Marla Ridenour: It's time to give Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield his due, and his money

Marla Ridenour
Akron Beacon Journal
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) rushes back to the locker room after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC wild-card playoff game. Mayfield's improvement as a player and leader this season have earned him a big payday from the Browns. [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

It’s time to give Baker Mayfield his due ... and his money.

It’s time to acknowledge that he is the Browns’ franchise quarterback, to not only utter those words but respond with the proper reward.

Under pressure to prove that in his third year, Mayfield came through during the Browns’ 12-6 season that ended with Sunday’s loss to the Kansas Chiefs in an AFC Divisional playoff game. He made huge strides on the field, but also in terms of maturity, professionalism and leadership.

He did it while under a constant spotlight, which accompanies being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, but intensified because of his regression in 2019.

The Browns draw their energy, relentless attitude and fighting spirit from Mayfield. But that’s not enough to commit millions to him with a contract extension, even if declining to do so and eventually moving on would cut out the team’s heart.

It’s what Mayfield did during the Nov. 8 bye week, and the results that followed proved the Browns’ long search for their quarterback of the future is over.

With Mayfield playing for his third full-time head coach in three years, the Browns provided the support the franchise never gave the previous 29 starting quarterbacks in the expansion era. They upgraded the offensive line. They boosted the tight end corps, a necessity in new coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense. They signed Kareem Hunt to a two-year, $12 million contract extension to pair with running back Nick Chubb.

The stage was set, but that didn’t mean Mayfield would seize the moment and deliver a show-stopping performance.

It took time in 2020 before Mayfield rediscovered himself. He returned to his rookie form in a 37-34 victory at Cincinnati on Oct. 25, breaking a franchise record with 21 consecutive completions and winning a see-saw game with a 24-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds remaining. On Monday, center JC Tretter called that his favorite moment of the season.

But, even then, Mayfield was at a crossroads.

Against the Bengals, he threw his seventh interception in seven games and his fifth in the past three games. His poor pass in Paul Brown Stadium resulted in intended receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee trying to make the tackle. Going back to the 2019 season, Mayfield had thrown an interception in eight consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league, according to CBS Sports.

His ego and immaturity unchecked in 2019 by one-and-done coach Freddie Kitchens, Mayfield was tripping down the same gunslinging path from last year, when he thew 22 touchdowns with 21 interceptions. With Stefanski stressing protecting the football above all else, Mayfield looked to be on shaky ground.

The next week at home with the wind gusting up to 45 mph, the Browns lost 16-6 to the Las Vegas Raiders.

It was what Mayfield did during the Browns’ Nov. 8 bye week and beyond that proved he is their franchise quarterback.

At that point, Mayfield’s 90.9 rating stood 26th in the league out of 33 qualifiers. His 189.3 passing yards per game was better than only three others, and his 61.4 completion percentage ranked above just four others. Playing three games with a cracked rib suffered on Oct. 11, Mayfield had thrown 15 touchdown passes and seven interceptions (tied for fifth-most in the league).

As the Browns tore apart their offense, Mayfield opened the lines of communication with Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, hashing out what he was most comfortable with. All hit the reset button.

In the final 10 games (counting playoffs), Mayfield threw for 15 touchdowns with two interceptions. One came against the Chiefs, the other in a 47-42 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens on “Monday Night Football” in Week 14. He boosted his regular-season passer rating to 95.9, the third-highest single-season in team history, trailing Milt Plum (110.4 in 1960) and Otto Graham (99.7 in 1953). Mayfield raised his passing yards per game to 222.7 in a run-heavy offense. His biggest flaw was his completion percentage of 62.8, 30th out of 35 on the list.

On Friday, Browns General Manager Andrew Berry said Mayfield has “grown up before our eyes.”

If they consider the past 10 games too small of a sample size for an extension, the Browns could delay the decision and merely pick up Mayfield’s fifth-year option, which must be done by May. But that could cost the Browns more money down the road if Mayfield continues to improve.

They must consider the ramifications of such a strategy. That could create a situation reminiscent of Dak Prescott in Dallas. There could be fallout with Mayfield and his teammates who are praising the Berry-Stefanski front office.

Consider the players’ reaction the last time the Browns went to the playoffs in 2002, then coach/GM Butch Davis cut several high-priced veterans in the offseason. Quarterbacks Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb still talk about what could have been, and the damage Davis wrought.

Although it hasn’t played out this way for past Browns teams and regimes, the NFL is a people business, and that’s where Stefanski excels. The relationship was so important to Stefanski that he flew to Austin, Texas, in February to meet Mayfield before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The fact that Mayfield led the Browns to the divisional round of the playoffs in his third NFL season cannot be minimized. Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner took the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams, respectively, to a wild-card game in Year 3 and lost. Troy Aikman came into a similarly miserable franchise situation to Mayfield’s with the Dallas Cowboys and lost in the divisional round in his third season.

Mayfield should grow under Stefanski’s tutelage. Stefanski seems like the right coach to maximize Mayfield’s strengths and help Mayfield learn and improve. If he can teach him over Zoom, imagine what might be possible in person.

Already, Stefanski has been able to rein in Mayfield’s recklessness, with the best illustration being the aforementioned 15-2 touchdown/interception ratio.

The Browns should realize that is merely the first flower of a budding Stefanski-Mayfield partnership and invest accordingly.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.