Baker Mayfield Could Be Saved by Total Reset in Cleveland

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 31, 2019

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns' 2019 campaign turned into an unmitigated disaster, but the organizational decisions made afterward don't fall into the same category.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield stands at a crossroads between those two points.

The young signal-caller regressed in his second season under the direction of now-former head coach Freddie Kitchens and his staff.

So, who exactly is Mayfield? Is he the player who set an NFL record with 27 passing touchdowns as a rookie and nearly took home NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, or is he a one-read quarterback and turnover machine?

The answer likely lies somewhere in between, which is why it's vital for the Browns to find the right people to not only develop Mayfield's obvious talent but also to spearhead a cohesive vision for the franchise with the 2018 No. 1 overall pick leading the way.

The issues within the franchise run so much deeper than a struggling quarterback, though. The fundamental flaws begin with team owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and their preferred organizational structure. It's been glaringly obvious since the start of their tenure.

The Haslams employ a typical board-room approach, much like a business. Each head of a different department answers directly to the owner. This caused infighting throughout different regimes. The fractured setup became most obvious during the ill-fated Sashi Brown-Hue Jackson era and resulted in the league's second-ever 0-16 campaign. But it continued into this year.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press
Video Play Button
Videos you might like

John Dorsey served as the Browns general manager for the last two seasons before being fired Tuesday. He and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta didn't exactly see eye to eye on some major decisions. For example, Dorsey led last year's coaching search that resulted in Kitchens' receiving a promotion from interim offensive coordinator to head coach. DePodesta preferred Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski for the role, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.

As such, the organization has never been aligned with a singular vision. As ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported, front-office members felt like they "lost the battle" to DePodesta. That's not how healthy organizations operate.

Did Dorsey fail enough to warrant his dismissal? Maybe not. He certainly put a talented roster on the field. But that's not the point. A significant difference exists between talent acquisition and team-building.

A team could look great when you pull up rosters on the latest edition of Madden, but it may not always work in cohesion when all those stars are on the field together. The 2019 Browns now serve as the poster boys for what not to do when cobbling together talent in an attempt to jump-start a listless franchise.

"While John helped greatly improve our team's talent and we are excited about the core players on our roster, we fully recognized that our team did not meet its potential on or off the field and additional changes in leadership give us the best opportunity for success in the future," the Haslams stated in a news release Tuesday.

"As we conveyed on Sunday and our players reiterated [Monday], bringing in a strong leader with our head coach is our priority."

An emphasis on leadership is vital and will come full circle in a minute regarding how all this applies to the players, specifically Mayfield.

The Browns' sole mission during the next hiring cycle is simple yet difficult to achieve: Find an organizational structure that isn't at odds with itself. The Browns lack synergy. Whoever brings an all-encompassing approach and aligns the franchise is the right choice. Who that is and who they might displace shouldn't matter.

Now, the Haslams already cast a wide net to find their next head coach, which is the smart approach to find the right person—not the right name—for the job. They've already requested interviews with myriad candidates.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Before that process gets too far down the road, a chain of command must be established. The Haslams' penchant for rabbit ears must be eliminated for Cleveland to ever find success. Thus, a promotion for DePodesta might be in order. The former baseball guru doesn't need to take over football operations and probably won't, but the next executive vice president of football operations or general manager (whichever designation is used) must be aligned with the team's vision.

A trickle-down effect will then occur throughout the organization. Instead of having multiple voices, the franchise can start pulling in the same direction.

The MMQB's Albert Breer reported the Browns football operations will be dependent on the next head coaching hire. Normally, that approach is not ideal. Generally, teams prefer a top-down chain of command. But the balance of power is dependent on the individuals involved. If the next head coach helps hire the general manager and allows the executive to do his job knowing the two are in lockstep (think: the Buffalo Bills), success will follow.

An aligned approach is ideal no matter how it's achieved.

This brings us back to Mayfield and how he can dramatically improve under these new conditions.

First, Mayfield knows he failed to build upon last year's momentum. Instead of enjoying a postseason run, the Browns are at home. The quarterback will enter his third season on his fourth head coach and offensive coordinator.

"I'm up for any challenge, always," he said even before the Browns fired Kitchens, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. "I've got to do my job, first and foremost. That's the main part of being a quarterback for this franchise: taking care of my job, leading these guys, showing up every day and being the same person consistently."

The team's downturn doesn't fall entirely at Mayfield's feet. Yes, he could have been much better. At the same time, an inept coaching staff held back the entire roster and never maximized all the available talent. Kitchens' own offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, called the team a "total mess," according to The Athletic's Zac Jackson.

Furthermore, the lack of discipline on the field startled onlookers. The same mental mistakes occurred every week. The team faltered every time it faced adversity. The plan crumbled almost immediately once the game began. Players openly argued with the head coach on the sideline. Star receivers continued to chirp. The team's most talented player, defensive end Myles Garrett, received an indefinite suspension because he hit an opponent over the head with his own helmet.

Kitchens was in over his head and directionless. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry didn't pull any punches when asked what the team needs most after its lost season.

"Leadership. Just leadership," he said, per NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala.

Mayfield, in particular, is starving for structure, discipline, attention to detail and hard coaching. He needs the organization to find the right person to challenge him.

David Richard/Associated Press

"It was a different year for me, going through it with some new pieces and trying to find my way," he said, per Cabot. "I definitely didn't have it all figured out, and it's been a process along the way, much like everything else this year. A lot of life lessons. ... I'm going to come back a different animal come springtime."

Mayfield's comments show exactly why all these moving pieces make sense. He was lost in a sea of incompetence. His bad habits weren't curtailed. Instead of maximizing his strengths, the coaches accentuated his weaknesses. Yes, some of that falls on Mayfield. But young players crave direction, and he didn't receive much.

The 24-year-old gunslinger is comprised of equal parts limitless passion and unbridled talent with a chip on his shoulder that's more like a boulder. He's almost always going to err on the side of aggressive play—which, oftentimes, gets him in trouble. As such, he needs to be reined in at times.

Still, Mayfield is the centerpiece of the organization. He's the draw. Others around the league remember what he looked like when he came out of Oklahoma and how he played a year ago. They haven't forgotten. Even after a down year, he is still the vacant coaching job's biggest selling point—despite ownership's previous miscalculations.

This time, the Browns won't be looking to hire Baker's buddy. Instead, team brass will search for a head coach with a vision of what Mayfield can be. Spoiler alert: He's a franchise quarterback with a competent coach leading the way.

   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.