Matt Starkey/Cleveland Browns
Odell Beckham Jr. leaves Cleveland having improved at least one part of the game he plays: It took him only half the time to prompt his second NFL team to give up on him as it did his first—2½ years to 5. He’s getting better, yet one thing remained the same:
None of this was his fault. It was the fault of everyone else, especially the quarterback.
With the New York Giants, Eli Manning, two-time Super Bowl champion, had gotten old and couldn’t get OBJ the ball deep downfield. In Cleveland, he blamed Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield and Beckham clearly did not connect. It was not Mayfield’s arm that came up short but the offense that coach Kevin Stefanski installed when he arrived from Minnesota to end the Browns chaos that nevertheless continues without end.
Stefanski became Mayfield’s third head coach, with a like number of offensive coordinators, in three years: Hue Jackson (2018), Gregg Williams (interim, 2018), Freddie Kitchens (2019), and Stefanski (2020-present). Stefanski likes to balance a strong run game with a passing attack that features precision and timing. It fits Mayfield’s greatest asset—one he demonstrated in winning the Heisman Trophy and taking Oklahoma to the College Football Playoffs twice. He often throws his receivers “open” by releasing the ball before the receiver reaches the point of intersection. Beckham ran more imaginative routes and depended on the spectacular catch. This may have worked in New York when OBJ was a young colt but it does not lend itself to building trust with a QB who wants to know where his receiver will be and when.
The combination was a bust and so were Beckham routes—except for the one out of town. It could look as if a fidgety, happy-footed Mayfield did not know throw where he should. There has been much discussion about Mayfield’s footwork, which he has had to relearn under Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. At times the footwork can be problematic, in part because Mayfield played from the shotgun in college. If his feet have been in wrong places so have those of his coaches. They should have been planted in OBJ’s backside and those of other imprecise receivers.
When Beckham was injured and out for half of the 2020 season, Mayfield’s production rose. Was it because the remaining receivers depended on being precise and thus Mayfield suddenly appeared to be as well? Well, yes. But Mayfield and his coaches got on the same page in a way that he and the talented Beckham never did. Will this happen again now that the Browns are releasing Beckham, finally conceding that the grand experiment initiated by former general manager John Dorsey has failed?
If the experiment fell apart in Cleveland, Beckham began falling apart in New York. After a rocket-launch of his giant career—three Pro Bowls—he suffered serious injuries in his latter New York seasons. Though rehabilitated and willing to play hurt with the Browns, Beckham’s burst and sustained speed that ignited his game are not the same. He has displayed them (in a three-touchdown show to beat Dallas in 2020) but too seldom.
Perhaps with a different system and quarterback, these will miraculously reappear. That would be good for Beckham, but as USA TODAY columnist Mike Jones has pointed out, he lacks an element that he needs if he and a new team are to succeed—accountability.
That is something Beckham won’t find with a change of scenery. It comes from within. When he unleashed an attack on Mayfield through a video of the quarterback’s missed opportunities to get him the ball—it was found online and re-posted by his father Odell Beckham Sr.—Mayfield responded with restraint that garnered praise from even some who have been among Mayfield’s harshest critics: ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, for one. In a clip, both Stephen A. and fellow commentator Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback who has been more positive about Mayfield, sounded bowled over:
Stephen A. Smith—“I’ve got to give Baker Mayfield a lot of credit because no matter what is going on with him and Odell Beckham Jr, the bottom line is he shouldn’t have had to deal with something involving Odell Beckham Jr.’s daddy. [Smith literally spit out daddy.] Smith said it made OBJ look bad. “Baker Mayfield could have pounced on it . . . and nobody would have said a word. He did not do that. He left it for everybody else to do that. I think it was smart. I think it was shrewd. I think it was incredibly professional.”
Dan Orlovsky—“Stephen, I’m totally in agreement with that. I think it was one of, if not his best day, as a professional. If we remember the conversation about Baker Mayfield [when he was] coming out of school—. . . kind of egotistical, brash, childlike behavior and he’s never going to mature to be a franchise quarterback. And I think [how Mayfield responded] was his greatest day as a professional when it comes to [the franchise quarterback] role.”
It was the older, more experienced Beckham who behaved in a childish manner, including, apparently, not taking his coach’s phone call to discuss the mess that the Beckhams created to replicate what he did in New York: Facilitate his way out of town. [General Manager Andrew Berry reported that he had been able to talk to Beckham.]
If there is any good that comes from this for Baker Mayfield—and I hope trickles down to his team—it is that his handling of this volatile situation proved he has learned from his overreactions at Oklahoma and has shown his growth in a mature, positive way.
When the Browns were considering drafting him No. 1 and he was trying to sell himself, Baker Mayfield announced loudly and proudly that he was the only quarterback in the 2018 draft who could turn around Browns. It was a rash and dangerous statement. The Browns had been mired in such colossal failure since 1999 that when the NFL decided to give Northeast Ohio a team to replace the greatly loved one that Art Modell had moved to Baltimore, I feared that Mayfield would be sucked under by this maelstrom.
If he is, it will not be today and not because he did not meet the challenge of dealing maturely with a player who is exactly who he appeared to be—egotistical, brash, and childlike. I wanted Odell Beckham Jr. to succeed with Mayfield, but, based on OBJ’s history, I did not trust that Beckham would do his part to make this work. And, he didn’t.
NOTE: All of the enumerated Mayfield Memorandums can be found at: https://stevelovewriter.com/blog/