For all the pats on the back and enthusiasm he exuded on the sideline during the Browns' narrow win over the Broncos on Thursday night, somewhere deep down Baker Mayfield must have been kicking himself in the ass.
Why in the hell would he have tried to make that tackle after an interception in Week 2?
Why in the hell didn't he throw the ball away against the Cardinals before taking an awkward hit in Week 6?
Even if he's like every other athlete who refuses to question past decisions, these are the questions Mayfield must be asking himself deep down as he heads into the unknown of his shoulder injury and future with the Browns.
Mayfield is currently dealing with a torn labrum and fractured shoulder bone in his non-throwing shoulder. He missed last Thursday's game and could miss more time. He'll need surgery eventually (he's trying to hold off until after the season) and will be sidelined at that point for four-to-six months.
The timing couldn't be worse. Mayfield has one more year on his rookie contract and is trying to work out a long-term deal with the Browns. Fellow 2018 NFL Draft pick Josh Allen already signed a deal valued at $43 million annually. Lamar Jackson, another 2018 pick, should have his massive deal inked soon.
Mayfield? Not only does he not have the awards and accolades of his draft classmates to warrant a similar deal, but he also now has the uncertainty of this injury to deal with. Will the Browns really mortgage their future on a middle-of-the-pack quarterback who seems more game manager than game changer?
That's not meant to be offensive. It's meant to provide context. In 2021, Mayfield is currently the No. 16 rated quarterback. That's where he finished in 2020 too. In 2019, he was 31 of 32 quarterbacks. In 2018, he was 18th. That's not the guy you hand the keys to the bank to.
This puts the Browns and Mayfield in an awkward position. Do they make him a Top 10 highest-paid quarterback in the NFL? Or do they look elsewhere for improvement at that position?
Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson could both be looking for new situations in 2022. Deshaun Watson remains on the trade block. Another quarterback will be surely become disgruntled and want out. Cleveland, with a loaded roster and now-stable front office and coaching regime, could be an attractive landing spot for any of those quarterbacks. That's bad news for Mayfield, especially right now.
If the Browns were winning games and he was playing, Mayfield could always point to the win-loss record as a reason why he's worth $30-$40 million annually. But what if the Browns win with Case Keenum under center, as they did on Thursday? What does that say about Mayfield?
Likely that he's not the reason they're winning. Perhaps even he's the thing holding the Browns back from being a true contender.
That's a tough lesson for a commercial star like Mayfield to learn -- that perhaps he's not as valuable to the Browns as he is to advertisers. But it's a lesson he'll either have to accept and take a smaller deal or deny and possibly be replaced by a more talented quarterback.
Athletes are great at compartmentalizing these swirling facts and focusing instead on the game, or in Mayfield's current case, physical rehab. But you have to imagine Mayfield is still mad at himself for trying to make that tackle and not throwing the ball away and, in general, protecting himself at all costs. All of those decisions and the injuries that followed have created a highly murky future for Mayfield. Only time will clear it up and ultimately answer the question of where he ends up.