The Cleveland Browns' 26-14 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers in primetime last night encapsulated their lost season. The defense started strong and then tailed off and couldn't stop the corpse of Ben Roethlisberger from scoring several touchdowns after the Steelers hadn't managed to record more than 13 points in the last two weeks. Nick Chubb was bizarrely ineffective. And, of course, Baker Mayfield killed his team's momentum at every given opportunity, topped off with a backbreaking interception and another when the game was already decided just for fun.
On Tuesday morning, Mayfield is the one taking all the heat. His detractors are taking a victory lap and his supporters are finding the nearest hole to hide in. It was ugly, no doubt; Mayfield somehow managed only 185 yards despite attempting 38 passes. His interceptions were gross. And it wasn't even the worst performance of Mayfield's season.
But I will be brave and say Kevin Stefanski is to blame.
Mayfield has been bad for most of this year but it is widely known he is hurt. He separated his non-throwing shoulder early on in the year and has only gotten more banged-up since. He had to miss two games, their Week 7 matchup against the Broncos and their Week 15 contest against the Raiders. Apparently nobody told Stefanski that Mayfield is hurt, because he kept forcing Mayfield to be the primary playmaker and it cost Cleveland games.
Logic would dictate that if the QB is hurt, the offense should lean on the run game to produce. Stefanski just didn't do that last night. Nick Chubb, widely considered the second-best running back in the league, had 12 carries all night. The Steelers have a stiff run defense, to be sure, but the alternative was letting Mayfield throw it all night, and that obviously didn't work out. The same problem cost the Browns an upset win over the Packers on Christmas, where Chubb was getting whatever he wanted on the ground all night but when crunchtime rolled around Stefanski had Mayfield throw it and he ultimately threw a pick.
The last two games for the Browns have shown that Stefanski hasn't yet learned to go away from his system when it makes sense, to be adaptable in the moment. Defenses want Cleveland to throw the ball, and Stefanski willingly obliges even though Mayfield is far from 100 percent. In the last four games Mayfield has played, the Browns have averaged 35 pass attempts per game but only 19 completions. In that same stretch, they've averaged only 22 rushing attempts per game despite having Chubb, one of the NFL's best run blocking offensive lines, and, for a few of those games, Kareem Hunt. That's an acceptable ratio if Mayfield were completely healthy and the Browns were winning, but neither of those things were true and Stefanski stuck to his guns anyway.
Mayfield has lost the Browns a few games this year, but Stefanski is more at fault because he keeps asking Mayfield to make plays he simply cannot make right now. It's what the system calls for, but sometimes the system isn't right. Stefanski needs to figure that out or he won't be a head coach for long.