It’s been an eventful offseason on the Cleveland Browns quarterbacking front. The ongoing carousel of chaos finally spun off one of the primary characters on Wednesday with the trade sending Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers.

The trade, still pending approval based on Mayfield passing a physical, ends one of the most fascinating, interesting and fluctuating sports relationships between player and city in recent times. Mayfield was celebrated, castigated, championed, chastised and ultimately excommunicated in Cleveland for being exactly who he is--a very talented but brash and inconsistent player capable of being the reason why his team both wins and loses games.

Many in Cleveland just couldn’t buy into the roller coaster ride that was Mayfield any longer. The peaks were fantastic but the valleys were just too jarring. Fans were ready for the ride to come to a complete and final stop, and it has. Mercifully. Controversially. Uncomfortably.

Mayfield probably likes that conglomeration of emotions. He’s a player who thrives on conquering outside doubts about himself. Nothing can be easy or static with Baker and that’s largely by his own design. He needs the edge, the chip, the perceived (and often quite real) slights directed at him. He’s the guy who isn’t afraid of experiencing the agony of defeat because he savors the thrill of victory that much more because of it. Many fans simply can’t handle that mentality.

Many media members wanted nothing to do with it, too. Mayfield’s sharp sense of self-awareness and willingness to strike back at professionally negative critics (Hey Tony!) made for some great moments but also some serious cringes. Speaking as someone who was at some of those press conferences in Berea, the drama definitely got old.

That was the accepted cost of doing business with Mayfield. Former GM John Dorsey knew that cost and was more than willing to pay it to have Mayfield lead the team from the depths of one win in two seasons. And Mayfield did that. Too much of what Mayfield accomplished in Cleveland gets whitewashed because of the enmity and fatigue he coaxed out of, well, everyone…

  • Set the NFL rookie passing TD record (since eclipsed by Justin Herbert)
  • Stabilized the most transient position in pro sports in the 21st century
  • Quickly adapted to multiple schematic and coaching changes
  • Led the Browns to their first playoff win since 1994 and did so despite the head coach not being available. Did this in Pittsburgh, no less. Made the play that won the next playoff game too; unfortunately, the officials did not agree…

Yes, Mayfield threw too many interceptions. He missed too many throws he should have made, either by trying riskier options or simply not seeing the best open option. He didn’t handle success with class and often handled failure with infectious brooding and blame. Even when Baker pointed the finger at himself after poor performances, there was always a keen sense that the fingers on the other hand were all simultaneously pointing at others.

When things went very bad for both Baker and the Browns in 2021, enough became enough. Mayfield shoulders an inordinate amount of the blame for playing through a shoulder injury that should have landed him on I.R. The Browns stubbornly sticking with an obviously unhealthy and physically compromised QB when they joyously paid Case Keenum over $6 million to be his capable backup is an organizational failure with extreme malfeasance. The Browns and Kevin Stefanski should receive A LOT more scrutiny for that decision, but Mayfield’s unlikeability factor trumped any real negative consequence for that terrible choice.

That is Carolina’s problem now. Well, one of Carolina’s problems. The Panthers now have the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks from the 2018 draft on the roster. Both Mayfield and Sam Darnold play the same position and will earn $18.9 million in fully guaranteed salary in 2022. Both will be free agents after the season. Neither has played consistently well enough to engender any confidence they are the long-term solution in Charlotte or anywhere.

Just for good measure, the Panthers also have Matt Corral as a rookie. They traded up in the draft to land Corral, a player who earned a lot of stylistic comparisons to Mayfield while playing at Ole Miss. Something’s gotta give, and it won’t be Mayfield. The Panthers might say they have no plans of moving on from Darnold, but paying him almost $19 million to not be in Charlotte is better than paying him that much money to rot on their bench as a daily visible reminder of their own bad decisions. Expect Mayfield to start, Corral to be an eager No. 2 and Darnold to wind up in Washington or Seattle when those teams realize their current QB plans aren’t going to work--with the Panthers paying the tab.

Back to Cleveland. We should get a ruling on Deshaun Watson in the next week. It’s long overdue, though perhaps it’s the penance the Browns must suffer through for making such an extraordinary move. My best guess is Watson gets suspended for 10 games and it gets reduced to eight for “time served” in not playing in Houston in 2021. It could be a full season but I doubt that happens. It could also be no suspension but that seems unlikely as well.

Doing what the Browns did to import Watson with his considerable baggage and risk illustrates just how little faith the team had in Mayfield--a competent starter who can guide a good team to success. Watson certainly can be better than that. The Browns bet $240 million and quite a bit of good faith from the fans that he will be.

Cleveland has a good team. The Browns are probably better than you think, especially if you’re outside of Cleveland. The defense has all the ingredients to be the best in the league in 2022. The offense has three starter-worthy RBs, one of them being the exceptional Nick Chubb, and a new No. 1 receiver in Amari Cooper. David Njoku is being paid like the top-shelf TE he has hinted he can be. They have young depth with some promise and a lot of speed at WR and a pretty darn good (but overhyped) offensive line. It just needs someone more reliable and stable than Mayfield to guide it.

If Watson can’t be that guy because of suspension, it’s a brutal blow to GM Andrew Berry and the Browns. That’s also true if Watson comes up short as a player, a possibility that isn’t out of the question despite being quite unlikely. But moving on from Mayfield, however protracted and needlessly ugly as the divorce became, was necessary after the management and coaching staff lost confidence and faith.

Mayfield now has to reprove himself with an emphatically lesser supporting cast. He has a notably negative history with the head coach, a starting wide receiver and the new offensive coordinator in Carolina. His personality is not for everyone. It shows the desperation in Panthers coach Matt Rhule to try and salvage his NFL tenure. The crazy thing is, it could actually work. I wouldn’t bet on it, but Mayfield gives Carolina and Rhule a better chance to win than any other options they had. And Mayfield can thrive when the world is down on him. He’s done it before. It will be fascinating to watch and see if he can do it again.