The Pittsburgh Steelers have a long history of “breaking” the Cleveland Browns. Since 2008, six Browns head coaches have been fired in the wake of a loss to the Steelers. And for many years, former Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was the winningest quarterback in the history of Cleveland’s First Energy Stadium, which opened in 1999, five years before Big Ben entered the league.
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The Steelers Swept Odell Beckham—and Now Baker Mayfield?—out of Cleveland
Breakage occurred several more times just last season. On Friday November 5, 2021, the Browns severed ties with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., just five days after the Steelers beat the Browns 15-10 in Cleveland, raising Roethlisberger’s regular-season record against the Browns to 24-2-1.
Now, ESPN staff writer Jake Trotter reports that the January 2022 matchup between the Browns and Steelers was, in effect, the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the relationship between Mayfield and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski.
According to Trotter, Mayfield had already “begun losing faith in Stefanski,” at least a week before the Browns visited Heinz Field for a Week 17 matchup between the two AFC North rivals.
“That feeling escalated the next week, on Jan. 3 during a Monday Night Football game in Pittsburgh. In what proved likely to be his final start for the Browns, Mayfield was sacked nine times. Afterward, he called out Stefanski’s game plan,” relates Trotter.
“When you’ve got [NFL defensive player of the year] T.J. Watt over there, and we’re not giving our rookie tackle [James Hudson] a whole lot of help, it’s not going to be good for us,” said Mayfield after the game, which was won by the Steelers, 26-14.
At one point Mayfield threw 10 consecutive incompletions, yet Stefanski kept his starting quarterback in through the final offensive play — a Mayfield interception — even though he was playing with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, an injury suffered in Week 2.
“According to multiple sources, those close to Mayfield … wondered at the time if the Browns were trying to make Mayfield look as hapless as possible in prime time, to potentially pave the way for the franchise to more easily explain why it might be moving on from him in the offseason,” writes Trotter.
It seems almost unfathomable that a team would undermine its franchise quarterback — the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft — in a game against its most bitter rival.
Then again, this is the same organization that recently saw former head coach Hue Jackson claim that “the team intentionally lost games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons,” as per Trotter, who also notes that an independent review found ‘no evidence’ to substantiate Jackson’s claims. (Hue Jackson was fired partway through the 2018 season — after a loss to the Steelers, of course — having posted a record of 3-36-1 during his tenure.)
Meanwhile, Mayfield has yet to be traded or released by the Browns, the situation complicated by the fact that he is owed a guaranteed salary of $18.858 million in 2022, the cost of his fifth-year option, which the Browns picked up on April 23, 2021.
There was at least one report that the Steelers would “pounce” on Baker Mayfield if he were an unrestricted free agent, though the report in question came out before the Steelers selected Kenny Pickett No. 20 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. It has also been suggested that Mayfield would sign with the Steelers “the very next day” if given the opportunity.
But for the moment at least, Mayfield remains on Cleveland’s roster, having lost his job to former Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson, who was traded to the Browns in mid-March and subsequently signed a five-year contract worth a guaranteed $230 million.
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