Baker Mayfield’s honeymoon period is over — now it’s make-or-break time

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This week marked 23 months since Baker Mayfield officially joined the Cleveland Browns, which doesn’t have any particular numerical significance, except to show that there is no precise formula for determining when a quarterback loses his early-career tokens of forgiveness.

For Mayfield is no longer the new kid on the National Football League block. It is now Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jordan Love, and still Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins, who get the benefit of being in the zone of favor, where something less than excellence can be tolerated if it is accompanied by potential.

That is not the case for Mayfield, not any longer. It is less than two years since he was made the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, and he now needs to play like a trusted veteran if he is going to satisfy the Cleveland Browns diehards and if he wants to keep his job security, well, secure.

Fair and reasonable? Maybe, maybe not. Reality? Absolutely.

Records of 7-8-1 and 6-10 read a whole lot better than 0-16, but those figures didn’t align with what many thought Cleveland was capable of, especially last season, having embarked upon an impressive offensive rebuild that stocked Mayfield with the kind of pieces any QB would dream of.

After Odell Beckham Jr. was added to the roster, the Browns became a Super Bowl sleeper pick for many, so popular in that role that they flew smack into the radar, not beneath it. It was a sleeper pick that started off snoozing, never lifted out of the slumber, and ended up nearly comatose with a dire defeat to the awful Cincinnati Bengals to close out the campaign.

“If you look at what the Cleveland Browns organization has done in terms of surrounding Baker Mayfield with players, I don’t know if any organization has done a better job,” ESPN’s Damien Woody told Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan. “They’ve done everything imaginable and given Baker Mayfield every opportunity to be successful. That’s why if it doesn’t happen this year, there are going to be a lot of conversations about whether to exercise that fifth-year option.”

Mayfield is as divisive as they come, never slow to shoot from the lip and with a manner of bluntness that both captures admirers and magnetizes detractors. Mayfield’s habit of snapping at reporters and firing off incendiary comments, coupled with 21 interceptions, meant there was no shortage of fodder for criticism.

“It was humbling, the whole process of losing,” Mayfield told First Things First earlier this year. “I haven’t lost that many games in a season, ever. It was a humbling experience. My mentality, I think I was focused on too many of the wrong things, the uncontrollables, instead of just working and doing me. I was too worried about the outside, this opinion and that opinion.”

Mayfield has undeniable talent but he is operating in the toughest league in sports, playing a position where no amount of positive spin can arrest the slide when perception turns against you. Quite simply, it is time for him to show what he is capable of, emphatically and consistently. Rookie concessions are now of the distant past, especially with the way Cleveland has filled out their team.

“There are no more excuses for Baker Mayfield,” FOX’s Colin Cowherd said on The Herd. “(Cleveland) may be the only team in the NFL that has two elite receivers, two elite tight ends, two elite running backs and two potentially elite offensive tackles. Every single thing on that offense is really good. Baker Mayfield, no excuses. Offensively this team is totally stacked. I’m not taking a shot. Just don’t be dumb. Take away half your picks. If they don’t win, its Baker.”

Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are both in the top 10 in receiving yards over the past five years. Nick Chubb has the third most rushing yards the past two seasons, while Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing in 2017. Austin Hooper has been a top five tight end for the past couple of years.

Cleveland, with Kevin Stefanski having taken over from the ousted Freddie Kitchens, is counting on Mayfield to spearhead a fresh charge.

But the time is now.

“(Mayfield) will have opportunities going forward even if he fails this year,” FOX’s Marcellus Wiley told Speak For Yourself. “But in terms of how he is regarded, oh, it’s make or break.”

The NFL is always kind of make-or-break. Beyond a certain point, no one cares what someone did in college or how they have shown flashes of brilliance, how big their reputation is or where they went in the draft. If they’ve been around for a couple of years, public scrutiny demands that they show themselves to be worth the investment, especially when it comes to such a cherished positions as a starting quarterback.

Mayfield has a dynamite corps of offensive talent around him and a chance to thrive in a system built to rack up numbers. But while it still feels like he recently arrived in the NFL, his honeymoon period, if he ever truly had one, is over.

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