And yet, as the Browns approach the precipice of becoming one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments, they have arrived at an opportunity to not only salvage their season but completely revive it.
Back-to-back showdowns against the division-leading Baltimore Ravens represent a two-game tilt that could effectively end Cleveland’s season or could suddenly catapult the Browns into the driver’s seat of the still wide-open AFC North race.
“Big-picture wise, everybody wants to act like the world is falling,” Mayfield said. “No, we haven’t played to our potential, and we know that more than anybody. ... We know what’s at stake. We know what we need to do.”
Whether Mayfield and the Browns are capable of sweeping the Ravens is another story.
The offense, which has scored more than 17 points once since Oct. 10, is a shell of the unit that finished third in the league in rushing and sixth in efficiency last season. Cleveland does have other issues, including a defense that has been inconsistent from week to week.
But most glaring is the consistent poor play of its quarterback.
Coming off last year’s breakthrough season, Mayfield appeared bound to receive a lucrative extension offer from the Browns. Now, he seems destined to enter the final year of his rookie deal next season without an extension at all.
Laboring through shoulder, knee and foot injuries, Mayfield is in the worst stretch of his career. Last season, he posted a 60-plus QBR in 11 different games. This year, he’s only accomplished that feat once -- in a victory over Cincinnati on Nov. 7 -- since the season-opening loss at Kansas City. And his recent struggles culminated with his worst performance of the season Sunday.
Against the winless Detroit Lions, he completed 15 of 29 passes for 176 yards. His QBR of 8.6 (on a 0-100 scale) was the 12th-worst outing of any quarterback this season. Mayfield also threw two interceptions, including one in the fourth quarter which prompted a smattering of boos from the FirstEnergy Stadium crowd aimed directly at him.
"Those are probably the same fans that won't be quiet while we're on offense and trying to operate. So, don't really care," Mayfield defiantly said of the boos.
In rainy conditions, Mayfield misfired to open receivers all day.
His first interception came on Cleveland's second possession, when he overthrew wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who was wide open breaking down the middle of the field. All told, Mayfield was off target on 32.1% of his throws, the 12th-worst game total for any quarterback this season.
Mayfield was so upset with his play that he declined to speak to reporters following the game. And after taking a knee on the final snap, he walked directly to the locker room -- not shaking hands with the Lions or congratulating his teammates on the field.
"My guys know that all I care about is winning. But I'm going to be frustrated if I do stuff to make it harder on us. And I did yesterday," Mayfield said. "But I'm never going to take winning for granted. That's something that's very hard to do in this league. And it hasn't been a very common thing around here for a long time.
"So, I'm just frustrated with how I played. That's how I've always been. [My teammates] know how I'm going to come back and attack this week."
Yet despite his struggles, and as improbable as it might seem, Cleveland has put its hopes of resuscitating this season on a banged-up Mayfield making a remarkable turnaround.
Coach Kevin Stefanski has made it clear he won’t be going to backup quarterback Case Keenum, if only to give Mayfield time to heal.
Stefanski said it was his call not to rest Mayfield against Detroit. And while Stefanski admitted that Mayfield was “battling” through his injuries -- a torn labrum to his non-throwing shoulder, a right knee contusion and left foot soreness, which rendered Mayfield unable to walk without a limp during the second half against the Lions -- he pushed back on the notion that they were hampering his performance in any significant way.
“If he’s limited and can’t play up to his potential, those are things that we'll discuss,” said Stefanski, who attributed Mayfield’s accuracy decline to “a combination of things.”
“He has played pretty well at times in the last few weeks. ... We will never do anything that is not in the best interest of the team. ... He’s ready to play and ready to help the team win.”
Mayfield has bounced back from adversity before, and he has regularly defied the odds. That’s how he went from two-time college walk-on to Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick. That’s also how, after a rocky first few weeks, he quarterbacked Cleveland to its first playoff appearance in 17 years last season.
But, by his own admission, Mayfield has “never been this banged up,” either. He’s also never struggled to this degree for such a lengthy period.
Cleveland has a huge opportunity to turn its once promising season around against the Ravens on Sunday night (8:20 p.m. ET on NBC).
But only if Mayfield can somehow turn his around first.