CLEVELAND — Change is never easy. If any NFL team has learned that lesson, it's the Cleveland Browns.
Much of the change this organization has undergone over the past two decades has been understandable. Very few of those changes worked, and when it's obviously not a right fit, you move on.
For starters, Mayfield is scheduled to make nearly $19 million next season, and because it's the final year of his contract, a trade — though not impossible — would be unlikely. An outright release isn't a good option either, as his cap hit would leave the team in a serious bind.
There will certainly be quarterbacks on the move this offseason, but which options available will be both affordable and an upgrade?
In Mayfield's four years in Cleveland, we have seen the best of times and we have seen the worst of times. This season was a struggle, for sure, and both a huge disappointment and a miscalculation by Mayfield and his agent.
Instead of coming to terms with the Browns on a long term contract after the 11-5 season and a playoff win in 2020, the decision was made to let it ride. Do it again, and the price tag goes up; but that didn’t happen. It didn't happen for a myriad of reasons, but chief among them were the injuries.
It's easy to forget where the Browns were after Week 4. They followed the hard-fought season opening loss at the defending AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs with three straight wins. The first of those came at home against the Texans, but Mayfield suffered a torn labrum to his non-throwing shoulder. In truth, that was the beginning of the end.
After another close defeat on the road to the Los Angeles Chargers, the Browns were 3-2 and still hopeful of finding some of the 2020 magic, but when Mayfield further injured his left shoulder in the loss to the Cardinals, it was painfully obvious watching him struggle through the rest of the season he was no where near the quarterback who lead this franchise to their first playoff win in more than 25 years. Mayfield fought through the shoulder injury, as well as a banged up knee and ankle, but it appeared the more he tried to do, the more trouble he found.
Trying to force things when they just weren’t there made things worse. The fact the injury was to his non-throwing shoulder was wrongly dismissed by many critics. It still affects the throwing motion, and wearing an additional brace on the upper body takes much more time to feel comfortable than Mayfield had.
As the team points to the future, there is plenty of optimism. The just-completed 8-9 season — which has widely been referred to as a disaster — came within a single play or two of ending with a playoff bid. It may feel like a gut punch because of the step backwards and the missed expectations, but this 8-9 Browns team scored more points and allowed fewer than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are still playing.
In fact, the Browns allowed the least points in the AFC North. Seven of their nine losses were to playoff teams, and all but two were one-score games. The other two losses were to teams that won at least eight games.
They twice defeated the division champion Bengals, including a blowout win in Cincinnati with both teams at full strength. That's just a reminder of how good this team is as currently constituted.
The Browns are not nearly as far away as it may seem. They must improve play-calling, particularly in the fourth quarter of games, where they were outscored badly this season. They must learn to play their best football in the game's biggest moments. The injuries, bad breaks, inconsistent play, and timing of COVID were just too much to overcome.
The Browns have finished many seasons with teams that were badly broken and needed to be completely torn down. This is not one of them. You let Mayfield get healthy, let the front office do it's thing and win the offseason, allow everything to simmer with time, then come back in the summer and get ready to do it all over again.
Maybe next year.