CLEVELAND — Entering the 2020 season, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield admitted he was aware of how crucial his third season in the NFL would be.
"There's no doubt Year 3 is always a big year in these contracts timing-wise, everybody knows that," Mayfield said in May. "I'm not putting added pressure on myself. If we win, things will take care of themselves."
Through six games, the Browns are doing just that, laying claim to a 4-2 record into Sunday's matchup with the 1-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland hasn't been 4-2 or better since the 2001 season and had won four of its first five games for the first time since 1994 prior to Sunday's loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But while the Browns are off to their best start in 19 years, it would be difficult to point to Mayfield as a primary reason for their wins. In fact, some NFL analysts have argued that Cleveland is winning not because of Mayfield, but in spite of him, pointing to the league's top rushing attack and a defense that leads the NFL with 12 takeaways as the primary contributors to its success.
While the Browns running game and defense have allowed Mayfield to pick his spots in Cleveland's four wins, that hasn't been the case in its two losses. Losing to the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens by a combined score of 76-13, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NFL Draft hasn't been able to keep the Browns competitive with the top teams in their division, bringing into question the franchise's ceiling with him as its signal-caller.
While there are still 10 games left in the season, Mayfield's stat line hardly looks like that of the top quarterbacks in the league. Through six games, he ranks 29th in the NFL in completion percentage (60.6), 26th in yards (1,095), 27th in yards per attempt (27th) and 13th in touchdowns (10), while throwing the fourth-most interceptions (4), including a pick-6 to Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to put Cleveland in an early 10-0 hole vs. Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“I have to have a short memory playing quarterback," Mayfield said this week. "That is for the good and the bad but especially the bad. Getting back to the basics, finding completions. It is tough when you are in a momentum swing like that to get back on track, but at this position, you have to be able to do that. It is about finding completions and getting back to basics."
To his credit, Mayfield played against the Steelers while dealing with a ribs injury that he suffered on a hit from Indianapolis Colts defensive end Justin Houston the week prior. Both Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski and Mayfield, himself, have insisted the 25-year-old quarterback's injury has since improved and he'll be healthier when facing the Bengals -- who he's 4-1 against in his career -- on Sunday.
But regardless of Mayfield's health or the quality of Cleveland's remaining opponents, the reality remains that time is of the essence. Next offseason, the Browns will have the ability to sign the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner to a contract extension -- just as the Kansas City Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes and the Houston Texans did with Deshaun Watson earlier this year. Perhaps more importantly, Cleveland's front office will have to make a decision on Mayfield's fifth-year player option for the 2022 season, a move that will likely foreshadow his future with the franchise.
Despite the Browns' promising start, Mayfield's hypothesis that wins and losses would define his season has yet to prove correct. In fact, more questions than ever seem to exist regarding his future in Cleveland, setting the stage for a fascinating final 10 games of the 2020 campaign.