Cleveland, OH

Is Baker Mayfield a Franchise QB?

Stuart Grant

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Browns QB Baker MayfieldErik Drost on Wikimedia Commons

We no longer refer to Cleveland Browns Stadium as The Factory of Sadness or The Mistake By The Lake. The climb back to football respectability has been long and painful for the denizens of the Dawg Pound. You can rightfully argue that no other fan base is as deserving of its success. By bringing the Kansas City Chiefs to the brink in the 2020 divisional playoffs, we can confidently state that the Browns are back.

Current owner Jimmy Haslam III bought the team in 2012. While new ownership is synonymous with organizational change, the Browns subsequently went through four head coaches and general managers in rapid succession. Over the 2016 - 2017 seasons, the Browns won a grand total of one game - the worst two year stretch in NFL history. That collective sigh you just heard was Detroit Lions fans relived to know they don't own every record for football futility.

While it would be easy to dismiss Haslam as just another rich guy playing real life fantasy football his tenure has brought innovation. The Browns can rightfully claim to be the first NFL team to embrace Moneyball or applied statistics with the elevation of sabremetric pioneer Paul DePodesta to the position of Chief Strategy Officer. Today, every NFL team has a department uniquely dedicated to statistical analysis.

But adherence to statistical rigor does not necessarily help select coaches and general managers conducive to on-field success. The dismal 2016-2017 campaign saw GM Sashi Brown dismissed. Brown would be followed by former Chiefs GM John Dorsey whose first order of business was the 2018 draft for which Cleveland held the first overall pick.

Since the rules of play have been liberalized so that quarterback is king, the pre-draft buzz centered around who the Browns would select at number one. Would the QB starved Bills trade up? Was Mayfield the real deal or was Darnold a safer bet?

As the draft approached, Josh Rosen's personality loomed as a deal breaker pushing him out of the top spot. Wyoming's Josh Allen had the prototype size and arm strength and appeared to carry his team on his back. Could a player from a small, obscure conference be trusted with the role of savior QB?

With millions in salary and careers hanging in the balance, the tendency is for teams to make the safest bet. The debate came down to Mayfield and Darnold. USC's Darnold had the more typical quarterback physique standing six foot three and weighing over two hundred and twenty pounds. His resume was modest compared to Mayfield. Mayfield's accolades includes multiple bowl game appearances and victories as well as the distinction of being the only walk on player ever to win the Heisman.

GM John Dorsey staked his career and reputation on Mayfield with the first overall pick. Comparisons to Drew Brees were cited as rationale for selecting the more diminutive yet more celebrated Oklahoma product. As impressive as Mayfield's collegiate career was, he was unprepared to deal with an unlikely adversary - organizational dysfunction.

A hallmark of new regimes in professional sports is the hiring of new head coaches. As incumbent head coach Hue Jackson was from the Sashi Brown regime, he was likely dead man walking as soon as Dorsey was hired. It is now apparent that Dorsey and Jackson never agreed on any kind of singular vision for the team. Despite his being associated with the disastrous 2017 campaign, Jackson enjoyed a reputation as a QB guru and was given a chance to develop Mayfield.

After a 2-5-1 start, Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired. Greg Williams was appointed interim coach for the remainder of the 2018 season and effected a 7-8-1 record. Offensive Coordinator Freddie Kitchens was appointed head coach for the 2019 season and was fired after going 6-10 with Mayfield tossing an uncharacteristic twenty one interceptions. John Dorsey resigned and Kitchens was replaced by Minnesota Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski won the 2020 Coach of the Year award and got the Browns to the divisional round where they lost a close match to eventual AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs.

2021 is the final year of Mayfield's rookie contract. It's time to consider whether he is a true franchise QB.

To be fair, Mayfield should not be blamed for the dysfunction he was drafted into. Still, an investment beyond his rookie contract will be substantial and bind the lion's share of the team's resources to his fortunes. Given the team's long lamented quarterback purgatory after the Tim Couch era where no fewer than 25 different quarterbacks were named starter, you could not blame the Browns for retaining Mayfield if only for stability alone.

Still, a number one overall pick at QB carries expectations. Despite dramatic failures of past number ones like Jamarcus Russell, comparisons to other passers of Mayfield's generation are in order. It is apparent that he is not expected to carry the Browns in the same way that Josh Allen carries the Bills or Patrick Mahomes carries the Chiefs. That is not to say that Mayfield is not up to the task. His intangibles were why he was a number one overall pick.

The Browns are built for cold weather offensive football with the hard running of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. This means that Mayfield has not been called upon to singlehandedly will the team to victory. He has yet to pass for four thousand yards or exceed twenty seven touchdowns. These statistics point to a game manager approach to the passing game.

We have yet to see a signature moment like a comeback victory in a meaningful game that would define Mayfield as a great passer or field general. If such a moment doesn't unfold in 2021, it would suggest that Stefanski doesn't trust him when the chips are down. If this is the case, the Browns need to let Mayfield go and try their luck with a different signal caller.

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