Baker Mayfield paying a price for young offense’s growing pains

PITTSBURGH — If you thought it was tough watching Baker Mayfield play in Sunday’s 33-18 loss to the Steelers, you should have tried watching him afterward.

The Cleveland Browns’ young quarterback carried the air of a tired, old man when this one was over. He walked gingerly from the locker room to the podium. He sighed multiple times before answers. At the end of his news conference, he looked uncomfortable bending down to pick up his bag. He walked very slowly, and with a slight limp, to the bus at the end of the long, concrete hallway under Heinz Field.

Mayfield was the 12th Browns starting quarterback since 2003 to try and fail to win a game in this town. And this loss was painful — not just missed-opportunity painful or disappointing-painful but physically painful.

“I’ve seen better days,” Mayfield said. “But that’s the nature of playing a good team. They’re physical.”

The Steelers hit Mayfield seven times and sacked him twice Sunday, which doesn’t sound too bad (as long as you’re not the one getting hit), but these things accumulate. Mayfield has been dealing with an ankle issue for a couple weeks now, since he rolled it during an Oct. 14 loss to the Chargers. He has been sacked 20 times in the six games he has played.

“One thing I know about Baker, he battles,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “He’s tough. He took quite a few hits out there, and he kept getting up, kept going back out there. I just think he has to keep working.”

This is the issue. Whenever anyone looks at a rookie quarterback situation and asks, “What do they have to lose by playing him?”, they’re not thinking about the physical toll that learning process can take. Mayfield is a rookie quarterback on a young offense with basically one reliable wide receiver, a rookie left tackle, a rookie running back, a second-year tight end … we could go on, but you get the point. This stuff is hard for the best and most experienced quarterbacks. We’re a ways from knowing whether Mayfield is one of the former, but we know for a fact that he isn’t one of the latter.

“He’s doing fine,” Browns guard Joel Bitonio said. “We’ve got to give him as much time as he needs. It’s tough when he’s getting hit and he has to scramble for his life out there. We need to do better for him. But he’s doing fine. He knows the offense, and he’s going to continue to get better.”

Mayfield burst onto the scene, you might remember, by subbing in for an injured Tyrod Taylor and leading the Browns to a comeback victory over the Jets in Week 3. It was Cleveland’s first win in almost 21 months, and in it, Mayfield was 17-for-23 for 201 yards in relief. His QBR for that game was a stellar 94.9.

But in the five games he has started since, Mayfield’s best QBR came the following week against Oakland, and it was a more pedestrian 58.2 in an overtime loss. That dropped to 34.5 the following week in a victory over Baltimore, bottomed out at 12.7 in a bad loss to the Chargers, ticked back up to 19.9 in Week 7 against Tampa Bay and settled at 23.5 on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Mayfield has eight touchdown passes and six interceptions. The young man is struggling.

Asked if he considered putting Taylor back in Sunday and giving Mayfield a break, Jackson said succinctly, “I did not.” At this point, the Browns seem committed to letting Mayfield take his lumps, and as long as he comes out fine on the other side of it, that’s probably the best way to go.

But what we’re learning with these rookie quarterback situations this year — in Cleveland, Buffalo, Arizona and New York — is that hope is sometimes served with a side dish of ugly. Progress is rarely, if ever, an unbroken arc into greatness. The Browns are trying the difficult trick of allowing Mayfield to get better by playing while getting him through this season without doing him any real harm. As the group around him struggles with its own growing pains, that becomes a more challenging task by the week.

One thing that helps is Mayfield’s teammates believe in him.

“I’m a big fan,” Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi said. “All you want on Sunday is to have a chance, and with a guy like him at quarterback, I feel like we have a chance. He makes a play, comes back, daps the defense up, ‘Let’s go get another one.’ That means a lot.”

There’s plenty of good sprinkled in with the bad, and it’s entirely possible that Mayfield has plenty more good to come in the second half of his rookie season. What he’s learning, if he didn’t know it already, is that it won’t come easily or without some pain. Mayfield’s career will be determined not by how little adversity he faces but by how he overcomes the inevitable adversities his chosen profession presents. More days like Sunday are ahead, and while that might not be what Mayfield and the Browns want to hear, the plan is to have him keep get up and try again. It’s the only way to grow.

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