CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield’s broken fourth season with the Browns has mercifully ended with one game left.
His time in Cleveland could be running short as well.
Mayfield is sitting out the season finale against Cincinnati so he can undergo surgery on his left shoulder, an injury that affected his performance, contributed to the Browns’ falling way short of expectations and may have altered the path of his NFL career.
Mayfield, who played with a torn labrum suffered in Week 2 and a fracture in his non-throwing shoulder for most of the season, was sacked nine times in Monday night’s 26-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Afterward, the 26-year-old said he “was pretty damn beat up” and planned to consult with his family and agents about whether to play against the AFC North champion Bengals.
Coach Kevin Stefanski said conversations Tuesday between Mayfield, his representatives and the team led to the decision to have the operation as soon as possible so he has more time to recover ahead of next season.
“Obviously frustrating for him, but we felt this was the best thing for him right now,” said Stefanski, who did not have a timeline for recovery.
While the operation, which has yet to be scheduled, ends this season for Mayfield, there’s no certainty on where he’ll take his next snap.
The Browns picked up Mayfield’s fifth-year, $18.8 million contract option for 2022, but his erratic and often poor play this season has raised doubts as to whether the team wants to go forward with him.
The team has not approached Mayfield’s agents about a long-term extension, which seemed almost a certainty after he led them to the playoffs last season.
But the Browns didn’t live up to their hype, and were eliminated from the postseason while traveling to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Even though it’s over, Stefanski chose not to assess Mayfield’s uneven season, which ended with him throwing six interceptions in his final two games. It also concluded with him questioning the coaching staff’s decision not to give rookie right tackle James Hudson more help blocking Steelers superstar T.J. Watt.
Mayfield was sacked four times by Watt, who also had one of the five passes batted down by Pittsburgh defenders.
There were junctures earlier in the season when the Browns could have rested Mayfield. But he insisted on playing while wearing a cumbersome harness that kept his shoulder from popping out.
While it was a credit to his toughness to push through the pain, Mayfield may wind up regretting the decision to keep playing (he sat out a Week 7 win over Denver) if it damaged his standing with the Browns.
Monday’s game was a microcosm of Mayfield’s aimless season.
He started 1 of 10, threw a league season-high 10 incompletions in one stretch and took a pounding. However, he also made some nice throws and his two TD passes had the Browns within five points in the final minutes.
“I kept swinging,” said Mayfield, who finished with 17 TDs, 13 picks and 3,010 yards. “That’s who I am and that’s who I’ll continue to be.”
Stefanski said he trusted the team’s medical staff to keep turning to Mayfield and did not lament playing him.
“Each one of those weeks and those days when we made those decisions, you are just going off of the information that is available to you,” he said. “That’s information from our medical staff, from Baker, from second opinions and those type of things and then based on how he performed in practice.”
Not a lot, but Cleveland’s defense, despite an injury-ravaged secondary, continues to play at a playoff-caliber level. The Browns made Ben Roethlisberger (24 of 46 for just 123 yards) and Pittsburgh’s offense work for everything.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Got an hour? There are problems everywhere, with perhaps the biggest a disconnection between Mayfield and Stefanski, the coaching staff and perhaps Cleveland’s front office. The team’s decision to stick with an ineffective Mayfield — injury aside — for weeks is both puzzling and troubling.
Except from an inexcusable personal foul for pulling off and throwing Steelers receiver Chase Claypool’s shoe, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had another strong game with two sacks, six tackles (one for loss) and two QB hits.
Clowney has revived his career with the Browns, who must strongly consider signing him long term.
Stefanski’s honeymoon was over long ago. The AP’s reigning Coach of the Year has had a rough second season. His play-calling has been suspect, and the team’s overall lack of discipline (10 more penalties on Monday) is a damning indictment.
Running back D’Ernest Johnson was placed on the COVID-19 list. Stefanski did not have any updates on Monday’s injuries: CB Denzel Ward (groin), CB Greedy Williams (shoulder) or LB Sione Takitaki (shoulder).
56 — Mayfield’s interception total since 2018, a league worst.
Case Keenum will likely start the finale against the Bengals, who were rocked 41-16 by the Browns in November but recovered to win the division.
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