Back in 2018, when the Tennessee Titans were trying to keep Marcus Mariota healthy and turn his career in the right direction, the feeling inside the organization was simple: Time was running short, excuses were running long, and at some point, the constant roller coaster of good and bad had to stop.
This is how Ryan Tannehill’s second career was born in Tennessee. And it started with the Titans opening their minds to other options at quarterback heading into the final year of Mariota’s rookie contract. Yes, the organization badly wanted it to work with Mariota, who was the second overall pick in the 2015 draft and had flashed some brilliance in between injuries and inconsistency. So much so that the Titans picked up the fifth-year option in his rookie contract for a hefty $20.9 million.
At the time, Tennessee decided it wanted one more definitive look. That look came with a catch — with the front office deciding to open the door to other options, knowing that Mariota may never get on track. That avenue eventually led Tennessee to trade for Tannehill, who arrived and reworked his contract into a one-year, $7 million deal with escalators for playing time.
That choice — to pursue an insurance option rather than hope for a revelation — helped lay a foundation for the Titans to move toward the consistent success they enjoy today. And it’s precisely what the Cleveland Browns have to start thinking about with Baker Mayfield.
In fairness, there first has to be an acceptance that there are currently many things wrong with the Browns. The defense hasn’t been disciplined enough and isn’t playing anywhere near the level of talent on the roster. The offensive line and running backs have been a turnstile of injuries. The wide receivers have needed a significant infusion of healthy talent — even when Odell Beckham Jr. was on the team. And there’s no denying that all of these issues are tied together and have a hand in impacting Mayfield.
So this isn’t all about one player. But it is about understanding that Mayfield has also been part of the problem. Or more to the point, Mayfield’s health and general consistency have.
Before a quarterback can become consistent, he has to be healthy. And through the midway point of Mayfield’s fourth season, he has been riddled with various injuries that have impacted his play, from the bruised hand late in the 2019 season to the bruised ribs in 2020, to a partially torn labrum, shoulder fracture and (as of now) a knee injury that forced him out of Sunday’s game. That Mayfield has played through most of these issues is a testament to his mental toughness. But there has been a price to pay on the field this season, as he continues to struggle with his consistency in key moments.
Is that a five-alarm fire for Cleveland? No. Particularly not with Mayfield having been a solid quarterback during the balance of his career. But the Browns are also in a crucial period of studying what Mayfield is and where his career projects. At the moment, he looks like an inconsistent quarterback who needs optimal conditions around him in order to reach his potential, which isn’t the worst thing you can say about a QB. Many good quarterbacks are built like this.
But are they worth $40 million a season?
That’s the rub here. Mayfield doesn’t look remotely in the zip code of any of the recent quarterbacks who signed mega-extensions. Nor can the Browns consider making any extension decision, given how this season is unfolding. If anything, they’re further away from that extension now than when the season started. And with that being the case, Cleveland should take the Titans' approach.
Make the best of the rest of the season and do everything possible to get Mayfield healthy and into whatever groove is attainable. But also start doing homework on other quarterbacks who may become available next offseason. Whether it’s an aging Aaron Rodgers, or a damaged-goods Deshaun Watson — or even a possibly-not-available-but-maybe-he-will-be Russell Wilson — look onto every roster and think long and hard about options. Every option, whether it’s a shoot-for-the-moon replacement or something along the lines of the Titans’ reclamation project/insurance policy when they traded for Tannehill.
While that might not be what Mayfield wants, it’s what is best for the franchise at this point. And Cleveland is paying Mayfield his $18.8 million fifth-year option in 2022 anyway, so unless there is an acquisition to flat-out replace him, he should see a competitive addition as an opportunity to have a monster season and then put the Browns into a corner in their next extension negotiations.
As it stands now, the only way Cleveland could consider extending Mayfield before 2022 would be if he goes on an epic tear to close out the season — or if he takes a very team-friendly deal with a structure offering little downside for the Browns. Neither of those seems particularly likely at this moment.
Cleveland will enter next offseason with the same quandary on its hands as this past one: not being entirely sure if Mayfield is a franchise quarterback, and not being able to do an extension until that gets answered. But unlike the last go-round, the Browns have to take a page from the Titans and Mariota and lay all of their options on the table before 2022 kicks off.
Because one way or another, Mayfield’s future will reveal itself next season. And the long-term impacts of that revelation on Cleveland will be undeniable. Especially if the Browns aren’t prepared for it to fall apart again.