Mayfield, Browns can make up for lost season in home stretch

Published 11:50 pm Friday, December 3, 2021

CLEVELAND (AP) — Baker Mayfield’s chance to change the narrative — about him, about the Browns and about his future — is staring him in the face.

He’s got five games to show he’s either a franchise quarterback or another Cleveland miss.

Pushing through several injuries for weeks, Mayfield spent the bye week healing up and preparing himself for a dastardly December stretch of important games that will define this season for the Browns (6-6) — and perhaps determine where he plays the rest of his NFL career.

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The quarterback, who has long embraced playing like a cornered cat, is up against it.

The pressure’s on for him to deliver after not doing so yet in 2021.

“We have seen Baker play a lot of good football here,” general manager Andrew Berry said during Cleveland’s late and much-welcomed break. “We have seen Baker play good football this season. I know he’s excited and we’re excited for the opportunity ahead of us. We expect him to play his best football moving forward over the next five weeks.”

He’ll have to.

What was supposed to be a season in which Mayfield and the Browns took another step toward a Super Bowl title after making the playoffs and winning a postseason game a year ago, has been a step back and dissolved into desperation.

Cleveland can’t afford another loss or risk missing the tournament. And, it’s a rough road ahead with games against Baltimore (8-3), Las Vegas (6-5), Green Bay (9-3), Pittsburgh (5-5-1) and Cincinnati (7-4) — all playoff contenders.

Realistically, the Browns will likely need at least four wins to have a shot.

With the focus on winning, Berry said the span will reveal much more than Cleveland’s won-loss record.

“The next five games really provide us with a really valuable opportunity,” Berry said this week. “Oftentimes people talk about adversity or challenges really when it is convenient, but the reality is it is really important to us as a team and organization because No. 1, you learn a lot about people, whether it is on the field, publicly or privately.

“But also, adversity is universally important for growth.”

Mayfield has had his share of hardship in 2021.

A self-inflicted torn labrum in his shoulder suffered while making a tackle in Week 2 worsened when he fractured his humerus bone in Week 6. Mayfield also has been playing with a banged-up knee and bruised heel, limiting his mobility and making plays with his feet.

The injuries, however, don’t excuse the times he has missed open receivers or failed to mount a comeback drive. He’s 1-5 against teams with winning records, going 0-4 with a chance to lead a winning drive.

Most recently, Mayfield couldn’t do anything at the end of Sunday’s 16-10 loss to the Ravens. He couldn’t pick up a first down on the last possession as the Browns let a game in which they intercepted Lamar Jackson four times slip away.

Mayfield’s statistics don’t reflect progress in his fourth year. He’s ranked 26th in QBR and has thrown just 11 TD passes, putting him 24th in the league.

Cleveland’s passing attack, so explosive and unpredictable last year, has been a dud. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances, but much of the blame has to land on Mayfield, who triggers every play.

Making plays and raising the level of your teammates is part of a franchise QB’s job description.

Berry was quick to point out that there’s more going wrong than just Mayfield. It’s about the play call, protection, receivers running correct routes, not dropping balls, all of it.

“We have just not been consistent enough in the passing game,” Berry said. “I want to be clear here. That is not necessarily a one-player or a one-person problem.”

True, but the Browns’ most important person is Mayfield.

The 26-year-old once seemed assured of getting a long-term extension from Cleveland, but that seems as uncertain as the team’s playoff chances. The Browns did exercise his $18.9 million fifth-year option for 2022.

Berry wouldn’t draw a direct line between Mayfield’s erratic play and a future pay day.

“There are a lot of players across the league that are in similar boats, whether they are free agents or extension eligible,” he said. “It comes with the territory in terms of being a professional athlete, but I do know this: Baker is both physically and mentally resilient, and he’s hyper-focused on winning and controlling the offense’s play moving forward.”

Whether the Browns move forward with Mayfield as their starter could hinge on how he finishes this season.

Berry insists Mayfield doesn’t have to prove anything to him over the next month, but it sure feels that way.

“I don’t know if it’s so much about showing me anything,’’ Berry said. “Really, our focus is on winning games and playing at a high enough level that allows us to be in a strong spot in December.

“Baker has shown a lot over the past three-plus seasons, so I don’t necessarily subscribe to this notion that there’s something in these next five games that is of particular focus, so to speak.”