New year, new Browns may not be a joke in Cleveland anymore. After convincing preseason wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New York Giants, and the Atlanta Falcons, it looks like a legitimate Super Bowl contender might be playing on the shores of Lake Erie this NFL season. When Cleveland opens their season on September 12 against the Kansas City Chiefs, they can hopefully shake the pretender label some associate with them and prove they're the real deal.
That is, of course, with Cleveland's superstar quarterback Baker Mayfield under center for the entirety of it. During the preseason Mayfield only played in two series for the Browns in the team's win over Atlanta. The former Heisman winner looked incredible, picking up where he left off from last season finishing the night with 113 yards and a beautiful touchdown pass to KhaDarel Hodge:
Mayfield looks primed and ready for the season to start and it's clear the Browns are flush with talent.
But, despite the Cleveland superstar quarterback hardly playing there isn't much to worry about. Last season Mayfield erased a lot of his doubters with how masterful he looked in head coach Kevin Stefanski's offense and was instrumental in leading Cleveland to the divisional round against Kansas City. But, for both the Browns and Mayfield, neither side doesn't want to risk an injury moments before they begin their quest for a championship. That, and Mayfield is eligible for an extension and his camp likely doesn't want to risk an injury either.
That means that Case Keenum, Mayfield's primary backup, soaked up the majority of Cleveland's snaps under center throughout the preseason. In all three games for the Browns, Keenum has thrown for 298 yards (completing 68.7% of his passes), 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Other than the lone interception, which came off a terrible read on Keenum's part against the Giants, Cleveland's backup has remained steady while orchestrating the offense. Especially when he makes throws like the one he completed to Hodge:
“It is great. Case makes things a lot easier," said Hodge. "He has been around the game long. He breaks it down, he can talk about coverages and he can talk about how to set up a route and what you do in certain coverages or how to run a certain route in certain coverages. He is a great guy. He just brings a lot to the game.”
“He did a nice job operating. Did not like that interception down there in the red zone – we can’t do that, and he should not do that," said Stefanski after the preseason win over New York. "He knows that. We have to take better care of the ball, but he had obviously some nice plays. That throw to Hodgey (Hodge) was outstanding – a great catch, great throw.”
It has become increasingly clear that throughout the preseason, Keenum is the best backup quarterback in the NFL. For a team with championship aspirations like Cleveland, this is huge – especially if something ever happened to Mayfield. Unlike contending teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with Tom Brady or the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, the Browns wouldn't completely fall apart for Cleveland if Mayfield were sidelined. Sure, the offense would take a few steps back due to the loss of Mayfield's arm strength, but with Keenum under center things would more or less continue like normal for the Browns.
This isn't complete hyperbole either, mind you. It was only four seasons ago when Joe Buck strained his vocal cords calling the play as U.S. Bank Stadium erupted in what has become known as The Minneapolis Miracle and the bane of New Orleans fans existence:
That moment in history was only possible because Keenum was thrust into the fold after then Vikings starting quarterback Sam Bradford suffered yet another knee injury. Keenum led the Vikings on a magical run that culminated in the NFC Championship loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. That season also saw Keenum put up MVP-caliber numbers thanks in part to Stefanski his offensive coordinator while both were in Minnesota.
Clearly, the two have had on-field chemistry for quite a while now and that's also an added edge for the Browns as well. It also helps the fact that the offense Stefanski currently employs in Cleveland is the same one he used with the Vikings. A lot of it does rely primarily on the run which thankfully Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have covered. But, the quarterback in Stefanski's system needs to be able to read and react to defenses properly in order to play to the strengths of wide receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and breakout preseason star Donovan Peoples-Jones. That's why having Keenum having a combined familiarity with Stefanski and his playcalling is so vital for Cleveland's success.
Sure, Keenum will never likely reach the heights he saw during that run with the Vikings. But, that's not what Cleveland needs from him. If anything does happen to Mayfield, or if he holds out due to his impending extension, it doesn't mean the end of everything that the Browns, and their fans, have suffered through to get to this point. That's because Cleveland needs Case Keenum to just be Case Keenum and not Baker Mayfield. The problem of having two starting-caliber quarterbacks on your roster is a good one for the Browns. It also might be the reason why Cleveland wins their first-ever Super Bowl.