Baker Mayfield shut down his season after a 9-sack night in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. The Browns will schedule surgery on his left shoulder as soon as possible. (Associated Press)
Second thoughts: Was it Baker Mayfield’s shoulder injury or the Odell Beckham Jr. divorce that derailed Browns season?
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland.
Second thoughts on the Browns’ 26-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers …
1. So the Browns’ Season of Grossly Unmet Expectations climaxes in a prime-time debacle in Heinz Field. Of course it did. What other ending would be more appropriate? Thankfully, the playoffs were not on the line for the Browns. Otherwise, heads may have rolled – which, of course, usually happens when the Browns’ delusions are crushed by the Steelers. There is no need for that this year. Cooler heads must prevail. But serious questions must be answered for this current football regime to be reset on proper alignment. Because it definitely is out of alignment after only two seasons in place.
2. Where did this train wreck begin? With Baker Mayfield’s original shoulder injury in Game 2 against the Houston Texans? Or the following week when Odell Beckham Jr. rejoined Mayfield on the field for the first time since his ACL injury the previous season? The shoulder injury became an immediate built-in excuse for a lot of things. But it was never serious enough, apparently, to cause the coach or team medics to keep Mayfield off the field except for that Thursday night game against the Denver Broncos in Game 7. And that was only because Mayfield aggravated the injury in Game 6 against the Arizona Cardinals and the short work week made it impossible for him to be ready. Keep in mind that Mayfield came back after the original injury against the Texans and completed 10 of 10 passes and also ran 5 yards for a touchdown. After two games, Mayfield led the NFL with a completion percentage of 81.6 (40 of 49). No, to me, Mayfield’s demise truly began when Beckham returned the following week and the chemistry so lacking between the two of them glaringly worsened. Those Monday morning game review sessions, during which the full team could see the missed opportunities left on the field, had to be increasingly uncomfortable. The tipping point came when the messy Beckham divorce played out on social media after the Game 8 loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I thought the winning performance the following week in Cincinnati in Game 9 – the best game the Browns played all year – would save everything. But the damage was done. The trust that unified the team during the adversity of 2020 never reappeared.
3. Who made the call to shut down Mayfield after the debacle in Pittsburgh? Was it Mayfield and his inner circle or was it the team? After the debacle in Heinz Field, Mayfield said in his post-game Zoom call, “It’s time for me to start to look at what’s in the best interest for me and my health. I’ve continued to lay it on the line and haven’t been healthy and tried to fight for our guys. Right now, I’m pretty damn beat up, to be honest with you. There’s no way around it. I gave it everything I had tonight.” Yes, Mayfield was sacked nine times. Some were the result of holding the ball too long and failing to deliver to open receivers. Some of those missed opportunities created negative down-and-distance situations that made it easier for the Steelers to sack him. Make no mistake, Mayfield took a beating in the game. But it never looked like the shoulder injury played a role in his performance. On one occasion, Mayfield was pummeled to the hard, frozen ground by T.J. Watt. The two of them landed on Mayfield’s left shoulder encased by the protective harness. He popped right up without any indication of excessive pain. Another time, Mayfield scampered down the left sideline for a first down and lowered the left shoulder into a Pittsburgh defender. Again, there was no sign that shoulder was troubling him. Kevin Stefanski made no reference to Mayfield’s shoulder after the game and dismissed a question about possibly shutting him down for the final game. Then on Tuesday, Stefanski announced Mayfield, indeed, would not play in the season finale. Shoulder surgery would be scheduled as soon as possible. “I think both sides were very involved, and I think throughout this whole thing, constant dialogue with Baker and … with our medical team, second opinions, his agent and those type of things,” Stefanski said. “Just having conversations with his agent this morning and conversations with Baker, just felt like that was the right thing to do.”
4. Why did it take so long for the team to arrive at this decision? As Mayfield’s play on the field got worse, Stefanski and coordinator Alex Van Pelt constantly were asked why not sit Mayfield for a game or two to allow him to recover from the shoulder injury and others that occurred to his right knee and left heel. Every time, the coaches said Mayfield was healthy enough to play. At the bye week on Dec. 1, GM Andrew Berry insisted Mayfield was “healthy enough to play at a winning level … We expect him to play his best football down the stretch after the bye.” Berry and Stefanski had recruited veteran Case Keenum in 2020 and made him one of the highest-paid backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Yet they only called on him to start the Denver game in the short week following Mayfield’s second shoulder injury. Asked on Tuesday if he regretted not resting Mayfield earlier, Stefanski said, “It is a fair question, but I would just tell you each one of those weeks and those days when we made those decisions, you are just going off of the information that is available to you. That is information from our medical staff, from Baker, from second opinions and those type of things and then based on how he performed in practice. That is kind of how we made the decisions each week.”
5. If how Mayfield performed in practice was a criterion, then why was Mayfield rushed in to start the critical game in Green Bay after not practicing for 10 days due to COVID and having to fly to Green Bay the morning of the game? And why was the game plan centered on Mayfield’s passing rather than running back Nick Chubb and the offensive line? Mayfield’s four interceptions that day cost the Browns a 22-20 defeat. On Tuesday, Stefanski responded, “We were comfortable based on his health and based on him having a full season’s worth of work and practice – felt comfortable with that.”
6. Where did the rift between Mayfield and Stefanski develop? For much of the season, Stefanski took responsibility for Mayfield’s and the offense’s failings, particularly in the fourth quarter. “I need to do a better job of putting him in position to succeed,” was Stefanski’s tired response. It changed in the past few weeks. Stefanski doesn’t throw any player under the bus, but his post-game statements gradually defended his dubious play-calls and pointed out plays were there to be made by Mayfield. This was the case after the Green Bay game when three pass plays called from the 50-yard line resulted in an incompletion, a ball batted at the line and a game-sealing interception. In Pittsburgh, Mayfield decried the fact coaches failed to give rookie right tackle James Hudson adequate help with a tight end or back to stave off the rampaging All-Pro T.J. Watt, who had four sacks. “This is the NFL. You have to be able to adapt mid-game and we didn’t do a good enough job, as you can tell,” Mayfield said. Asked if he was put in the best position possible over the season to be successful, Mayfield said, “There’s been a lot of ups and downs. Do I believe I could play better? Absolutely. Do I believe there’s positions that we as an offense could have been put in that are better? Absolutely.” Stefanski’s response: “I think it is just something when you do not accomplish what you want to accomplish, people are certainly frustrated. We will always look at what we could do better. There were plenty of times that we did have a person in location to chip [Watt] and those type of things. Other times protection held up, and ultimately, whether it was we did not get the ball out, guys were not open or whatever it was, it is always a multifaceted-type thing. That is our job to look at and try to find a way and be better.”
7. Did the Browns “set up” Mayfield to fail by playing him with known limitations caused by the shoulder injury? Did they seek to create an environment that would persuade him to ask for a separation from the club after the season? Did they conclude that a trade request by Mayfield would be a favorable scenario to reinvesting in him with a new contract extension? Did they prioritize an exit strategy with Mayfield over winning games? If they wouldn’t bench him for health reasons, then why wouldn’t they bench him for performance reasons? Surely, these conspiracy theories never entered anyone’s mind at the start of the 2021 season. But they are valid questions that soon may be answered following a season gone asunder.