In two decades in the NFL, Drew Brees played through his share of injuries. He missed only four games over the middle 15 seasons of his career, which doesn’t happen without the ability to handle pain. Either does completing 68 percent of his passes, second in NFL history.
He knows what life’s been like for Baker Mayfield this season.
“Probably had a lot of the same injuries that he’s dealing with right now and they’re no fun,” Brees said Tuesday on a conference call. “Do they affect you? Yes, they affect you. They affect your weekly preparation because you’ve got to spend so much time on your rehab, prehab. Just taking care of your body and just getting to Sunday.
“But at the end of the day, there’s a different way to win each week.”
Mayfield and the Browns have struggled to get their hands on that fluid formula. They’re 6-5, haven’t won two straight since Weeks 2-4 and sit in last place in the AFC North and on the wrong side of the bubble in the wild card chase.
Mayfield’s inconsistency is perhaps the biggest reason for the unrealized expectations. Brees became a no-doubt Hall of Famer because of his accuracy. He has six of the 10 highest season completion percentages in NFL history, peaking at 74.4 percent in 2018.
Accuracy was supposed to be Mayfield’s calling card coming out of Oklahoma, where he completed more than 70 percent in each of his last two seasons, but he settled in at 61.9 percent over his first three years with the Browns.
He’s at 64 percent this season, including 58.8 percent with 692 yards, four touchdowns, three interceptions and an 80.2 passer rating in four games since he missed one after a bone in his left, non-throwing shoulder fractured Oct. 17 against the Cardinals. He already had a torn labrum in the shoulder and went with a bulkier harness after the break.
“The game that he came back after injury, I remember seeing just in pregame, they had the camera on him a lot, talking about him coming back and he had the shoulder harness on,” Brees said. “And I’m just watching him throw and I’m like, man, that’s a different throwing motion. Like his mechanics are altered a little bit based on the fact that he doesn’t have his same range of motion with what he would typically be doing with his front side, with his left side.
“And you can survive for a little bit with those adjustments, but long term those become habits that you develop and that can definitely affect you, affect your accuracy. That was just my observation with his left shoulder. I don’t know the extent of the knee or whatever else. But certainly all those things play a factor.”
Mayfield missed only the Thursday night game against the Broncos when the inflammation in the shoulder wouldn’t subside fast enough on the short week. It was the first game he’d missed due to injury since 2013 at Texas Tech and he’s continued to prove his toughness and desire to play.
He’s also been more open discussing the injuries. He didn’t practice Wednesday, was a full participant Thursday and listed on the injury report with left shoulder, foot and groin injuries. The left heel has bothered him for more than a month and got worse Nov. 7 against the Bengals, and the groin injury this week replaced the bruised right knee suffered Nov. 14 against the Patriots.
The heel and knee not only limited his scrambling ability, they hurt his passing.
“Yeah, especially for me, kind of an unorthodox throwing motion when it comes to my lower body, just how violent it is and your lower body is so important in your throwing motion regardless,” Mayfield said Wednesday. “So it’s been definitely a different issue to overcome, but the shoulder stuff’s kind of the new normal, I’m not really worried about that anymore, still trying to protect it as much as I can. But there’s plays to be made with my feet and that’s where I’ve been kind of frustrated with that.”
— Scott Petrak ct (@ScottPetrak) November 24, 2021
Frustration has been the theme lately. Mayfield walked straight off the field Sunday without celebrating the 13-10 win over the Lions and skipped his postgame interview after being booed by the home crowd.
“It hurts. Because he’s obviously laying everything he has out for the city of Cleveland and trying to put his team to where we need to be,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said of the boos on “The Jim Rome Show.” “So it’s probably not directed in the right way. I can understand their frustration, they want us to play to our talent level. But the reality is that the NFL is very difficult and injures are a huge part of it.
“I commend him for definitely battling through and he’s trying to give our team the best shot to win. As long as that’s the top of mind, I respect it.”
Safety John Johnson III understands the frustration.
“We watch how he practices, he wants to be perfect and that comes with anybody,” he said. “But we’ve got the utmost confidence. We see each and every day in practice he’s competing, battling, injuries or not, so we know on Sunday he’s going to give it his best shot. And that’s all we can ask for, put us in a position to win.”
The discussion around town has been whether Mayfield should be given at least a game off to rest and be replaced by expensive veteran backup Case Keenum. Coach Kevin Stefanski has shown no inclination to make a change, and the burden is on Mayfield to lead the Browns through the final six-game stretch, including four inside the AFC North, that will determine whether they return to the playoffs.
“For us to be successful, he’s got to be successful and he’s going to be at the helm of us doing things,” Smith told Rome. “As much as I love Case Keenum, it’s pretty clear that it’s Baker’s team, as far as the organization goes, and when we all signed up we expected him to be our quarterback.
“So we’re going to ride with him, and I appreciate the effort that he puts in, the time he puts in the training room just to get out there on the practice field or in the games is a lot. So gotta respect it.”
Mayfield’s statistics through the Browns’ first 11 games are close to those he posted last year.
In 2020 he was 180-for-294 (61.2 percent) for 2,108 yards, 17 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 92.3 rating. The Browns started 8-3.
This year, he’s 176-for-275 (64 percent) for 2,166 yards, 10 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 91.3 rating.
In the final five regular-season games last year, he completed 65.1 percent for 1,455 yards, nine touchdowns, an interception and a 101.4 rating. He has the chance for another strong finish this year despite the injuries.
So do the Browns.
“Even though there’s times where you might not be 100 percent or you may not have your A-game or all of the tools in the toolbox, you’ve just got to find what you do have and find a way to go out there and make it work to get you the win,” Brees said. “There’s a different way to do that each and every week.
“So I think we’re going to learn a lot about them over the remainder of this season. They obviously have some divisional games coming up. They could be right back in it very quickly. So the story’s yet to be written there. I think for them it’s just a matter of tuning out all the noise and just focusing on the business at hand.”
Mayfield hasn’t always seemed like himself this season, especially lately, but Stefanski likes where his head is entering the stretch run.
“I think Baker is in a good place,” he said. “He is pouring everything he has into this week focusing on his preparation. I think he is in a good place.”