Cleveland Browns and their contention window tied to Baker Mayfield

Cleveland Browns Baker Mayfield. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Cleveland Browns Baker Mayfield. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns will have a much tougher time to compete after Baker Mayfield gets a new deal.

There are two likely scenarios for the trajectory of the Cleveland Browns over the next few years. Neither of them is great. In scenario number one, Baker Mayfield has another season or two like 2019, where he threw 21 interceptions and was outplayed by guys like Brandon Allen and Devlin Hodges. If this happens, the Browns will likely cut their losses with Mayfield when his rookie contract expires after the 2021 season.

In scenario number two, Mayfield regains the folk hero status of his rookie season, but, with better coaching and a stronger supporting cast, takes the Browns to unprecedented heights – at least by the standards of the new Browns. This is the dream scenario, but the window in which to achieve it is already closing.

What do the following quarterbacks have in common:  Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes? All took teams to the Super Bowl on their rookie contracts. With the exception of Mahomes, who is about to get very rich, all signed big money extensions shortly thereafter.

How many of those guys have made it back to the Super Bowl? None. It’s not just that their Super Bowl seasons represented an unsustainable peak, either. In fact, the highest cap hit of any quarterback who has won a Super Bowl was the $20.5 million that Tom Brady made in 2018. The payoff for all those huge contracts in terms of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy has been zilch.

There’s a reason for that. As the Chiefs (and the Cowboys, and the Texans) are about to find out, spending thirty or forty million dollars on a quarterback puts so much strain on your salary cap that it forces you to skimp in other areas of the team. The Seahawks built the Legion of Boom defense with a series of brilliant drafts in the early 2010s, then capped it off by drafting Wilson in the third round in 2012 and winning the NFC in 2013 and 2014. Seattle continued to add talent during Wilson’s rookie deal, but when the time came for Russell to get paid, guys like Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman got too expensive. The Seahawks have continued to thrive, but they have not been back to the Super Bowl.

Not that it couldn’t be worse. Nine NFL quarterbacks have earned more than $200 million in their careers. Six (Brees, Brady, Roethlisberger, Rogers, and both Mannings) have Super Bowl wins to show for the investment). Matt Ryan has been to a Super Bowl and won an MVP.  Philip Rivers has had eleven winning seasons in fourteen years as a starter.

Then there is Matthew Stafford, who is the youngest player on this list and has never won a playoff game in his career. Each of the 74 wins in Stafford’s eleven NFL seasons has cost the Lions about three million dollars. That might not sound like much until you remember that they had to pay 52 other players for those games.

Therein lies the worst-case scenario for the Browns: getting it wrong with Mayfield. For every Patrick Mahomes, there are twenty Jameis Winstons, who show enough potential during their rookie deal to tempt a GM, but not enough actual success to make a huge contract a no-brainer.

Until recently, the extension seemed like a no-brainer. As long as they were healthy, guys like Andy Dalton and Derek Carr, even Blake Bortles,  were seen as better than the alternative, which was to admit failure and start from scratch, so their teams signed them to big contracts and lived with the results. Teams are getting smarter now, which is why Winston and Marcus Mariota were free agents this past offseason, and Mitch Trubisky is likely to be next year.

Hopefully, Mayfield will make this easy for the Browns, and give them a couple of playoff wins as evidence of his value before his contract expires. Even if he does, it will probably do more harm than good in the long run.

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