Drew Brees has watched Baker Mayfield from afar this year but isn't quite ready to rule on how the Browns should handle the quarterback's future.
The organization and Mayfield entered this season hoping to solidify their partnership for years to come with a long-term contract extension, but the situation has become complicated.
The Browns haven't met expectations, and Mayfield has had an inconsistent, injury-filled 2021.
“The story’s yet to be written there,” Brees said Tuesday. “I think for them it’s just a matter of tuning out all the noise and just focusing on the business at hand.”
The most pressing issue for the Browns (6-5) is finding a way to upset the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens (7-3) this weekend on “Sunday Night Football.”
“Obviously, anytime you have a divisional game, it’s a huge game for us. Turning point in the season? I mean, we have a winning record,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “Everybody else wants to throw us in the trash, but we know exactly what’s in front of us, and that’s how we’re going to handle it.”
Cleveland Browns quarterback fed up: Baker Mayfield cites frustration with performance for skipping interview, expects to face Ravens on Sunday
The pivotal prime-time matchup will be televised nationally on NBC, where Brees is working as an analyst on the heels of his illustrious playing career. The former 13-time Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl winner with the New Orleans Saints spoke about Mayfield and the Browns during a conference call hosted by the network.
“For Baker, listen, I know what it’s like to have some of those injuries,” Brees said. “Probably had a lot of the same injuries that he’s dealing with right now, and they’re no fun. Do they affect you? Yes, they affect you. They affect your weekly preparation because you’ve got to spend so much time on your rehab, prehab, just taking care of your body and just getting to Sunday.
“But at the end of the day, there’s a different way to win each week. Even though there’s times where you might not be 100% or you may not have your 'A' game or all of the tools in the toolbox, you’ve just got to find what you do have and find a way to go out there and make it work to get you the win.”
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The Browns defeated the winless Detroit Lions 13-10 on Sunday, but Mayfield skipped his postgame news conference. On Monday, Mayfield said he bailed because of frustration with his poor individual performance. He went 15-of-29 passing (51.7%) against the Lions for 176 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions for a rating of 53.2.
Mayfield missed open targets high, low and wide, and even Cleveland fans booed him after an incomplete pass in the fourth quarter.
“I've been booed before. I've been booed by the home and away [crowd],” former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre said Monday on "the SiriusXM Blitz with Brett Favre and Bruce Murray." “It happens. But [Mayfield's] physical toughness has to translate into mental toughness. I'm not saying he is or isn't [mentally tough]."
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Brees will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Favre has already been enshrined in Canton. They are the two quarterbacks Mayfield idolized above the rest while he was growing up, and both of them keep track of him on and off the field.
“I've gone without talking to the media before as well,” Favre said. “So he's not doing anything I've never done. You've just got to ride the wave, overcome and win games. The bottom line is win games.
“Cleveland fans obviously are impatient, and have been inpatient for a long time. But you start winning games again, they'll love you. It's just part of the gig.”
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Wednesday he believes Mayfield has a positive mindset despite the quarterback's frustration being on display. Mayfield has admitted he doubted himself in 2019, when he regressed following a promising rookie season. It would only be natural for his confidence to take a hit during another rough season.
“He's pouring everything he has into this week focusing on his preparation,” Stefanski said. “I think he is in a good place.”
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Mayfield's disastrous game against the Lions wasn't the first of its kind this season. Another of his nightmarish outings came in the previous game, a 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots on Nov. 14, when he passed for a career-low 73 yards.
Mayfield hasn't played well since Nov. 7, when the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 41-16 at Paul Brown Stadium.
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Everyone wants to know how much injuries are affecting Mayfield largely because of his unresolved long-term contractual situation and the fact that the Browns expected him to take a leap this year during his second season with the same offense and Stefanski.
As an NFL player, Mayfield hadn't experienced continuity with a playbook or head coach until this season.
The flip side of Mayfield and Stefanski being together for consecutive years is defenses have had plenty of time to adjust to the scheme and the quarterback's strengths within it. Playing wide to dissuade the Browns from rolling Mayfield out on bootlegs and keepers has become a trend. His injuries haven't made those plays easier to execute, either.
Mayfield is under contract through the 2022 season by virtue of General Manager Andrew Berry exercising the fifth-year option on his rookie deal in April for $18.858 million guaranteed.
