Browns, Baker Mayfield: Playoff spot could prolong the relationship

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  • Cleveland Browns
    Cleveland Browns
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  • Baker Mayfield
    Baker Mayfield
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The Cleveland Browns could be eliminated from playoff contention at the conclusion of the 1 PM games of Week 17. The Browns could also control their playoff destiny by that same time. Cleveland could also be somewhere in between after Sunday.

Two games at 1 PM have the biggest impact on the team’s playoff hopes.

Those two games, plus the Browns final two games of the season, could lead the team to the AFC North championship and hosting a playoff game on wild card weekend. They could also lead Cleveland to be drafting somewhere near the top ten of the 2022 NFL draft.

The variability left in the 2021 NFL season is staggering for the Browns and their fanbase. Expectations had given way to hope and, for many, have now given way to despair. A few games late in the season could change all of that.

It could also change the future for the Cleveland Browns as well.

Baker Mayfield has been the center of a lot of hope and angst this season for the Browns and their fans. Such is the life of an NFL quarterback. Following the 2020 season where the team ended strong on offense, many were bought into Mayfield as the future. Near the end of the 2021 season, very few are.

So what would a playoff appearance, second year in a row, do for the team and Mayfield? Talking through that question from both sides:

Of course, they stick with him

Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Two straight playoff appearances for the Cleveland Browns would be an impressive accomplishment. While many had higher expectations, two seasons of playoff football for a fanbase starved for it would have to mean Mayfield returns as the unquestioned starter of the team, right?

Making the playoffs in the NFL, although easier since the additional wild card, must be respected. If the Browns are able to see the postseason again this year, Mayfield would have two playoff appearances in his first four years in the league.

The optics of the team bringing in another quarterback to compete with Mayfield or moving on from him altogether would be tough for a franchise that hasn’t won much before him.

On the other hand…

... Berry, Stefanski, Podesta unlikely to care about optics

(AP Photo/David Dermer)

For all the grief the word “analytics” gets, it is clear that emotion plays very little role in the team’s decisions. “Popular” decisions are not ones that get a lot of attention and the optics of moving on from Mayfield despite two straight playoff appearances probably isn’t going to move them either.

Obviously, many fans would be okay with the team moving on from Mayfield with two weeks left in the regular season. Would that still be true after two straight wins, an AFC North title and, perhaps, a competitive playoff game (or win)?

In the end, opinions/emotions/optics/etc are not going to run the Browns franchise. At one point, those things led the team to invest in Derek Anderson, for a short time, despite the team’s good record coming largely from an easy schedule. That kind of decision doesn’t fit Paul DePodesta, Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski.

But…

... will they have a choice?

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

No one believes Mayfield has had a good season in 2021. His decision-making, interceptions, accuracy and “clutch” play have been down from where he was just a year ago. The drama surrounding Odell Beckham Jr. has seemed to linger in the locker room as well.

Yet, we have seen glimpses of great play, a strong arm, a competitive spirit and the player that was around in 2020.

Whether the team makes the playoffs again or not, will Cleveland have a better option than Mayfield in 2022? Fans can dream about Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and (pending legal remedies) Deshaun Watson all they want, acquiring them may be very difficult. The 2022 NFL draft is bereft of certainty at the quarterback position including anyone better than Mayfield for next year.

Hoping for a Ryan Tannehill type resurgence from the likes of Mitch Trubisky or Marcus Mariota is closer to assuming the team could draft the next Tom Brady in the sixth round than actual reality.

Realistically, the Browns may not have a better choice than Baker Mayfield as their starting quarterback in 2022.

What if…

... Baker asks out?

(AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)

The flip side of what Cleveland may want, or what their best option is, would be if Mayfield decides he wants out. Going into the final year of his rookie contract, Mayfield’s stock has never been lower. With his “chip-on-the-shoulder” attitude that led him to walk-on at Texas Tech and Oklahoma, the former top overall pick may make a statement of his desire to leave.

If the team knows Mayfield is unhappy in Cleveland, which is already possible, having him as the leader of the offense may be untenable. Instead, in advance of anything becoming public, the Browns front office could get ahead of it and make whatever move they can to replace their starting quarterback.

If they are unable to, or they call Mayfield’s bluff and he really does want out, how uncomfortable is the team willing to let things get? Cleveland moved on from Beckham relatively quickly when things became problematic but will they be able to from their quarterback?

On the other hand, could the Browns…

... just sign him to an extension?

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

It has been a long winding road from this past offseason where it was reported Cleveland was willing to extend their quarterback to where we sit today. One way for both sides to capitalize on a second straight playoff appearance is with a quick extension.

The Browns may still have a similar belief in Mayfield as they did this offseason and chalk up the struggles to his injuries, Beckham drama and inconsistencies and injuries/COVID-19 issues all over the offense.

It might be tough to give Mayfield a big contract after this season and the QB may balk at any extension at a more reasonable price but getting it done after making the playoffs again would give the team something to build on.

Is that worth building on or…

... would good just be getting in the way of great?

Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, while making the playoffs for the second straight year is a great thing, it can’t be enough to keep the team from seeking an upgrade. If they can’t find one, they stick with Mayfield.

As noted with Anderson years ago, oftentimes sports teams can let good play keep them from making bigger moves in the hopes of great play. Cleveland’s front office knows what they have in Baker Mayfield. Fans and media are always on the outside looking in but have seen his successes and failures.

On average over his almost four seasons, Mayfield has been good. At times, he has played great. At other times, he has played very poorly.

If the Browns believe they can find someone at quarterback that is or can be great consistently, they need to make that move and move on from Mayfield. If they believe Mayfield can be great on a more consistent basis, and aren’t able to acquire someone better, they will at least ride it out for another season.

“Good Baker Mayfield” can’t keep the team from acquiring “Great Quarterback to be Named” but that quarterback may be hard to find.

If the team has two straight playoff appearances, it may be stuck with “good” for a while but the front office will likely continue to seek “great.”

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