Why did five out of five Pro Bowlers see their receiving stats drop off while playing with Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns?
Since Baker Mayfield took over as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns in Week 3 of the 2018 season, the Browns have hooked him up with five Pro Bowlers as targets. As fate would have it, all five of them got worse during their Cleveland tenure, at least from the standpoint of their ability to catch passes.
That’s not to say that it is all Mayfield’s fault that they didn’t improve. There are any number of reasons why a player’s ability as a receiver could decline, not the least of which is the aging process and wear and tear on the athlete’s body.
Other reasons could include changes in the offensive scheme that may not have benefited the athlete in question (particularly the switch to a two-tight end offense); changes in personnel that result in defenses paying greater attention to shutting down our guy, or any one of a dozen other variables. It certainly is not the quarterback’s fault in all cases.
Nevertheless, there’s a pattern that has emerged that probably disturbed the front office and caused them to demand improvement, over and above the injury-related performance issues in 2021. Once in a while, the front office would like to see a Pro Bowler who is happy in Cleveland and who makes more catches with their club, not fewer. If this situation was never going to be forthcoming, they apparently felt that a change was necessary.
One of the marks of a champion is that a great quarterback tends to make those around him play better. They said that about Otto Graham, Frank Ryan, Bill Nelson, Brian Sipe, and Bernie Kosar. Somehow ordinary receivers became good receivers, and good receivers became great ones. It’s not just ball placement and head smarts, though that was part of it. Somehow they just had the right personality to get people motivated and pulling all in the same direction.
Mayfield has the arm strength, the accuracy, intelligence, and sufficient mobility to succeed. That’s one thousand percent clear to this observer, as well as to most fans who watched football in 2020.
Still, some of us, after Mayfield’s down year in 2021, now deny that Mayfield ever had any ability at all. That doesn’t compute, at least in this fan’s opinion. It remains a fact that the Browns won 11 games in 2020, and they destroyed Pittsburgh in a playoff game in Pittsburgh. That did not happen – could not have happened – with an incompetent quarterback at the helm. Let’s give Mayfield his due, but make no mistake, this article is mainly a critical one.
Especially early in his career, Mayfield earned the reputation for being an asset to the careers of lesser or up-and-coming receivers, including Rashard Higgins, Breshad Perriman, Ricky Seals-Jones, plus third-down backs like Duke Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard. All of these second-tier players have put up impressive pass-receiving numbers while they were on the field with Mayfield.
Despite that, the Browns have never had a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver who actually advanced his career by catching passes from Baker Mayfield.
Why is that? There are several possible reasons, and not all of them involve the quarterback. It might have to do with injuries or simply advancing age. Maybe the coaches were telling Mayfield not to target the star player because they wanted to use him as a decoy, or perhaps there was some other valid football reason to not allow the star player to perform at the All-Pro level.
We are not mindreaders, but from the outside, it seemed that he played favorites with his receivers and had a tendency to reward the ones that he felt were in his camp and shied away from those he felt were his rivals. Now, this view may be totally wrong and frankly, I hope that it is.
The most celebrated case was Odell Beckham, Jr., who managed to get a Super Bowl ring with the Rams. At one time, he was the highest-paid receiver in the NFL with the Giants and was regarded as a superstar. With Cleveland, he was always looking for the “right chemistry” with Baker Mayfield, and he unquestionably played better after he left the Browns.