With the locker room teetering on division -- much less the team's playoff hopes -- Kevin Stefanski says 'our lives depend' on a win. (Cleveland Browns)
Odell Beckham Jr.’s messy divorce challenges the leadership of Kevin Stefanski and Baker Mayfield
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
No NFL quarterback in his time has been dragged through so much muck as Baker Mayfield.
Speaking just a week ago on the disappointment of missing his first game because of injury, Mayfield referred to “all of the dysfunction that I had to overcome” in 3 ½ years with the Browns. Remarkably, he’s soldiered on and plowed through it all.
Like when he suffered his first coaching change just eight games into his NFL career. Not only did the Browns fire his first head coach but also his first offensive coordinator. When I suggested that it fell on him as the starting quarterback to pick up the pieces, Mayfield snapped, “Bring it on.” And picked them up he did, winning five of the next eight games.
Then the Browns fired his second head coach, one whom Mayfield lobbied to be promoted to the job. And then they fired his No. 1 advocate in the organization, the GM who boldly laid his reputation on the line when he made Mayfield the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. At that point, Mayfield had to prove himself all over again to coaches who changed his mechanics and reinvented him from gunslinger to game manager. And he won them over.
Then more adversity hit. Mayfield struggled playing under center. After his worst career game, a terrible loss in Pittsburgh, even the staunchly pro-Mayfield analytics site, ProFootballFocus, to which the Browns’ decision-makers loyally subscribe, cried, “It’s time to panic!” about Mayfield’s future as the franchise quarterback.
And then it started clicking for Mayfield and the new offense and he led them to their first playoff appearance, and win – in Pittsburgh, of all places.
But the dysfunction now engulfing Mayfield and the Browns for the first time under coach Kevin Stefanski is different.
“There is not a manual for this one,” Mayfield said Wednesday.
On a bizarre day, Mayfield showed extraordinary awareness in recognizing that the parting with Odell Beckham Jr. – a giant oil spill -- could fracture the locker room during a critical juncture in the Browns’ season.
Beckham is beloved in the Browns’ locker room. Several players “liked” various social media posts over the past two days that can only be construed as support for Beckham in this very public divorce.
Mayfield knows that Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s best friend, is a crucial figure in keeping things from unraveling. Other important players on the team idolize Beckham.
“Unfortunately, this is a part of the job that is not a much fun,” Mayfield said. “You want to try and eliminate the distractions and everything, but trying to get the best out of your teammates is first and foremost, and I think the most important thing for me is trying to elevate the guys around me. Being able to get the focus back on football is extremely important.
“This is something that is very unique. There is not a manual for this one. There is not a handbook on how to navigate this besides talk to people, see how they are feeling about it and just keep it open because this is one of those things that like everybody can see. It can be a dividing thing or it can be a rally cry or whatever you want to call it. We are a .500 football team, we have not done the things to win and that is where the importance needs to be.”
The John Dorsey trade for Beckham in 2019 was especially risky on a number of counts – Beckham’s history of erratic selfishness with the Giants, his recent injury history, his drop-off in production. But another risk was Beckham’s close relationship with Landry and how an eventual parting with Beckham might affect Landry’s morale.
Mayfield said he did speak with Landry after Beckham’s father posted the incriminating video that framed Mayfield as the problem in getting the ball to an always-open Beckham. But Mayfield would not divulge the tone of the conversation.
“Yeah, he is extremely close with Odell,” Mayfield said. “Like I said earlier, we all want to see ‘O’ succeed. There is no doubt about that. We are just going to take it one day at a time. We did not get into too many details because I do not want to draw that line in between them at all. That is not what I am trying to do. Jarvis wants to win just as badly as I do. Those are the types of guys and the types of focus that we need to have right now.”
All eyes now on Mayfield and Stefanski
There is no arguing that Beckham’s selfish act has submarined his former team’s season. There is no defense of him for doing that.
But the fact is Mayfield and Stefanski – and upper management -- are not blameless in what has transpired.
Mayfield’s mental block in delivering the ball to Beckham on time or at all is mystifying but very real. It extends beyond Beckham, too. Beckham’s very presence on the field seems to incapacitate Mayfield from executing Stefanski’s offense. It affects Mayfield’s decision-making and processing speed. Mayfield seems paralyzed with Beckham in the lineup, unable to do his job at an acceptable level.
You know what they say in NFL meetings rooms. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie.
So when teammates see it happening on weekly review sessions of the previous game, they must wonder why Stefanski does not hold Mayfield accountable and why he can’t correct it.
As for the others complicit – GM Andrew Berry, strategy officer Paul DePodesta and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam – shame on them for not seeing this disaster coming. Then again, analytics does not account for such a human factor as team chemistry. There is no algorithm to measure it or predict it.
Stefanski overcame unique challenges posed by COVID-19 in 2020 and earned coach-of-the-year honors in doing so. The challenge now is greater because his quarterback is restricted by a bum shoulder and a potentially divided locker room.
“I see the challenge in trying to get a win,” Stefanski said. “We are 4-4. We have to get a win. Our lives depend on it, is the way we look at it. We are desperate, and that is where our focus is.”