Baker Mayfield’S Back Is Against The Wall Again, But The Wall Is Closing In On Him Like Never Before

Can Baker Mayfield rally the troops and produce a win in a must-win division game? (Cleveland Browns)

Can Baker Mayfield rally the troops and produce a win in a must-win division game? (Cleveland Browns)

Baker Mayfield’s back is against the wall again, but the wall is closing in on him like never before

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland.


Four downs on Browns (4-4) v. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)

First down: Déjà vu all over again.

This is where it all started for Baker Mayfield a year and 10 days ago, where he showed life without Odell Beckham Jr. would be better than fine. It would be grand. After Mayfield’s forced ball to Beckham on his first pass was intercepted and Beckham tore his ACL chasing cornerback Darius Phillips, Mayfield turned into a different quarterback. After three more incompletions, Mayfield went on a tear with 21 completions in a row and then punctuated his signature NFL game with his only memorable winning drive in the last 2 minutes – 75 yards in 55 seconds, in fact, ending in a 24-yard back-shoulder TD throw to Donovan Peoples-Jones, his fifth TD of the game. The breakthrough performance – and Beckham’s consequent injury absence – freed Mayfield to be the quarterback everyone wanted him to be. It came just in time, for Mayfield was stinking it up and getting all BrownsNation worried. Now the stakes are even higher. Beckham has been banished to the waiver wire and the rest of the locker room is wondering who was right – Beckham for pointing out Mayfield’s generally stinky play or coach Kevin Stefanski for excusing it tirelessly. So Beckham is gone for good and Mayfield’s back once again is against the wall – the way he likes it. Two big differences this time in Paul Brown Stadium: 1. The Bengals are a better team this year on offense and defense, and 2. Mayfield’s bum left shoulder looked to restrict his usual style of play in a bad loss to the Steelers. Regardless, Mayfield has to somehow produce a win in a must-win division game to keep the locker room from turning on him. For what it’s worth, he’s owned the Bengals with a 5-1 record against them in three seasons.

Second down: Squeeze the Juice.

Jarvis Landry had a bad week. After the worst game in his Browns’ time, if not his NFL career (one fumble, two drops – all in crunch time in the Steelers’ game), Landry had to bite his lip as his best friend on the team, Beckham, publicly threw Mayfield under the bus via his father’s social media antics, earning Beckham a golden ticket on the waiver wire. Landry supported Beckham in a social media post and elected not to make any public comments this week about Mayfield. Alas, life goes on for Landry, and he knows how vital he is to Mayfield’s – and the offense’s – success. Landry may be the most important player in helping Mayfield pick up the pieces after the toxic fallout from the Beckham nuclear blast.

Third down: Joey Franchise.

Before he tore four ligaments in his left knee on Nov. 22 of his rookie 2020 season, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow played two games against the Browns, losing, 35-30 in Cleveland, and 37-34 in Cincinnati. In those two games, Burrow was 72 of 108 (66.7 percent) with 6 touchdowns and 1 interception. As a rookie, Burrow was handicapped with a terrible offensive line, no deep threat, and his top tight end was lost for the year in Game 2. Fast forward to now. Burrow is tearing it up in his second season – still only 11 months out from reconstructive knee surgery. The Bengals bolstered his offensive line, tight end C.J. Uzomah is healthy and producing (21 receptions, 5 TD), and first-round rookie Ja’Marr Chase – Burrow’s former teammate at LSU – is the runaway choice for offensive rookie-of-the-year with 38 catches, 786 yards and 7 TD. Veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith used the word “awesome” to describe Burrow. “He plays beyond his years, he’s very intelligent, knows where to go with the ball, has great receivers that can separate,” Smith said. “So they’re loaded offensively and they’ve got a great scheme. It’s a challenge when someone is in command with that much skill. He’s got the capability to put up [30+ points a game].”

Fourth down: Honeymoon over.

Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry have been a great partnership through 1 ½ seasons, but the Beckham crisis and three losses in the last four games have ended their honeymoon. Neither Ivy Leaguer was able to see, or prevent, the disaster that became Beckham’s demise with the Browns. Stefanski never was able to incorporate Beckham into the offense and unlock the mystifying mental block preventing Mayfield from playing freely with Beckham on the field. And Berry and his army of analytic staffers and GM-level consultants were unable to stave off Beckham’s inevitable and predictable me-first explosion and market him effectively in a trade in advance of his release. Stefanski’s offense has produced 14, 17 and 10 points in the last three games (1-2) and Berry’s lame press conference in the wake of Beckham’s release suggest they have a ways to go to play with the big boys of the AFC North.

The pick: Bengals 36, Browns 24.

My record: 5-3.