Kevin Stefanski Chooses Case Keenum Over Nick Mullens To Start Final Game At Qb

Case Keenum will receive his second start of the year at QB as the Browns close out their season against the Bengals Sunday in FirstEnergy Stadium. (USA Today)

Case Keenum will receive his second start of the year at QB as the Browns close out their season against the Bengals Sunday in FirstEnergy Stadium. (USA Today)

Kevin Stefanski chooses Case Keenum over Nick Mullens to start final game at QB

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

Takeaways from Browns interviews …

With Baker Mayfield preparing for surgery on his left shoulder, Kevin Stefanski chose to finish the season at home with trusted veteran Case Keenum at quarterback rather than lightly-tested Nick Mullens.

Each had a start this season and here is how they compare:

* Keenum, 33, started the Oct. 22 Thursday night game against the Denver Broncos and piloted a 17-14 win.

It was an important game on a short week because two losses in a row had dropped the Browns to 3-3. With Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt out with injuries, RB3 D’Ernest Johnson stepped in and was the hero. Johnson’s career-high 146 yards on the ground set the tone early and late. His 4-yard TD run on the Browns’ first possession gave them the all-important first lead, and Johnson’s 52 yards rushing bled the last 5 minutes, 12 seconds off the clock after the Broncos had closed the lead to 17-14.

Keenum made a key play on a keeper on fourth-and-3 from the Broncos 6-yard line late in the third quarter and the Browns ahead, 10-7. He fumbled at the 1, but was ruled down by contact, giving them a first down. On the next play, Keenum play-faked to his left and lofted an easy pass to fullback Johnny Stanton in the end zone.

Keenum: 21 of 33, 199 yards, 1 TD, 0 interceptions, 1 sack, 90.3 rating.

* Mullens, 26, was rushed in off the practice squad to start the Dec. 21 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, which was controversially rescheduled by the NFL from Saturday to Monday because of the Browns’ COVID outbreak. With 10 players out with COVID, and Stefanski, the Browns lost, 16-14, and fell into last place with a 7-7 record.

In his first appearance with the Browns, Mullens led them back from a 10-0 deficit with two touchdown drives in the second half. Mullens orchestrated the best fourth-quarter drive of the Browns’ season, moving 80 yards in 14 plays. The 8-minute, 22-second march included three third-down conversions. Mullens’ 6-yard pass to Harrison Bryant in the end zone came on fourth down and gave the Browns a 14-13 lead with 3:45 to play.

Greedy Williams’ interception on the Raiders’ next possession should have sealed the win. Needing one first down to wrap it up, acting play-caller Alex Van Pelt called for three straight handoffs to Chubb and the last one was blown up by Raiders’ nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, who blasted through center JC Tretter and made the tackle 3 yards shy of the first down. After a punt from the Browns’ 30-yard line, Derek Carr moved the Raiders into position for a 48-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson as time expired.

Mullens: 20 of 30, 147 yards, 1 TD, 0 interceptions, 0 sacks, 89.2 rating.

Stefanski said he did not consider starting Mullens to get a better evaluation of him as a potential keeper on the regular roster in 2022.

“Obviously, we are happy that we have Nick,” he said. “It is good to see him now that he is back off of the COVID list, but Case will be the starter.”

Keenum’s contract with the Browns has another year to go at a salary of $5.5 million and a cap number of $7.833 million. If Keenum is on the roster on the third day of the 2022 league year in March, he will earn an additional $1 million bonus.

“He is a pro,” Stefanski said. “Just in my conversations already with him this week, he is ready for the opportunity. He very badly obviously wants to get a win like the rest of our guys do. That is the role Case has played for this team throughout this season as a backup. Obviously, he played there in that Denver game, but constantly providing leadership from his role.”

A small miracle

Keenum was asked his thoughts about how Mayfield fared during a tumultuous season marked by injuries, COVID, internal strife and repeated late-game failures.

“I did have a front row seat to one of the gutsiest, toughest performances of a quarterback playing in a season that I have ever seen, culminating in the other night and how he battled his tail off to really bring us back into that game and keep us in it,” he said. “I think his entire season he was battling a lot of things. He is one of the toughest guys I know, and he is a fighter. He came to fight every single day and pushed through a lot of adversity just to get on the field on Sundays.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and it grew. I already had a lot of respect for him, and it grew as the season went on. Yeah, unfortunate the way the season ended. Nobody wanted this, the way this has gone, Baker for sure. Nobody really wanted this, but it is tough. It is a tough football league. That is kind of the way it is sometimes.”

Keenum went on to say, “There were some weeks just to get him to the field was a small miracle.”

After deferring a few times to expound on the travails of this season, I asked Keenum if he were surprised Stefanski didn’t play him more to give Mayfield a physical and mental break.

“Sorry, I am not going to answer that one, either,” he responded.

Chase revenge?

Probably no team in the NFL has defended Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase better than the Browns did in their 41-16 romp in Game 9.

Chase came into that game in Cincinnati as the NFL’s runaway leader for the offensive rookie-of-the-year award. The Browns held him to 6 receptions on 13 targets for 49 yards. Chase was the intended receiver on Denzel Ward’s 99-yard Pick 6. Another Joe Burrow pass for Chase was intercepted and he also lost a fumble after a catch. Finally, Chase dropped a 23-yard pass in the end zone and another that should have been a 65-yard touchdown.

Chase struggled another five games after that but has reclaimed the OROY race with back-to-back games of 125 yards receiving and 266 and 3 touchdowns in Cincinnati victories over the Ravens and Chiefs to clinch the AFC North title.

Burrow won’t play in Sunday’s game in Cleveland but Chase has not been ruled out.

His former LSU teammate, Browns safety Grant Delpit, said of the Nov. 7 beat-down in Cincinnati, “I think he knows that he left a couple of plays out there, but also, our defense was on one. We were creating turnovers and getting after the ball. With those two factors playing in, we were able to get the best of him, but just last week, he had – what, 266 yards or something crazy like that? I know he is feeling it, and he is in his groove right now so we have to come with it again.”

Chase has 79 receptions for 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Brownie bits

The Browns formally placed Mayfield (shoulder) and linebacker Sione Takitaki (shoulder) on injured reserve ... 

The Cleveland chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America voted Myles Garrett the Joe Thomas Player of the Year Award. Garrett also shared the Dino Lucarelli Good Guy Award with Joel Bitonio. Garrett has won his award two years in a row; Bitonio has won three Good Guys in the past five season. For the record, my votes went to Denzel Ward for player of the year and John Johnson for Good Guy …

With a playoff game at home wrapped up, the Bengals will rest players other than Burrow. Stefanski won’t give able-bodied players the game off. “They are keeping score. We are in front of our home fans. We want to go out there and win. If guys are available, they are going to play,” he said ... 

Stefanski said he would have a better idea about the playing status of Chubb (rib) and Hunt (ankle) when the team returns to practice on Thursday.