The 2018 NFL offseason continues to feel like a collection of firsts for the current era Browns. I say current because for our older fandom brethren, it probably just feels like a very, very long time. Top 20 Starting QB in the NFL currently (Tyrod Taylor), an elite offensive weapon not only pleased to come to Cleveland but continues to embody everything any fan would ever want from a top flight talent wearing your teams colors (Jarvis Landry). An entire position group (DBs) completely revamped in one offseason. A defensive identity, if not a complete team identity taking shape. Oh, and I cannot forget one of the top 5 WRs in the game when he’s playing, Josh Gordon (don’t start with me on Josh Gordon, I defend him stronger than most people defend their own children). Who all with credibility believe will rejoin the team very soon and have zero playing status implications. All in one offseason. So, it really should come as no surprise that John Dorsey’s shiny new golden boy, Baker Mayfield, went out and had maybe the best QB debut in a Browns uniform this analyst can remember in some time. Definitely the best in this ‘current era’.
Let’s recap this QB fiasco going back to 1999. Tim Couch, Ty Detmer, Doug Peterson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thad Lewis, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Austin Davis, Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan.
Of this list, you can count on one hand the number of quarterbacks that were even good enough at their respective times with the Browns where any other team would have had any interest much less coveted said player. At the time, like it or not, Tim Couch was a top prospect. Had Cleveland not taken him at 1, someone would’ve in the top 10. There was some interest surrounding Weeden entering the draft but with understandable reservations. Jeff Garcia and Trent Dilfer were notable names way past their prime (assuming Dilfer ever had a prime). Most of the rest were retreads or complete pipe dreams. Don’t kid yourselves, fan hopefuls like Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Colt McCoy, Derek Anderson, and Brian Hoyer were the best of bad options. No Defensive Coordinator lost any sleep game-planning against most in not all of these quarterbacks. Naturally, when the next “golden boy” steps on the practice field, does everything right, says everything right, and looks like an NFL starter in his first game action, it is understandable that fans would be excited to see him start in the regular season sooner rather than later. However, we’ve been down this road before.
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The most important factor to consider is need. Does Mayfield ‘need’ to play? In 1999, in the face of poor roster building, the team had no choice but to play Tim Couch. Refer to the list above and you’ll see a pattern. Except for forcing Quinn to sit in favor of Derek Anderson (a move I was very much against and voiced my displeasure with at the facility in Berea with Anderson’s wife within earshot-a story for another day), any time this team has had a high pick, high-profile QB they have pushed him before he was ready. Baker Mayfield may just be the exception to the rule. He might actually be ready right now, but why risk it? This team is finally in a position to not NEED to push their young future franchise QB. It is a luxury this team needs to take advantage of.
Consider the Aaron Rodgers path. And no, I’m not saying Baker Mayfield is Aaron Rodgers. Once Rodgers took over in Green Bay, after sitting behind Favre for 3 years, it was obvious that he was far more ready to start than most of us thought. He hit the ground running (so to speak) and there were no shortage of opinions that he was likely ready long before he got his shot. The same very well could be true here. There is a possibility that Baker Mayfield could start the 2018 season and be fine. Win a few games, invigorate the fan base, and begin the turnaround as the face of the franchise. That is possible, but we know what the other side of the coin looks like. What if he’s not as ready as he can be?
There is value for a prospect who can do the physical part of playing QB to sit back and learn the non physical stuff from the position of a backup. Tyrod may not be Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or Peyton Manning, but there absolutely is value in learning the ‘how’ from a guy like Tyrod. How to approach meetings, how to prepare, how much time to put in, how to engage teammates, what buttons to push to get the most out of his teammates. There is more to playing the NFL QB position that simply knowing how to spin it. If the overwhelming consensus is that Baker is ready to play now, that’s only part of the equation. And while this Cleveland Browns organization/regime has a top 20 starting QB in the NFL right now, there is literally no reason to force the Baker issue. It literally comes down to one basic notion, “Why start him if you don’t have to?” The answer is simple. You don’t.
Tyrod Taylor is set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season. He along with Jarvis Landry seem to be the leaders spearheading the actual change in culture with this team. Understand that about 1/3 of the NFL teams are likely paying close attention to what Tyrod is doing, saying and most importantly how he fairs in the win/loss column. Tyrod’s attention is with this team, but he has to know that he’s also auditioning for what will likely be his biggest and last contract with another team elsewhere in 2019. As fans we should all but welcome him as the starter and hope that things go exactly the way they seem they might. This would open up a beautiful transition into 2019. If all goes well in my opinion, Baker Mayfield would only play due to injury, garbage time, or gadget play scenarios in 2018.
There’s a saying that playing football is a job but playing QB is a lifestyle. To be the QB the fans will want Baker to be, he will have to learn what its like to be one of those elite guys. First in last out, eat/sleep/breathe football, know your assignments and everyone else’s, etc. There was a moment in last week’s Hard Knocks when Hue asked Baker what time he comes in to start his day. He apparently comes in somewhat early, but nowhere near the 5 am that Tyrod does. Hue took that opportunity to hint at the idea that there is more to playing QB than just doing what is expected. Just another example of something he can learn from Tyrod. If done right, Baker sits 2018 and starts 2019 as the starter, getting all of the first team reps, leading the team on the field and off, and would likely have the presence of a 5+ year vet in year 2. Or as originally stated, follow a similar path to that of Aaron Rodgers. Waiting one year instead of 3.
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The fact of the matter is quite simply that there is no data, no stats, no analysis that would suggest that Baker gives the team a better chance to win than Tyrod Taylor. There just isn’t. If anything, there is data to suggest that the 8 year vet who has seen a thing or two is much more likely to adjust properly to the changing nuances from week to week over the rookie. And that is something that Baker can learn from Tyrod along the way as opposed to Baker learning those things the hard way and possibly losing winnable games when he could just learn that stuff from the sidelines and in meeting rooms.
When time comes where Baker is just flat-out better than Tyrod across the board, the team will have no choice but to make a change, but that time is not the 2018 training camp/preseason. There is no reason to force Baker. I love the kid, I’m on board with him as the franchise QB going forward, but this team has a unique opportunity where ability to start and need to start have not intersected yet. Let this play out. If Baker sits even most of the season, I assure you, he will be the better for it. Fans, let’s be honest, in your most objective thinking possible, do you actually believe the decision on who starts at QB will make or break a Super Bowl season THIS YEAR? If you said yes, you either aren’t paying attention or struggle with the concept of objectivity. 0 wins to 2 is progress. 0 to 4 is great progress. 0 to 7 through 9 wins is incredible. 10-12 wins is unprecedented. Going from 0 wins to Super Bowl Champion is delusional. I love the enthusiasm from the players, but its delusional. So let the kid sit. Let Tyrod do what he does. Maybe they win 5 games, maybe they win 9, but if they stay the course, hold Baker back…then, unleash him on the 2019 offseason after he’s had time to learn how to be an NFL starter, then year 2 (2019) becomes a very realistic possibility for playoffs and beyond. Remember, the goal is to build for long running sustained success, not just a great 2018.