Even though it was a cold, dreary Sunday in Cleveland things were red hot on the shores of Lake Erie. Fans in attendance at First Energy Stadium got to see this year's possible NFL MVP in Kyler Murray and his Cardinals dismantle, and embarrass, the hometown Browns 37-14. Simply put, Cleveland played their worst game of the season and with the Denver Broncos coming to town on Thursday, the Browns need to quickly lick their wounds and do some serious soul searching.
"We're a 3-3 football team and we played like it," said Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski. "We were just very very average and it's my responsibility to get it fixed. That's what we have to do because we have to turn right around and come back in here Thursday night and find a way. Really disappointed. Again, we just have to find a way to clean this stuff up."
With this loss to the Cardinals, this is the first time in the Stefanski era that the Browns have lost two games in a row. Some of the blame can fall on the shoulders of the defense – Murray was incredible thanks to receivers like DeAndre Hopkins being left wide open in the end zone. Blame can also be directed at bad injury luck for the offensive line, with starting tackles Jedrick Wills (ankle) and Jack Conklin (knee) both inactive. With those two absent, Arizona's defense was able to easily disrupt all phases of Cleveland's offensive gameplan.
Clearly, there's plenty at fault for the Browns being embarrassed by the Cardinals. But, quarterback Baker Mayfield deserves the majority of the blame at the end of the day. With running back Nick Chubb, Cleveland's best player, sidelined and star back Kareem Hunt hobbled in the fourth quarter with a calf injury, Mayfield was expected to step up and lead the Browns past adversity. Instead, Mayfield crumbled on the field against the Cardinals – turning the ball over 3 times which led to 13 points for Arizona.
Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt sacked Cleveland Browns quarterback just once but it was the deciding factor as it eventually helped put the game out of reach.
"You could ask anybody in our building, ‘Have we played to our potential?’ Absolutely not," said Mayfield after Sunday's loss. "Yeah, I can speak from a leadership standpoint, we expect to be better. That is plain and simple. That is what we are going to have to do. We are going to have to come out with a sense of urgency.
"We are not panicking by any means. We are 3-3. That is not where we wanted to be right now, but the pure genius of the NFL, we have 11 more games instead of 10 now. We have 11 more games to go show who we are, play for each other and get better as each week goes on because nobody makes the playoffs right now. You have to not let up and you have to peak at the right time. We will handle this correctly. We will do that, and I know that because of the guys we have in the locker room. We will get better. That is just a fact.”
Mayfield is saying all the right things that a leader within Cleveland's locker room should be saying. Sure, some of what happened Sunday could be due to Mayfield injuring his non-throwing shoulder again. But, this blunder against Arizona isn't something new for Mayfield either. In fact, it's how the Browns signal-caller has looked for the better part of this season.
In a win over the Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland had to lean heavily on their defense while Mayfield struggle to connect on the majority of his passes. Last week against the Los Angeles Chargers it became clear Mayfield is unable to throw the ball deep down the field, making vertical threats like Odell Beckham Jr. a non-factor and game-winning drives impossible.
Speaking of Beckham, it's clear the lack of an on-field chemistry is having a huge impact on Cleveland's passing attack as well. There have been numerous instances where neither Mayfield nor Beckham were on the same page. That inability to connect leads to lost opportunities and even turnovers like the interception Mayfield threw against Arizona.
Thankfully, with Jarvis Landry hopefully back Thursday against Denver, Mayfield might look a little more steady under center. But, one thing has become increasingly clear as of late: Mayfield is not a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. More than anything, he's a front-running game manager. Mayfield carries himself with plenty of swagger and a chip on his shoulder that endears him to Cleveland fans everywhere.
Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield was responsible for 3 turnovers which led to 13 points for Arizona. The Browns lost to the Cardinals 37-14.
Unfortunately, if the Browns were to ask Mayfield to lead and carry the team to victory, he'd be unable to answer the call. Some will say Cleveland's postseason win over the Pittsburgh Steelers was the most important game in Mayfield's career but it wasn't. Instead, it was a perfect example of the type of player he is. The Browns' defense was the reason why Cleveland was able to build a substantial lead against the Steelers early, not Mayfield. With a lack of serious pressure, Mayfield was able to help maintain the lead and ride the momentum his teammates helped establish.
When the Browns face high-pressure situations like this game against the Cardinals, it's frustrating to know that they can't lean on Mayfield. He's no Tom Brady or Lamar Jackson or Aaron Rodgers or Justin Herbert or Patrick Mahomes and that could be the deciding factor on Cleveland's championship aspirations. The Browns cannot reliably lean on him to guide them to victory, and if Cleveland were to reach this year's Super Bowl, they could be embarrassed once again. This loss to Arizona was the most important game in Mayfield's career and it perfectly encapsulated what's wrong with him under center for the Browns.
Right now, Mayfield is perfectly average, which is fitting considering Stefanski's current evaluation of the team. It's a stark contrast to where the former Heisman winner was last season, but, that was then and this is now. When the Browns are fully healthy, they have the ability to establish threats on every area of the field and in turn not ask Mayfield to do too much. But, with Chubb and possibly Hunt out against Denver, Cleveland will likely be forced to lean on Mayfield once again. The Broncos have the seventh-best passing defense and the second-best overall defense in the NFL so the Browns could be in for another rude awakening.
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