Meaningful extension talks haven't taken place, though the Browns can still use next season to evaluate Mayfield and determine whether he should be their long-term answer at the sport's most important position.
Brees pointed out another aspect of Mayfield's 2021 season going sideways — wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. forced his way out of Cleveland a few weeks ago.
“They’ve had some variables this year,” Brees said. “Obviously, I think the toughest part is when the expectations are so high, which they were coming into this season. I think everybody kind of had them pegged as being a top-three AFC team.
“And, man, they’ve had their fair share of injuries and various things have happened that have certainly affected that — maybe some of the internal stuff with OBJ as well and a defense trying to find itself a little bit.”
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In 10 games this season, Mayfield has completed 176-of-275 passes (64%) for 2,166 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions for a rating of 91.3. Among 34 qualifying quarterbacks, his completion percentage is ranked 25th and his rating 22nd.
“I played in every game, and I didn't play my best week in and week out, with or without injuries,” Favre said. “I don't know Baker that well, but I love his competitiveness. I love how he just competes his butt off, and he's a winner.
“He's not the biggest. He's not the strongest. He's not the fastest. He doesn't have the strongest arm. But he is just a doggone good competitor.”
That alone won't be enough to earn him top-of-the-market quarterback money — about $40 million a year.
How much are injuries contributing to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield's wild inconsistency in 2021?
No one disputes Mayfield's desire to push himself.
He suffered a completely torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder Sept. 19 in Week 2 against the Houston Texans. He suffered a broken humerus bone in the same shoulder Oct. 17 in Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals. He sat out the next game — the only start he has missed with the Browns since they drafted him first overall in 2018 — Oct. 21 in a Week 7 “Thursday Night Football” showdown with the Denver Broncos.
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He has been wearing a harness on his left shoulder in hopes of keeping it from repeatedly dislocating. Similar to the Lions game, his accuracy was way off Oct. 3 in a 14-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings
“It absolutely affects it. I saw him — the game that he came back after injury, I remember seeing just in pregame. They had the camera on him a lot, talking about him coming back, and he had the shoulder harness on,” Brees said. “And I’m just watching him throw, and I’m like, 'Man, that’s a different throwing motion. Like his mechanics are altered a little bit based on the fact that he doesn’t have his same range of motion with what he would typically be doing with his front side, with his left side.'
“You can survive for a little bit with those adjustments, but long term those become habits that you develop and that can definitely affect you, affect your accuracy. So that combined with — that was just my observation with his left shoulder — I don’t know the extent of the knee or whatever else. But certainly, all those things play a factor.”
Mayfield said Wednesday the shoulder injury is “the new normal” for him, but he's still adjusting to more recent lower-body injuries that affect his throwing motion.
He has dealt with foot, knee and groin injuries, all in the past few weeks.
He said his left heel bothered him during a game for the first time in the Week 9 blowout win over the Bengals. He suffered a right knee contusion in the Week 10 blowout loss to the Patriots. Then he suffered a groin injury in the Week 11 nail-biter versus the Lions.
On the Browns' injury report, they removed the knee injury and added the groin injury Wednesday. Mayfield didn't practice Wednesday, but he returned Thursday. The team listed him as a full participant Thursday and Friday. Thus far, Stefanski has remained committed to playing Mayfield as long as he's deemed physically ready.
“Sometimes playing and playing injured gives the team a spark, even though you don't play that well, if that make sense,” Favre said. “Other players rise to the occasion. The defense for the [Kansas City] Chiefs, are they playing as stellar, top-notch defense right now because they're just that good or because the offense is playing poorly? I don't know the answer to that. But sometimes one picks up his game when others are struggling, so maybe that's the case right now with the Browns.”
Either way, the Browns need to win in Baltimore. They'll follow the road game with a Week 13 bye and then meet the Ravens for a rematch Dec. 12 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“That division is very, very close,” Brees said. “They could be right back in it very quickly.”
There should be a playoff-type vibe Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium, where Mayfield has prevailed once in three tries.
“They definitely do a great job of the atmosphere and the fans, just the production — you see them turn off the lights, and you can tell it's a prime-time game and they're definitely ready for it,” Mayfield said. “We're expecting a great atmosphere, and we have to play at a very high level to execute.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
Browns at Ravens
Time: 8:20 p.m. Sunday
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Drew Brees: Baker Mayfield's story with Browns has yet to be written