CLEVELAND — The Browns will find out when their games against all of their 2022 opponents will be on Thursday night. What they don’t know at this point is how many of those games will feature quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson, acquired in a trade from Houston earlier this offseason, is currently facing 22 accusations of sexual misconduct or assault in civil court down in the Houston area. He could be suspended this year by the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy, or the NFL could wait for the situation in Texas to be resolved through the civil court, which may not be until next March. Watson’s play on the field is something the Browns will be able to count on to be fantastic, but counting on him to be on the field is a giant question mark.
What isn’t a question mark is that if Watson cannot play for any amount of time due to a suspension, even if it’s for a full season, Baker Mayfield won’t be the guy filling in for him.
It has been suggested by some folks that the best path forward for Mayfield and the Browns is for both sides to work on fixing things so that Mayfield can play for the team again in the event of a Watson suspension. While that may be a good idea for Mayfield, it’s a bad idea for the Browns. And a really bad idea at that.
There are several issues with Mayfield ever playing for the Browns again. Aside from the fact that he has requested a trade -- something the Browns are working to try and fulfill -- and has already been replaced by Watson as the team’s starting quarterback, it doesn’t make sense for the team offensively. There’s so little to gain from playing Mayfield again on the Browns. Even if he’s an upgrade over the current backup quarterbacks, if Watson is suspended for any significant length of time, the season likely isn’t going to result in a trip to the playoffs because of it.
The quarterback room for the Browns, aside from Watson, looks much different now than it did this time a year ago. The team traded backup Case Keenum to Buffalo for a late-round draft pick earlier this offseason and signed Jacoby Brissett and Joshua Dobbs to fill out the room. Watson, Brissett, and Dobbs are all bigger and more athletic than Mayfield, despite the latter two maybe not being better quarterbacks.
Through their offseason moves, the Browns have shown that the offense is going to have a bit of a different look this season. Yes, running the ball with running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is still going to be the identity of the team, but it’s going to be an offense that features more wide receivers and fewer tight ends in all likelihood. The Browns cut tight end Austin Hooper earlier this offseason and never really replaced him. Yes, David Njoku is returning on the franchise tag and Harrison Bryant is still on the roster, but it’s fair to think there are going to be fewer two tight end sets on the field for the Browns in 2022 than in either of the first two seasons under head coach Kevin Stefanski.
This is going to be done to highlight the strengths of Watson, and to a lesser degree Brissett. Is this an offense that Mayfield would be successful in? Possibly. But it’s unquestionably going to be a different one than what he’s run for the last two seasons.
Stefanski attempted to put Mayfield in the best position to be successful with play-action and easy throws to tight ends in his first two years in Cleveland. Changing the offense back to that just for Mayfield to potentially play six games while Watson is potentially suspended doesn’t make sense for the good of the team as a whole. Changing what the Browns are going to do on that side of the football to placate to a guy that the Browns don’t want, and doesn’t want to be there, makes little sense at all.
Even if that weren’t the case, Mayfield stepping foot inside the locker room again, whether it be at the team’s practice facility in Berea or at FirstEnergy Stadium, would unquestionably be a tremendous distraction -- one, the team absolutely does not need. He’s already a distraction, and will be until he’s no longer on the roster. But as long as his name still appears on it, other players and coaches are going to routinely be asked about his status, even though it should be clear that the next time he plays football it won’t be wearing an orange helmet.
The best thing for all sides is for Mayfield to be dealt away to a place he can repair his image and find his way onto the football field. At this point, it’s clear neither of those things is going to happen in Cleveland. Pretending such thing is a possibility is silly and a waste of time. The longer this drags on, the worse it is for everybody involved.