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Lee: Baker Mayfield is the obstacle the Cleveland Browns need to overcome

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) calls an audible against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There’s great clarity to be found when franchises are building toward playoff contention. Head coaches are tasked with perpetually planning the next schematic adjustments, general managers have every roster move thoroughly critiqued and the franchise’s ceiling rests on the shoulders of its quarterback.

I fight, tooth and nail, against as many of the overwrought narratives and conversations around quarterbacks as I can, but some will always have merit: to win a division, you’ll typically need good quarterback play; to win road playoff games and Super Bowls, you’ll need great quarterback play.

That, of course, means teams need to protect a QB with more than just a left tackle. They need to roster elite running backs at a discount, hire a head coach who uses RPO and play-action concepts to shrink the field and field an above-average defense to keep the signal-caller comfortable.

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When I think of the 2021 Cleveland Browns, I don’t see a franchise missing the ingredients necessary to succeed. Short of a “true” outside receiver — and who knows where Cleveland could’ve found one of those — the Browns were planning on cashing in this season. Their core pieces are young, which allowed Cleveland to put together a talented, experienced offensive line and buy high on key off-ball role players defensively.

There’s an argument that the best edge rusher and running back in the NFL are on this roster. And yet, with two Sundays left in the regular season, the Browns are dead last in their division and closer (today) to a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft than they are to a wild-card playoff berth.


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It’s time to tell the truth about Baker Mayfield — the quarterback meant to lift this organization into contention looks like the biggest hole on the roster.

The spotlight burned brightest on Christmas weekend against the Green Bay Packers, and it seemed to blind Mayfield en route to a four-interception loss.

Baker Mayfield: Passing statistics since Week 10 (rank among 39 qualifying quarterbacks)
Dropbacks 172 (22nd)
Yards per attempt 5.9 (30th)
Interceptions 8 (T-1st)
Adjusted completion % 67.1% (32nd)
Passer rating from a clean pocket 79.2 (32nd)
PFF Passing grade 49.5 (36th)

That dismal performance may stand out amid this 2-4 slump, but it hardly stands alone. The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have great defenses, but this uninspiring six-game stretch includes a pair of games against the Baltimore Ravens, Las Vegas Raiders and the rebuilding Detroit Lions.

Considering the competition, supporting cast, the film and the data, Mayfield has been the worst passer in the NFL over the second half of the season.

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Diagnosing Mayfield’s season requires digging through the contextual factors because football is an inherently situational game, no matter the position.

For example, a quarterback might be performing well in less volatile situations, such as when he is able to throw from a clean pocket or off a play-action fake that sucks the linebacker out of the throwing window. But things might start to melt down when that same quarterback is forced to throw off-rhythm.

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