Best bet for Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns is to reconcile in 2022 | Opinion
The Browns shouldn't just throw away their season if Deshaun Watson can't play. And Baker Mayfield has shown he can win there. Doing it again would appeal to potential 2023 suitors.
Once upon a time, Baker Mayfield (in)famously planted his – er, Oklahoma's – flag in Ohio. Yet after four years of playing for the Cleveland Browns, the quarterback is desperately trying to uproot himself from the Buckeye State.
But shouldn't he be trying to rebuild a bridge over the Cuyahoga River to the organization that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2018 despite dropping napalm on it once he learned the Browns were in (ultimately successful) pursuit of Deshaun Watson in March?
For better (perhaps in the distant future) or worse (right now), Watson is the new face of the franchise in Cleveland, and Mayfield knew he'd been stripped of that honorific the moment the Browns began wooing the disgraced but exceptionally gifted three-time Pro Bowler. His pride wounded, Mayfield lashed out and tried to manifest a trade to the Indianapolis Colts – a team that dealt for Matt Ryan instead after his exceedingly professional (read: quiet) reaction when his employer of 14 years, the Atlanta Falcons, also made a play for Watson.
As July 4th approaches, with so many of the NFL's quarterbacking musical chairs filled, there's seemingly little demand for Mayfield's services. Teams (Carolina Panthers? Seattle Seahawks?) that could use a supply of capability under center from a guy who nearly led Cleveland to the AFC championship game in 2020 definitely aren't interested in picking up a fully guaranteed $18.9 million contract that expires in nine months – especially when there are so many compelling and cost-effective arms expected to be available in the 2023 draft.
Training camp could bring a disastrous quarterbacking injury or performance for one of the NFL's other teams, but – for now – the chips appear to have fallen.
WHAT TO KNOW:Deshaun Watson's NFL career is on the line
The NFL is in the process of determining discipline for Watson, who was sued by 24 women accusing him of sexual misconduct during massage sessions in 2020 and 2021, when he was a member of the Houston Texans. Twenty of those lawsuits were recently settled confidentially. Still, a guy with a fully guaranteed $230 million contract over the next five seasons could very well be suspended for (at least) the entire 2022 campaign.
Meanwhile, Mayfield wasn't moved in March or during April's draft while being excused from offseason activities despite remaining under contract with the Browns for one more season. ESPN reported he has "no intention" of playing for Cleveland again, a feeling apparently shared from the organization's perspective.
"I think it's been pretty obvious the mutual decision on both sides is to move on. I'm thankful for my four years in Cleveland," Mayfield said Tuesday from his youth football camp in Oklahoma when asked about his future with the club.
"We're ready to move on, I think, on both sides."
Probed about any prospect of a reunion with the Browns, Mayfield replied: "I think for that to happen, there'd have to be some reaching out."
Mayfield should reach out. Or Browns general manager Andrew Berry. Or coach Kevin Stefanski. But primarily Mayfield.
Yes, he's a lame duck – even if a richly paid one whether he takes another snap in Cleveland or not. But he should also buck up and put his feels aside – not only for his own sake, but for the team's.
Mayfield is 30-31 with 96 TD passes and 57 interceptions in four NFL seasons, fairly remarkable given the Browns were 4-44 in the three years prior to his arrival 2018, and also considering he was waylaid by knee and shoulder injuries in 2021 – and fought through them, to his credit and probably detriment. He's shown he can perform and win with a franchise that hadn't previously reached postseason since 2002.
Cleveland, which still features a strong roster, almost surely represents his best chance to win and showcase himself to prospective suitors in 2023. Are the languishing Panthers or post-Russell Wilson Seahawks going to afford such an opportunity? Mayfield has proven he can thrive amid the NFL's "Factory Of Sadness," and doing so again – while putting aside the chip that's perpetually resided on his shoulder since he walked on at Texas Tech in 2013 – might convince other teams he's also capable of maturing into a Ryan-esque professional worthy of a decent contract and second chance to be a QB1.
Just a year ago, the writing was on the wall for San Francisco signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo when the 49ers drafted eventual successor Trey Lance early in the first round. All Jimmy G. did subsequently was adopt a team-first, complaint-free attitude while helping to pilot the Niners to the NFC title round and earning even more acclaim and respect from his highly appreciative teammates. Even now, while he rehabs a surgically repaired throwing shoulder, he'll likely be a more attractive commodity this summer to teams in need of a veteran QB option than Mayfield given the self-inflicted damage to his brand.
As for the Browns?
They've already disenfranchised legions of women – to say nothing of their fans – by acquiring Watson. One of four NFL clubs to never reach a Super Bowl, they've set themselves up for a Dawg Ton of criticism that has nothing to do with their historical on-field ineptitude.
But why throw away another season if Watson isn't available? Yes, veteran backup Jacoby Brissett was signed to be the Plan B QB. But he has a 14-23 career record – despite playing for talent-laden teams in New England, Indianapolis and Miami – and has never taken a playoff snap. Journeyman Joshua Dobbs is currently the only other passer on Cleveland's roster.
Can't Mayfield and the Browns let bygones be bygones – if only temporarily – given the potential upside of reconciliation for a team that otherwise has the goods to be a contender, even in the stacked AFC?
A potential win-win scenario should be rather enticing for Mayfield and the Browns at this juncture ... given how badly each side could use a W.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.