BEREA, Ohio — Baker Mayfield stood in the visiting locker room, bruised and battered. His right shoulder was wrapped in ice; his left leg was fitted with a support sleeve.
Either way, the 49ers emphatically made their point in a 31-3 stomping of Cleveland, forcing the Browns to confront this troubling realization: Their franchise quarterback, whom they’ve pinned so much upon, is struggling.
The numbers from what might have been the worst performance of Mayfield’s entire career — high school, college or pro — were alarming.
His Total QBR in San Francisco was 4.2 (scale of 0 to 100), which is second worst in the NFL this season, with only New York Jets third-stringer Luke Falk producing a worse number. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that Total QBR was lower than any Cleveland passer since — don’t say it! — Johnny Manziel five years ago.
On the season, Mayfield ranks 31st in QBR — only Falk and Cam Newton have fared worse — while topping the NFL with eight interceptions. Once his calling card, Mayfield is also completing just 55.9 percent of his passes. That ranks 33rd, ahead of only Miami’s Josh Rosen.
This is hardly what the Browns envisioned when they pushed their chips in and dealt for All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (more on him later) on the heels of Mayfield’s promising rookie campaign.
“Some of it has to do with the lack of protection,” coach Freddie Kitchens said Tuesday, when asked what plagues his quarterback. “Some if it had to do with a couple bad throws, couple bad decisions. Overall, we had some drops. You can’t do those things and play the quarterback position at an elite level. If you just want the honest answer, you have to have consistency around you, you have to be consistent yourself, and none of that happened.”
To be sure, Mayfield didn’t get the help any quarterback needs for much of Monday. His beleaguered offensive line stood little chance of blocking Bosa. Mayfield’s receivers also dropped too many passes — most notably Antonio Callaway, who bobbled away a surefire touchdown pass into the arms of K’Waun Williams, who raced 49 yards the other way to set up a game-changing 14-point swing just before halftime.
But Cleveland’s lack of consistency includes Mayfield. In fact, it starts with him.
According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield is throwing into double coverage (defined as two defenders being within 1 yard of the receiver at pass arrival) at a rate twice that of any other quarterback in the league.
He also continues to hold on to the ball for far too long, opening himself to unnecessary hits and negative plays, whether sacks or turnovers. Mayfield’s average time before unloading the ball Monday was 3.35 seconds, matching the longest he has taken to pass in a game in his career.
Even when his line held up, it didn’t seem to matter. When the line was credited with a pass block win, according to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield completed 2 of 8 passes and was sacked twice; when it wasn’t, he completed 2 of 8 passes and was sacked twice.
“Once again, I’m not hitting the panic button,” said Mayfield, who has had to say as much multiple times this year already. “We know the problem. We just have to do better. … [We] have to eliminate mistakes. You just have to.”
Eliminating mistakes alone, however, won’t cure all of Cleveland’s ills.
Inexplicably, the Browns still haven’t figured out how to get Beckham involved in the passing game — short of letting OBJ just pass the ball himself. According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield went just 2 of 6 passing for 27 yards targeting Beckham on Monday, which did include a drop. Over the last two weeks, Mayfield and Beckham own the league’s worst reception rate — 30.8 percent — of any quarterback-receiver combo with a minimum of 10 targets.
Ryan Clark doesn’t see a problem with Baker Mayfield not shaking Richard Sherman’s hand after the coin toss, saying there’s no specific protocol.
“Is it concerning?” Kitchens said, in reference to the lack of synergy between his two stars. “I think that I have a lot of concerns.”
Restoring Mayfield to his former cool, confident, collected self should be chief among them. Instead, on Monday, Bosa referenced the 6-foot-1 Mayfield’s biggest red flag heading into the 2018 draft.
“I don’t know how anybody thought he would be able to see over Arik [Armstead] and Buck [DeForest Buckner],” Bosa said of his towering teammates. “But he was panicking. He was double-clutching, rolling back and forth. We had him rattled all game.”
Despite Bosa’s damning criticism, all hope is not lost for Mayfield or this Browns season.
As ESPN colleague Bill Barnwell pointed out, another undersized quarterback out of Austin, Texas, struggled during his second season. That quarterback was benched in favor of 41-year-old Doug Flutie.
But Drew Brees soon found his footing and a new home in New Orleans on the way to becoming a Super Bowl-winning future Hall of Famer.
But after that, they’ll face one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league, which culminates with a Dec. 22 home bout against Baltimore in a showdown that could decide the AFC North.
Snapping the NFL’s longest playoff drought was what this season was really all about. That remains reachable.
But that hinges on Mayfield. And whether Cleveland’s franchise quarterback starts to play like one again.