Baker Mayfield and the Browns appear headed for divorce, the trust between the quarterback and coach Kevin Stefanski broken, perhaps beyond repair.
But with Stefanski saying Tuesday that Mayfield will undergo surgery as soon as possible to repair the torn labrum in his left shoulder, the Browns and Mayfield may not cut ties until training camp or even preseason because of his possible four- to six-month rehab.
Mayfield is the scapegoat — and rightly so — for the Browns’ 7-9 season, which will conclude Sunday against the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals with Mayfield sidelined. The Browns were in position to win in the fourth quarter five times this season, and five times Mayfield failed. His lack of accuracy and consistency over four seasons is not befitting a franchise quarterback, and the Browns have been unwilling to give him the contract he seeks except for picking up his fifth-year option for 2022.
But Mayfield’s regression and the likely end of his run in Cleveland should not mask the Browns’ other problems. There is much to fix and finding the franchise quarterback, while at the top of the list, should not cover up other issues.
The Browns’ broken offense was not all Mayfield’s fault. There was little evidence of players being put in the best position to win down the stretch.
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The Browns are wasting the prime of Nick Chubb’s career, apparently afraid to overburden their three-time Pro Bowl running back — their best player on that side of the ball — as the season disintegrated.
Stefanski and Mayfield were not on the same page in terms of play-calling, with Mayfield preferring offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, a quarterback for nine years with the Buffalo Bills. Mayfield’s replacement might feel the same way, providing Van Pelt doesn’t look elsewhere seeking that responsibility.
Stefanski has refused to pound what is working, perhaps fearing too many screen passes to Chubb would become predictable. If it’s attacking a weakness and relying on Chubb’s strengths, to coin a favorite Luther Vandross song, “Never Too Much.” Stefanski doesn’t seem to share the philosophy of Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who realized that Utah couldn’t cover Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the Rose Bowl and Smith-Njigba set a postseason record with 347 yards receiving.
In regards to Mayfield’s injuries — also a fractured humerus in the left shoulder suffered in Week 6, along with left heel, right knee and groin problems — Stefanski was not forceful enough to save Mayfield from himself. Mayfield missed only two games, a 16-14 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 20 after testing positive for COVID-19 and a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 21 because there were only three days in between games for him to heal.
The Browns mismanaged Mayfield’s injuries starting after Week 2, and he should have been told he was sitting after he was initially hurt and again following the injury against the Arizona Cardinals. Uber-competitive Mayfield knew he had much to prove with a contract on the line, but Stefanski’s decision to start him in 14 games may have permanently damaged Mayfield’s financial future.
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Those questions of injury mismanagement should also extend to the medical staff, with left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. starting for three more weeks on a sprained left ankle suffered in the second quarter of the season opener at Kansas City. Trust issues between players and that staff, whether valid or not, widely circulate among free agents.
Judging by players’ comments, there appears to be a problem with adjustments on both sides of the ball, especially in-game. Star defensive end Myles Garrett’s continuing digs at defensive coordinator Joe Woods seem strange after that unit’s resurgence following a 45-7 loss at New England on Nov. 14. Woods has done a good job since, even with players out due to injury and COVID-19.
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On Monday night, that criticism spread to the offense, with Mayfield questioning why rookie right tackle James Hudson III had no help against Steelers four-time Pro Bowl linebacker T.J. Watt, who had four of the Steelers’ nine sacks. Ahead of the game, Stefanski immediately dismissed the notion of moving left guard Joel Bitonio to right tackle, even though he excelled in two emergency starts at left tackle and it seemed like a good way to keep Mayfield upright.
Even some of the empathy Stefanski showed in 2020 seems missing, at least in regards to his quarterback. On Friday, Stefanski discounted that Mayfield had been affected by playing in a shoulder harness, despite Van Pelt saying it had “handcuffed” Mayfield. Stefanski sounded as if he’s already made up his mind that he will not tether his Cleveland future to Mayfield, while Van Pelt looked forward to next season when Mayfield would be unencumbered.
Van Pelt looks forward to next season with Mayfield: Shoulder harness has ‘handcuffed’ Baker Mayfield, Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt says
General Manager Andrew Berry should not be exempt from scrutiny. His acquisitions on defense were solid upgrades, but the four-year, $42 million contract given to tight end Austin Hooper in 2020 has not lived up to its price tag, and that’s a big free agency miss.
There is no reason for co-owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to get antsy and contemplate firing Stefanski as long as the triumvirate of Stefanski, Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta remain on the same page. It is the strongest leadership team the Browns have had during the Haslams’ tenure. Stefanski had never been a head coach at any level when hired in 2020 and through the constant crises of 2021 he learned a lot more about what he didn’t know, especially in terms of play-calling.
However, since the Haslams took over in October 2012, there have been two one-and-done coaches — Rob Chudzinski in 2013 and Freddie Kitchens in 2019 — so continuity never feels like a sure thing.
Mayfield likely sealed his Browns’ fate by turning too many winnable games into close losses. But those in the offices at their CrossCountry Mortgage Campus must realize that a Mayfield divorce won’t solve everything.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at [email protected] Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
Bengals at Browns
Time: 1 p.m. Sunday
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns have more to fix than finding a franchise quarterback