If you bet on the Browns or Baker Mayfield at any point in the 2019 preseason, you're like me: hopelessly entrapped every season by a starry-eyed Cinderella story in which you want to own at least a little stock.
The Browns were the darling of that offseason, and things couldn't have crashed and burned more spectacularly. At the forefront of that rapid and glorious demise was second-year quarterback Mayfield, the only remaining cornerstone of the saviors of Cleveland after coach Freddie Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey were cast aside in the blaze of glory for Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry, respectively.
Mayfield was disappointing in 2019; there are no two ways about that. After such a stunning rookie debut, was 2019 just a blip on his upwards trajectory or a sign of greater concerns to come?
Let's review some of Baker's biggest issues in 2019.
First, Baker force-fed targets to his two primary wide receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Landry and Beckham are talented players and deserved to be the two featured targets in the passing offense, but by the final weeks of the season, both were in the top 12 for contested-catch targets among all receivers. In targets beyond the line of scrimmage, both had five times more than the next closest player on the Browns' roster. There was no balance, and accordingly, the offense became predictable.
Secondly, Baker struggled mightily in post-snap processing, which has been a weaker aspect of his game, though it was never more glaring than it was in 2019. The Browns frequently poured vertical routes into downfield zones, as expected from a Kitchens-Todd Monken offense. It was familiar to Baker from his Oklahoma days under Lincoln Riley; but when Baker’s first reads got covered up, he failed to manage the pocket well or get to his checkdowns. He held onto the ball and forced deep, dangerous incompletions around multiple defenders. This issue was exacerbated by a dreadful offensive line that infrequently gave Mayfield manageable pockets or extended time to process the field.
Lastly, Mayfield's abrasiveness, which often runs the razor's edge between roguishly charming and obviously inauthentic, didn't play as well when the Browns were on a downturn. Mayfield struggled to handle tough media questions and regularly engaged in online spats with various commentators who were clearly trying to get a rise out of him. It wasn't a good look for the franchise, no matter how much it worked to frame it in a competitive light. His personal antics, as well as the issues the coaching staff had with keeping the roster focused on a championship, served as nothing more than a distraction.
Baker pre-determined his targets, struggled with post-snap obstacles and didn't respond well to underachieving relative to expectations. All traits in a standard report for a rookie.
But, of course, Baker was not a rookie. He was a sophomore and one that carried massive expectations on his shoulders. After an explosive second half of his rookie year with Kitchens at the helm, hope in Cleveland skyrocketed to towering heights. The last time the was that much hope was when Johnny Manziel was draft and before that, the 7-4 start under Mike Pettine in 2014. Perhaps that alone should have set off our warning bells.
We jumped the gun on Mayfield, just as Mayfield and Cleveland jumped the gun on Kitchens. Both weren't ready for the roles they were put in or the expectations carried with them. Mayfield wasn't a dark horse MVP candidate, but that doesn't mean he can't be the savior of Cleveland football. Kitchens wasn't an NFL offensive guru and star coach, but that doesn't mean he can't be a good signal-caller or head coach again someday. It just means that time is necessary for growth.
Mayfield's situation is better now than it was at the end of last season. Stefanski is a first-time head coach, just as Kitchens was, but he brings a more calming and collaborative approach. The offensive line is demonstrably better following the acquisitions of free agent Jack Conklin and rookie Jedrick Wills. Weapons return, but with hope for more depth and balance behind them, in the form of Austin Hooper and Rashard Higgin, and Nick Chubb remains a stud.
Cleveland’s offense will certainly be better. But as for Mayfield's responsibilities, his greatest ally will be time. Post-snap rotation will get easier to decipher the more he sees it, pressure will be easier to sense the more he experiences it and the media will matter less the more perspective Mayfield gains.
Mayfield's flashes remain, even as his warts are front and center in a review of his 2019 performance. That's okay; Mayfield has what all rookies hope to gain with their early performances: a long leash. He has time and opportunity to grow, and for as long as he continues to flash, Mayfield will continue to be afforded that opportunity.
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