2021.
(It’s also true that while the Browns were unlucky with injuries, their bad fortune pales next to the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and division rival Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens, who finished with a record identical to Cleveland’s, led the league with 74 lost weighted AV to injuries, over double that of the Browns.)
Injuries can’t entirely explain Mayfield’s poor performance. The offensive line and the running game lived up to expectations, and the defense was serviceable, ranking 12th in efficiency, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. And while the Browns also lost a receiving weapon during the year that wasn’t injury-related when they released Odell Beckham Jr., the passing game lacked explosiveness even before Beckham left, and a change of scenery appears to have unlocked his dormant scoring potential. (He caught almost as many touchdowns in half a season with the Los Angeles Rams as he did during two and a half years with the Browns.)
Moreover, it’s unclear why Berry and the Browns should expect much improvement from a quarterback about to start his fifth season in the league. Baker’s career QBR of 52 is 4.3 points below the average of passer rating qualified starters since 2018. Undrafted journeyman Case Keenum had similar numbers starting in Baker’s place this season, and the team went 2-0 with him behind center in those games.
The Browns are one of the NFL’s smartest teams, and their reputation for evidenced-based analysis is well known. But despite massive uncertainty at the sport’s most important position, Berry and the Browns have consistently behaved as if they believe Mayfield is the team’s franchise quarterback. In the 2020 draft, Berry selected safety Grant Delpit in the second round instead of taking a shot on quarterback Jalen Hurts, who went nine picks later to the Philadelphia Eagles — a team that also already had a starting QB on the roster in Carson Wentz.
Perhaps the Browns will work hard this offseason to attract an expensive free agent QB. Or perhaps they’ll muster the will and draft capital to select a rookie QB in what is currently considered to be an underwhelming draft class at the position. Like starting to date again after a long relationship, both options appear slightly terrifying and unpalatable. But they likely have more upside than sticking with Baker and expecting him to morph into the franchise QB he’s never really shown he can be.
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