The Cleveland Browns were defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers 38-7 in Week 6, but they lost more than just a divisional matchup. They also lost virtually all momentum they had gained during their four-game winning streak, and there were times when it appeared they could lose starting quarterback Baker Mayfield for an extended period.
The 25-year-old came into the game with a rib injury and got battered by the Steelers' pass rush throughout the afternoon. He was sacked four times and was hit several more times.
Eventually, Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski pulled Mayfield for backup Case Keenum. This was the right move, because if he misses extended time, the Browns' playoff hopes could be sunk.
The Browns cannot continue to lean almost exclusively on the running game with Nick Chubb on injured reserve.
Now, to many fans, Cleveland could appear just as competitive with Keenum under center. To an extent, this could be true. The 32-year-old is well-versed in Stefanski's offense and can fill the role of game manager just fine. However, there are going to be points this year when the Browns need more than a game manager under center.
While Mayfield hasn't been asked to carry the offense often this season, he's shown flashes of his potential.
Not counting the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens games—contests in which the offense, defense and coaching staff appeared overwhelmed—he has completed 63.7 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. While these aren't eye-popping numbers, they're better than what Browns fans have become accustomed to seeing over the past 20 years.
More importantly, Mayfield has shown the arm strength needed to stretch the field, the athleticism to buy time in the pocket, the mobility to pick up the occasional first down and the confidence needed to bounce back from losses like the one on Sunday.
"Not discouraging. No matter the score, it only counts for one," he told reporters. "The good thing is we play both those teams again and we can learn and get better."
The young quarterback has shown a fair amount of chemistry with pass-catchers like Kareem Hunt and Jarvis Landry, and his rapport with Odell Beckham Jr. has been better this season than it was in 2019.
If Mayfield gets injured or the Browns turn to a different signal-caller, it would undo the progress they have made in the passing game since Week 1.
And this is a vital aspect of the season to consider. While there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about Mayfield, it's also important to remember he's six games into a new system with a new-look offensive line and without the foundation of a preseason.
Stefanski is the third play-caller he has had through 35 career starts. At least some of his issues are likely to be corrected as he gets more comfortable in the latest edition of Cleveland's offense.
"Nobody said Baker Mayfield is a scrub. He can play," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith tweeted. "... His track record says so."
It's up to Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt to help the former Oklahoma star return to the form he showed as a rookie.
One final thing to consider here is that if Mayfield goes down or can't play at close to 100 percent, the Browns don't have many alternatives. Keenum could be a fine spot-starter, but if he gets injured, Cleveland will be forced to turn to practice-squad quarterback Kyle Lauletta.
Cleveland signed the 25-year-old just before the Pittsburgh game and after Garrett Gilbert was poached by the Dallas Cowboys.
Lauletta has attempted five NFL passes with no completions, an interception and a rating of 0.0. If the Browns are forced to turn to rely on him, their season could effectively be over.