By Martin Rogers
Amid all the mayhem on Sunday, where the NFL’s oddest weekend was filled with rescheduling and firings and severe quarterback shortages, the Cleveland Browns clinched.
They didn’t clinch a playoff spot, although the chances seem solid that one might be coming soon. They did, however, clinch – with their eighth win of the campaign – the certainty that this will not be a losing season.
That last part might be a little ho-hum for followers of teams that are accustomed to their squad being, if not good, at least occasionally passable. The Browns, however, haven’t been anything like that, not for a long time, which makes Sunday’s victory a true milestone.
The Browns haven’t had a season where they didn’t lose more games than they won since … wait for it … 2007. Back then, with names that the modern radar forgot all about like Derek Anderson, Josh Cribbs and Willie McGinest, they went 10-6. Over the 10 years that followed, they went 38-120.
Then Baker Mayfield came along. Then things got a whole lot better, especially this year.
Yet how much and how little those two things are connected – the arrival of the 2018 No. 1 draft pick and the upturn in Cleveland’s fortunes – is a conversation guaranteed to split opinion. Now, with the Browns sitting at 8-3 (yes, 8-3!), Mayfield’s perceived value and future prospects are more uncertain than ever.
“Cleveland needed more than three seasons to win eight games before Mayfield arrived,” wrote Yahoo Sports’ Jay Busbee. “But man, Mayfield keeps things interesting for this team. He can throw a playing card into the middle of a deck, but he can also have trouble hitting the ocean from a boat.”
Getting to that rare eighth win on Sunday was done in about the most unconvincing way possible. The Browns held on for grim life to squeeze out a 27-25 teaser against the Jacksonville Jaguars, an opponent that has now lost 10 straight and fired its general manager Dave Caldwell immediately afterwards. And my, was it close, with the Jags coming within a two-point conversion of tying things late in the fourth quarter.
“We left a lot of points up on the board,” Mayfield told reporters. “There were a ton of missed opportunities from my perspective, a lot of missed throws.”’
Mayfield can be infuriatingly bad one minute and undeniably good the next. There are a lot of QBs that slide through the NFL who make poor throws and lousy decisions and miss open targets and put their teams in tough spots. Mayfield isn’t alone there, but the reason he still has a starting job is the way he is able to make surprising completions with his back against the wall.
In the second quarter of Sunday’s game, Mayfield stood tall in the pocket and had a wide-open Rashard Higgins in the end zone in front of him. He missed. Later, with the chance to ice the game with a first down, he threw behind an unguarded Kareem Hunt.
But, of course, there were some highlight worthy items of note as well, like a superb throw from the back of the end zone to find Jarvis Landry, which got the Browns rolling in the fourth quarter. And, whatever it looked like, he won – again.
Consider this. Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers would love to be 8-3. The Seattle Seahawks hope to get there on Monday night and fashionable teams like the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals would love to be there, too. Every team in the NFC East dreams of having that many wins, yet is no more than halfway to it. The Baltimore Ravens, such a popular preseason pick to win it all, would gladly swap places.
“Average quarterback play, it turns out, can lead to an 8-3 record when paired with a ferocious running attack and an opportunistic defense,” wrote The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd. “About the highest compliment I can pay Mayfield is that he isn’t turning the ball over this season. That’s no small feat. He is putting the Browns in position to win games and he’s limiting turnovers.”
Mayfield only has seven interceptions, but he also has one of the lowest completion rates in the NFL among starters and a QBR of 68.8 that is good for 16th.
And yet, 8-3.
Hope is a strange thing. At their highest point for a generation, with the chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2002 on the horizon, it is hard for Browns fans to know what to make of it all.
They’re trying to figure out if they should really be feeling happy, frustrated, grateful or wondering if things could be even better if a more consistent thrower was under center. With such a well-stocked roster and a ton of potent offensive options, should Browns fans be lamenting that Mayfield isn’t Bernie Kosar or grateful that he’s not Johnny Manziel?
Given where they’ve come from, in truth, it might not be such a bad problem to have.
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