Andrew Luck’s early retirement needs to serve as a wake-up call for the Cleveland Browns who need to improve their offensive line to protect Baker Mayfield
Everyone likes to talk about the bust potential for first-round draft picks.
But what happens if the real bust is the front office, behind the scenes, making terrible decisions that do nothing but inhibit the progress and development of that draft pick?
In the time since Colts franchise quarterback and former No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck stunned the NFL by announcing his retirement from the league weeks before the start of the season and less than a month shy of his 30th birthday, I’ve watched and listened to a good deal of local and national sports pundits weigh in on the subject. Outside of one or two big names on Twitter, the general consensus feeling on Luck’s decision is undoubtedly one of sympathy.
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Media folks and fans alike understand why Luck would want to remove himself from a situation wherein he’s forced to rehabilitate his body back to health yet again after sustaining an injury behind center. His most recent setback reportedly came at the hands of a calf issue, although this was likely just the straw that broke the camel’s back amidst a slew of trips to the IR that date back years.
But people aren’t angry at Luck for succumbing to these injuries. For the majority of his career, Luck has been protected by an offensive line that has had trouble doing just that—protecting him. So although he’s been sidelined for a tremendous amount of games over the course of seven years in the league (including an entire season in 2017), the blame seems to be being placed more on ownership/management than on the player himself.
No matter how talented someone is, if they are placed in a situation in which failure is almost unavoidable, they cannot be held accountable if they fall short of their pre-draft projections. That can certainly be said of Luck, who would have thrived in a different organization that didn’t treat him like a tackling dummy for the opposing defense.
But can it also be said of Baker Mayfield?
Drafted in the same number one overall slot as Luck seven years later, Baker Mayfield’s career would have been headed down the same path as Luck’s had he been selected by the Cleveland Browns only a few years earlier. Mayfield arrived in Cleveland in 2018, just as a major changing of the guard was taking place. No more were the days of Sashi Brown calling the shots; now, a more reliable and successful John Dorsey would handle that.
No more were the days of owner Jimmy Haslam overstepping and forcing his staff to take Johnny Manziel with a first-round pick. Through years of learning how not to run an NFL franchise, the Haslams were finally beginning to realize that to help the team the most, they had to let their front office people do what they were paid to do.
And soon, no more were the days of Hue Jackson. After having only won a single game in two seasons, many wondered why Jackson was retained for a third year at all. But by midseason, as the Browns were losing winnable games in heartbreaking fashion, Jackson, the holdover from the previous regime who began the season with the eventual all-time rookie passing touchdown leader on the bench, was finally let go.
This sweeping culture change seems to be serving Mayfield and his longevity quite well. Dorsey has reinvigorated a team that went 0-16 the year he arrived by pumping the roster full of legitimate beasts like Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Jarvis Landry in 2018 and Sheldon Richardson, Olivier Vernon, Kareem Hunt, and Odell Beckham Jr. in 2019. And new head coach Freddie Kitchens, promoted from within after his chemistry with Mayfield as OC in the second half of last year led the team to a 5-3 record over their last eight games, is breaking the mold of what it means to lead an NFL team.
The 2019 regular season is right around the corner, and Browns fans genuinely cannot wait!
But despite all of these positives that have served to help Mayfield, there are still areas of concern moving forward. When listening to all those pundits talk about Luck, I had my radio tuned to 92.3 The Fan out of Cleveland, airing the popular program “Bull and Fox,” when the hosts, Adam “the Bull” Gerstenhaber and Dustin Fox switched discussion topics to the Browns offensive line. According to them, after the departure of Kevin Zeitler this past offseason, two of the five offensive line positions for Cleveland are slightly below the league average in terms of quality, and one, right guard, is significantly below average.
Clearly, this is a cause for concern. Standing three inches shorter and weighing 25 pounds less than Luck, simply based on the anatomical limitations of the human body, Mayfield is less able to bounce back from injury than his larger-bodied former colleague. Additionally, in Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and David Njoku, among others, Mayfield arguably has more pass-catching weapons at his disposal than Luck ever did.
And while this is mostly a reason to celebrate if you’re a Browns fan, there is a bit of a potential downside to Mayfield having all of this firepower in his arsenal. With more deep threats, Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Monken aren’t just going to call bubble screens and five-yard out routes. They have the horses, and they’re going to let them run—deep down the field, to be exact.
On a second-and-eight from their own 27-yard line in the middle of the third quarter, I can see them sending multiple Pro Bowl wideouts blazing toward the end zone some 73 yards away. Mayfield has more than enough arm strength to get the ball to them once they’re about 40 or 50 yards past the line of scrimmage. And more often than not, if the ball reaches a Beckham or a Landry on that play, it results in a tremendous gain, if not a touchdown.
But with an overall subpar offensive line being forced to hold opposing pass rushers at bay even longer than normal as the receivers run half the length of the field, Mayfield will have to maneuver around in the pocket to find some space to throw. Much like Luck often did throughout his career, Mayfield may be running for his life.
So what can be done to alleviate some of the pressure, in more than one sense of the word? Can John Dorsey find a way to bring in more reliable offensive linemen? Can Monken and Kitchens figure out a way to successfully gameplan around their weaknesses up front in favor of their strengths elsewhere? Can Mayfield evade the pass rush to a degree that he adequately preserves his body as much as possible?
These are the questions we won’t have the answers to until the season gets going. At the present moment, the question of keeping Mayfield healthy is one that only pertains to the short term. He’s just in his second year, so even if he does take a decent beating in 2019 (knock on wood), the Browns have the type of front office that would, hopefully, be cognizant of the holes on the offensive line and go to work plugging those holes up as soon as possible. I don’t believe John Dorsey is a perfect general manager, but he’s definitely shown us more than enough to feel confident he wouldn’t allow Mayfield to be bruised year after year under his watch like Luck was in Indianapolis.
They’re two different quarterbacks with two different personalities. And given the unfortunate early exit from the NFL Luck has had to take due to injuries, let’s all keep our fingers crossed that they end up having two very different careers, as well.