For better or worse, the Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield are now tethered, the team and its quarterback off on a symbiotic journey designed to bring glory back to an organization that hasn’t seen the sunshine for a very long time.
The idea is any success the Browns enjoy will be largely due to Mayfield’s adaptability, that his creativity and moxie will be enough to lift the team and enable it to meet the great expectations everyone seems to have for it this season.
And so, it shouldn’t be a great surprise that now that the Browns are 1-2, a few of the loudmouths in the pundit gallery have begun to connect the dots back to the failings of the quarterback.
Earlier this week, ESPN analyst Rex Ryan, the former NFL head coach, stuck a dagger between Mayfield’s shoulder blades by saying he was “overrated as hell.”
As you might imagine, Mayfield did not react well to this news.
Naturally combative even when things are going well, he fired back at Ryan on Wednesday from Browns training camp.
“It’s whatever,” said Mayfield. “In the wise words of [Cleveland coach] Freddie Kitchens, if you don’t wear orange and brown, you don’t matter, and Rex Ryan doesn’t have any colors right now for a reason. So, it’s OK.”
To be honest, Ryan kind of has a point. Mayfield has not played very well this season and anyone who watched last Sunday night’s game against the Los Angeles Rams saw a quarterback scurrying around looking for solid ground he could not find.
“For me, definitely not the start I wanted to have this year, by any means,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “But doing things better than I did early on last year. I think the improvement for me is just continuing to eliminate negative plays.”
Of course, it’s debatable whether Mayfield is entirely to blame for the early-season problems. Cleveland’s offensive line is not particularly stellar and its defensive backfield is saddled with injuries.
But there are some cold, hard facts to consider as the Browns prepare to play the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in a formative early-season AFC North battle.
Mayfield’s completion percentage (56.9) is 30th among starting quarterbacks.
He’s has thrown five interceptions and three touchdown passes. In his last four games, Mayfield has thrown eight interceptions and has been sacked 11 times.
His QB rating (70.3) is the fourth-lowest in the league. And only four teams have scored fewer points than the Browns (16.3 per game).
What’s up with that?
Kitchen, who also calls the plays for the team’s offense, has been somewhat under the gun himself for conservative play-calling down the stretch in the Rams game.
He was quick to admonish Ryan, saying it was “asinine to even say” that Mayfield wasn’t as good as is generally thought.
“I appreciate your opinion and everything else, but it’s not in our building, you have no idea what we’re doing,” said Kitchens.
Ryan had much more to say, however.
“I don’t get it. I’d love to be an offensive coordinator here,” he said of the Browns. “If I have Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and there’s Baker Mayfield, yeah, I know, he’s overrated as hell.
Ryan admitted he originally bought into the hype around Mayfield but has reconsidered after watching him play.
“What’s he doing right? Here’s a guy right now that’s a one-read guy, and then he’s going to improvise,” said Ryan. “He’s got to realize that you are one of the slowest guys on that field when you take off with it. The other thing, the ball’s not coming out in rhythm. You’re staring down guys, and you’re not that accurate down the field.”
Beckham, who has been Mayfield’s very target this season, also sprung to his defense.
“At the end of the day, when we go out there – no offense to Rex because I love him – we don’t really care what you said,” said Beckham. “‘Overrated as hell,’ none of that is gonna matter when you go on the field.”
Mayfield prides himself on being brash. In his short collegiate and professional career, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, the first overall pick in the 2018 Draft, often comes across as a wiseass. But he’s only human and sometimes words hurt him.
“It’s something you really have to be conscious of, because you’re surrounded in an environment where you hear a lot of things, stuff pops up on your phone or stuff is on TV,” said Mayfield. “People talk. You have to make a conscious decision to protect your locker room and take care of your guys and block out the negative stuff. And when they pat you on the back, it’s even worse.”
Mayfield is certainly not the first quarterback assigned disproportionate blame or fame on his team. It comes with the position and the paycheck.
But during this season, on this team, with so much expected, Mayfield certainly understands he needs to elevate his level of play before it’s the Browns fan that turns on him.