There’s a certain freedom that comes from being a member of the Cleveland Browns. As long as you don’t saw off a foot on the field — your own or someone else’s, either one — you’re pretty much guaranteed to become at least a local celebrity. In a franchise where “reasonable competence” might just get your number retired, a whole lot of outcomes fly in Cleveland that wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere else.
For Cleveland, it’s been a series of little climbs up the ladder; what would be baby steps anywhere else are mountains conquered for this franchise. Their Week 3 victory over Washington put Cleveland over .500 for the first time since 2014. Their 4-1 record prior to last week was their best start since 1994. A four-game winning streak in Cleveland damn near warrants a parade.
But now the pats on the head are over. Now, the Browns are going to have to earn their brown-and-orange stripes. At long last, the words “expectations” and “Browns” are in the same sentence and “lack of” isn’t.
After summiting those little early season hills, the Browns finally got a look at a real challenge last week, facing the undefeated Steelers. It didn’t go well; the Steelers made the Browns taste their own blood, and for Cleveland, it was an all-too-familiar feeling. Hey, if you never hope, you never get hurt, right?
Credit Baker Mayfield, then, for not just leaning into that loss, but stepping right in front of the same sledgehammer that’s obliterated three decades of Browns teams.
“The feeling throughout the building after that loss, 4-2 has never felt so much like 0-6 before,'' Mayfield said Wednesday, per the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “That’s because we have very high expectations for ourselves. We’re eager to get back to work and to get out there and fix the problems that we know are within our own control.”
That starts with Mayfield, who’s shouldering a borderline impossible burden: Turn around a joke of a franchise and halt the assembly line at quarterback, while living up to overall No. 1 pick expectations, in a town where a certain previous overall No. 1 went on to become one of the world’s most famous athletes. No pressure there.
Although he was playing through bruised ribs, Mayfield was nonetheless flat-out horrendous on Sunday, throwing a pick-six on his very first snap en route to a 10-of-18, 119-yard performance that netted him a 54.9 passer rating. Thing is, it wasn’t just an off game, it was just the worst result of a wobbly season.
Yes, the four wins are impressive. But Cleveland has a point differential of -24, by far the lowest-ranked winning team with a sub-.500 mark in that category. (The Falcons, Lions and Chargers — who have as many wins as Cleveland, combined — all rank better than the Browns in this category.)
Mayfield, for his part, has thrown out some best-of-the-season quotes (“Mama didn’t raise a wuss”), but he’s also thrown out some worst-of-the-season passes. He ranks near the bottom of the league with a 60.6 completion percentage. Among regular starters, few are worse than Mayfield’s 84.3 passer rating. And as if game planning alone wasn’t tough enough, Case Keenum lurks right there on the bench if Mayfield continues to falter.
But there’s (potential) good news ahead. Starting with this weekend’s game against Cincinnati, Cleveland has a run lined up of eminently beatable teams — Las Vegas, Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville. Outside of the Bengals, who are still finding their own identity, all of those teams have a passer rating against them of greater than 92, meaning the opportunities are there. Cleveland’s outstanding rushing game — a league-leading 1,017 yards on the ground already — gives Mayfield the flexibility he’ll need.
Mayfield knows the swoon he’s in. "I have to have a short memory playing quarterback,'' he said Wednesday. “That’s for the good and the bad, but especially the bad. Getting back to the basics, finding completions. It’s tough when you’re in a momentum swing like that to get back on track, but at this position, you have to be able to do that. It is about finding completions and getting back to basics.”
If the regular season ended today — a sentence that carries a lot more weight in 2020 than it usually does — Cleveland would have the #5 playoff seed. (They’d also have a first-weekend date with Kansas City, but let’s focus on the positive.) If they’re going to hold onto that position, the Browns will need Mayfield to step up.
That previous No. 1 overall pick from Cleveland — fella by the name of LeBron — anointed Mayfield back in 2018 by saying he had the “it” factor to be the city’s alpha dog. With a five-game run that could put Cleveland in prime position for its first playoff berth since 2002, it’s time for Mayfield to prove James right.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at email@example.com.
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