Would the Cleveland Browns be undefeated if they had started Baker Mayfield over Tyrod Taylor to open in season?
This has become quite a popular question in the football world, and I understand why. Though Cleveland is 1-1-1 on the year, it very easily could be undefeated. Likewise, where Taylor looked pedestrian more often than not when on the field, Mayfield’s outstanding play in last week’s victory over the New York Jets has fans thinking they finally have a franchise quarterback to support.
Despite this, I still don’t have a problem with the way the Browns handled their QB situation this year. Though Mayfield looks ready to end Cleveland’s long-running quarterback carousel, there’s no sense in wondering why he wasn’t on the field earlier.
Again, I get the urge for people to question the Browns in this situation. Before he left last week’s game with a concussion, Taylor was looking dreadful. The offense was in a funk, the ball wasn’t moving and the quarterback coach Hue Jackson spent all summer tabbing as his without-a-doubt starter couldn’t even muster 20 yards passing in one half of football.
So, when Mayfield hopped off the bench and quickly erased a 14-point deficit on his way to earning the starting job, people naturally called out the Browns for taking so long to realize he was better than Taylor.
Still, I don’t question how the team approached this heading into the season, regardless of the results we saw.
First things first — you can’t just say the team would be undefeated if Mayfield had started. There’s no way of knowing that’d be the case, so don’t bother wasting time with that argument.
You can say better QB play may have helped, but those are two different things. That said, if you add one made field goal to each of the first two games, plus an extra point in Week 2, and you completely eliminate the “would’ve won with Mayfield” narrative.
As for the choice to name Taylor the starter out of the gate, there was a very clear reason why Cleveland did this. It’s also logic which still holds up even as Mayfield preps for his first start with the team.
Simply put, the Browns were afraid of the possibility of ruining yet another rookie quarterback by playing him too early. Jackson had already watched two examples of this in Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer, with many wondering if the latter will ever mentally recover from the bashing he took. Knowing the team invested a first overall pick in Mayfield, having a clear-cut strategy in place to ensure he wasn’t thrown to the wolves right away was a necessity.
You don’t draft a QB first overall with the intention of making him your starter from Day 1. The Browns didn’t want to rush him, nor did they want to find themselves forced to do so thanks to their not having a viable vet to rely on.
Even now, having Taylor open the year was the best strategy to have when it came to Mayfield, especially if he was struggling to get used to life in the NFL.
Of course, Mayfield threw a wrench in that gear when he made a huge leap in training camp, no longer looking even remotely overwhelmed and creating a ton of buzz throughout the preseason. You could argue his performance last week wasn’t too surprising considering he appeared more than ready to go in August.
At the same time, Cleveland’s approach wasn’t just dependent upon Mayfield’s readiness. It was also about making sure the team surrounding him was in good enough shape.
The Browns’ offensive line was shuffled constantly throughout camp. The receiving corps featured a ton of unknowns outside of Jarvis Landry. There were many questions which needed to be answered about this offense before the team felt comfortable enough adding a rookie quarterback to the mix.
It all comes back to how much the Browns have invested in Mayfield, how badly they wanted to finally have a solution at the one position they haven’t gotten right in decades. When the time finally came to put Mayfield out on the field, not only did the team need to feel comfortable with his readiness, it also had to feel confident he could succeed with the players around him.
Cleveland would’ve been unable to do this without giving Taylor the reins to start the year. As a result, no matter how well Mayfield plays from here on out, you shouldn’t look back and wonder if the Browns’ initial plan was a bad idea.
In fact, he may end up succeeding because of it.