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Danny Cunningham column: Browns and Baker Mayfield breakup isn't pretty, but necessary

It appears that the Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield are headed for a messy divorce.

CLEVELAND — Breakups are never fun. Whether it’s in a relationship, at a job, or in a friendship, seeing a relationship crumble to pieces is never an enjoyable experience for anyone.

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That’s what the Browns and Baker Mayfield are publicly going through right now. Over the course of the last week, the Browns publicly courted Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson in an attempt to upgrade the talent level at the position.

The Browns' courtship of Watson was one that many fans wrestled with as he will not be facing criminal charges for sexual misconduct, but is currently facing 22 different accusations of the like in civil court. There’s no doubting that he would have been an extreme upgrade to Mayfield at the quarterback position, but doesn’t possess the type of character that NFL teams should want on the field.

That pursuit ended on Thursday morning when it was reported by various outlets that the Browns were no longer being considered by Watson, who has the final say of his destination because of a no-trade clause in his contract.

Of course, in between the Browns meeting with Watson and being told they were out of the running for his services, Mayfield fired off what came off as a goodbye letter on his Twitter account Wednesday night. He followed that with a trade request on Thursday afternoon, a request that the Browns told Mayfield’s reps they won’t be honoring, according to reports.

It is hard not to feel a little bit sympathetic for Mayfield, but at the end of the day, the NFL is a business. Moving on from Mayfield for a quarterback with as much baggage as Watson has would have created a very morally complicated situation for a high percentage of Browns fans, but exploring an upgrade at the position was the correct thing to do for the organization.

It’s a fair thing for fans to feel happy that the team missed out on the Watson sweepstakes while simultaneously feeling happy that the need for better quarterback play was realized.

Simply put, the play that Mayfield has provided on the field, both in 2021 and throughout his four-year tenure in Cleveland, hasn’t been good enough. There’s always been an excuse -- Freddie Kitchens, Odell Beckham, Jr., injuries -- but at the end of the day, his play needed to be better. Finding a franchise quarterback is a lot like finding your soulmate. When you know, you know, and four years in, the Browns felt like they should have known, and they’re not wrong.

Mayfield is responsible for plenty of exciting moments and great memories for Browns fans. Few will ever forget his explosion onto the scene in the 2018 come-from-behind win over the Jets, going to Cincinnati and lighting up other Bengals and former head coach Hue Jackson, that other time in Cincinnati when he led a magical game-winning drive, clinching the playoffs at home against Pittsburgh, and going to Heinz Field to win the franchise’s first playoff game since 1994. Those moments mattered to every Browns fan, but they don’t make up for the rest of the story. It doesn’t change the fact that 2019 -- a season filled with high expectations and hope -- was a disaster with Mayfield at the helm, and 2021 was even worse.

Mayfield was unquestionably the best quarterback the Browns have had since they returned to the NFL in 1999, but that doesn’t mean he was good enough to be a franchise quarterback. It’s important that is remembered. If Mayfield were a franchise quarterback, none of this wouldn’t be happening.

This isn’t as if Joe Montana or Tom Brady requested a trade out of town. The argument for not wanting to upgrade over Mayfield is that he was injured in 2021 after a stellar 2020 season. The reality is that Mayfield had eight pretty good games in 2020. The early part of the season was rough, and there were a few clunkers mixed in during the latter half, too.

Keeping a guy around long-term because he showed a flash of brilliance that is far outweighed by the bad in his career is how franchise leaders lose their jobs. Thinking that general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski were planning on entering year three of their partnership without at least looking for an upgrade at the position is foolish. Risking their jobs for a quarterback with far more bad than good in his career wouldn’t have been the smart thing to do, and we’re talking about Ivy League guys over here.

Speaking of Berry and Stefanski, it’s fair to say that, like Mayfield, this is the best tandem the Browns have had in a front office and coaching role since the team’s return just before the new millennium. Just like admitting Mayfield is the best quarterback since then, this isn’t exactly a high bar to clear. The brain trust of the Browns now enters a time when they’ll be under real pressure for the first time. In his first two offseasons in charge of the personnel, Berry has delivered in improving the roster, but hasn’t been tasked with finding a new quarterback. Whatever he decides will be the move that defines his tenure with the Cleveland Browns.

Breakups like the one the Browns and Mayfield are rarely pretty, but the front office is much less of a disaster than the quarterback play has been. There should be far more faith in Berry being able to find a franchise quarterback for the Browns than there should be in Mayfield ever becoming one anywhere.

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