With Baker Mayfield watching from the sidelines due to multiple injuries to his non-throwing shoulder, Case Keenum started at quarterback for the Browns and helped lead Cleveland to a 17-14 win over the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football.
The game was an opportunity for Mayfield, who had been playing with both a torn labrum in his left shoulder (since hurting it while attempting a tackle in a mid-September game) and a fractured humerus, to see what the Browns looked like without him. And it was also a chance for the team, which got 146 yards rushing yards and a touchdown from third-string back D’Ernest Johnson (starting backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were injured), to see what the team looks like without Mayfield.
Now in his fourth season in the NFL, 26-year-old Mayfield is still playing out his five-year rookie contract and is eligible to sign an extension this offseason before he enters the final year of the deal. But the Browns, who have built their team around a strong running game and stout defense, may not want to offer the face of their franchise a deal without seeing him put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season, something Mayfield has yet to do in his young career.
Just a game over .500 (26-25) as a starter in the NFL, Mayfield played well as a rookie, regressed as a sophomore and then rebounded with his best season as a pro last year, winning 11 games and then following that up with a playoff victory. That career trajectory set the stage for this season, one that Cleveland was likely hoping to use to evaluate Mayfield’s future prospects and whether he is the right fit to be the team’s quarterback for years to come.
Instead, thanks to the injury which may keep Mayfield sidelined next weekend against the Steelers and potentially longer, the Browns, who are now 4-3 on the season, have seen their evaluation period cut short. With Thursday’s win, they’ve also seen that Keenum (21-of-33 for 199 yards with a touchdown pass) is just as capable of winning games as Mayfield.
It’s a tough situation for Mayfield to be in, as he is clearly in danger of heading into the fifth year of his rookie deal without a new contract in hand, the same thing that happened with James Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans. Winston is no longer a Buc and Mariota is no longer a Titan. It seems more likely than not that Mayfield, assuming his injuries don’t get worse, will remain a Brown at the end of the day. But it will probably be for less money than quarterback peer Lamar Jackson will get to stay with the Ravens and will almost certainly be for far less than Josh Allen, who was also in Mayfield’s draft class, already got to stay with the Bills.
“The patience in the process of measuring Mayfield’s contract and how he will continue to grow under this offensive staff is now incomplete,” according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports. “His shoulder injury means the team has to grasp the reality that it’s probably not going to get the data it needed to do an extension. If anything, Cleveland now has to consider that this is the second time in three years that Mayfield’s health has come to weigh on the direction of his future. To the point that Cleveland is very much coming to terms with the possibility of taking its presumed franchise quarterback into the final year of his five-year contract before making a long-term commitment.”
Depending on how it all shakes out in Cleveland, Mayfield’s short-term shoulder injury may actually end up boosting the long-term health of the Browns.