Editor’s note: This story was published before Friday’s news that Deshaun Watson wants to play for the Browns and is willing to waive his no-trade clause to play in Cleveland. It has been updated.
BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns had gone 635 days without a victory before quarterback Baker Mayfield’s arrival. Their futility had become such a punch line that Bud Light promised free beer in Cleveland if the Browns ever won again. In his debut, Mayfield delivered that win, unlocking beer fridges across Cleveland’s bars while giving the city hope for a football savior.
One who appears on his way out of town.
Mayfield on Thursday requested a trade, on the heels of Cleveland’s pursuit to land Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Browns were informed earlier in the day they were no longer in the running for Watson, but that changed Friday afternoon when news broke that Watson wants to play for the Browns. Cleveland had informed Mayfield’s camp it was “not accommodating his request,” but with Watson heading to Cleveland, it seems Mayfield’s request may be granted.
It appears Mayfield will become just the third quarterback in NFL history to go No. 1 overall in the draft and last four or fewer seasons with the team that drafted him, according to ESPN Stats & Information, joining JaMarcus Russell (Raiders) and Jeff George (Colts).
Over the years, Mayfield, according to multiple sources, had grown increasingly frustrated with a franchise that had made him the fourth quarterback in NFL history to play for four different head coaches in his first three seasons. After Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years just 14 months ago, the team signaled last offseason it was still unsure he was the long-term answer, refraining from engaging Mayfield’s camp on extension talks.
Gradually, the tensions grew.
This week, they rapidly boiled over.
“It’s just sort of a cumulative effect,” a source said. “He’s ready to try to find somewhere else.”
Only a week ago, sources say Mayfield remained committed to the Browns.
Mayfield struggled last season while playing with the torn labrum in his non-throwing left shoulder he suffered in Week 2. One season after finishing in the top 10 in QBR, he fell all the way to 27th in 2021, the largest QBR dropoff (-30.4) of any passer in the league.
Sources, however, had described his exit interview with coach Kevin Stefanski as productive. And his rehabilitation from the Jan. 19 surgery to repair the labrum is ahead of schedule.
After Cleveland traded for Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper on March 12, Mayfield reached out to Cooper, hoping to get him and Cleveland’s other pass-catchers in Mayfield’s hometown of Austin, Texas, for an offseason workout, similar to ones he’d held in the past.
Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry, meanwhile, repeatedly had publicly affirmed that Mayfield would remain their quarterback.
“We fully expect Baker to be our starter,” Berry said in January, “and bounce back.”
At the combine in February, Berry did tell Mayfield’s agent the Browns might pursue an All Pro-caliber quarterback, like Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Mayfield’s camp was also aware that short list could eventually include Watson, even with 22 civil cases pending alleging inappropriate behavior and sexual assault during massage sessions.
But last Friday, when a Texas grand jury declined to pursue criminal charges against Watson, the Browns made an aggressive move to land him.
That alone didn’t upset Mayfield, multiple sources said.
What did offend the 26-year-old was learning over social media — instead of from the Browns directly — that they were flying to Houston to meet with Watson.
“They didn’t inform Baker ahead of time, just as a courtesy,” one source put it. “It played out so publicly, it was just very insulting. … It really angered Baker.”
Mayfield responded with a statement that night thanking the city of Cleveland and its fans “who truly embraced who I am,” while Browns officials were flying back from Houston.
With many uncertainties, here is where my head and heart is. pic.twitter.com/psipN96cmh
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) March 16, 2022
Multiple sources, however, said the breaking moment for Mayfield came the following day.
On Wednesday, ESPN NFL insider Chris Mortensen reported a Browns source had told him that the team wanted to replace Mayfield with “an adult at that position.”
Thursday, not long after the Browns learned they’d been eliminated from Watson’s list — at least for the moment — Mayfield requested a trade.
“It’s in the mutual interest of both sides for us to move on,” Mayfield told ESPN’s Adam Schefter after making the request. “The relationship is too far gone to mend. It’s in the best interests of both sides to move on.”
Whether Mayfield eventually ends up being traded remains unclear.
What is clear is that the relationship fractured, just before it appears Cleveland is moving on to its next quarterback.