What went wrong with the Browns and what's next?
The Cleveland Browns (7-9) are nearing the end of a frustrating and disappointing season. The team that was considered a Super Bowl contender in September missed the playoffs and will finish with a losing record.
Terry Pluto said he was "confounded" watching the team's performance Monday night in Pittsburgh. The Browns lost to the Steelers, 26-14.
"What happened to that team that a year ago that went in there and hammered the Steelers?" he said.
Pluto is referencing the Browns' win over Pittsburgh Jan. 10, 2021, the team's first playoff victory since 1994. It was a stark contrast to the team that played this week.
Pluto puts the emphasis on quarterback Baker Mayfield's performance, noting that Monday he was sacked nine times, threw two interceptions, and had five passes batted down.
None of that occurred last January.
"Baker may not be the greatest ever, but he's good enough to get you to the playoffs and win a game. The Browns looked like what they wanted to be: tough, smart, accountable. And then there was that mess Monday night," Pluto said.
Mayfield has been a flashpoint for fans this season. The quarterback, in his fourth season with Cleveland, has been playing through an injury to his non-throwing shoulder that will need surgery. Some fans argue the injury is the reason for Mayfield's poor performance, while others say it's no excuse, since he's continued to play with a harness around the shoulder.
"To me, the turnaround is just stunning," Pluto said.
Pluto believes the team should have shut down the beat-up Mayfield for a few games this season and let backup Case Keenum play.
"A year ago the question wasn't simply do you want Baker back next year, but do you want to sign him to a long-term contract? Now it's become, he has one year left on his contract for 2022, do you even want him back for that year?"
The coach and the quarterback need to be the right football marriage. And right now, at the very least, Baker and Kevin Stefanski need marriage counseling."
A coach/quarterback rift
Pluto believes the solid relationship Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefanski built last year has frayed.
"[They] grew together last year and gained confidence in each other and confidence in themselves. Stefanski was brought in here to have success with Baker."
Now, Pluto says while it's unspoken, Stefanski and Mayfield are blaming each other for the breakdown.
"A quarterback and his people will think the coach isn't putting [them] the right place. The coach will say, 'These plays weren't all that bad, and they worked last year. [The quarterback] is messing up!'
The coach and the quarterback need to be the right football marriage. And right now, at the very least, Baker and Kevin Stefanski need marriage counseling," Pluto said.
Pluto said there will be some decisions coming in the offseason. Mayfield will have surgery on his shoulder and is expected to be ready to play next fall.
"If you don't want Baker, then what? How many times have we been down that road with Browns quarterbacks? Nobody has won more games for the Browns since they came back in '99 than Baker Mayfield. Nobody's come close."
"This team still has a lot of talent. It's not like the 0-16 Browns of 2017, or the 1-15 of 2016, or even the 6-10 Browns of 2019. But when your quarterback goes bad, you really struggle."