BEREA, Ohio — How committed are the Cleveland Browns to starting Tyrod Taylor at quarterback this season?
Let’s start with coach Hue Jackson telling me Monday he doesn’t plan to give No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield any first-team reps during the preseason, even after witnessing Mayfield’s buzzy debut last Thursday.
“I have not changed. I’m not going to change,” Jackson said. “Tyrod Taylor’s the starting quarterback here, and Baker’s the future of our organization.”
Speaking as practice began the same day, Browns general manager John Dorsey flatly gave the same one-word answer — “Nope” — to a series of questions about whether he could envision a scenario in Week 1, or Week 9, or any other point this season in which Mayfield would overtake Taylor (who, by the way, had an impressive preseason start himself).
“Because Tyrod Taylor has demonstrated, one, that he’s a good football player. He’s taken the [Bills] to the playoffs,” Dorsey told me. “I think he demonstrated it in the first series against the New York Giants that he’s more than capable of leading this bunch. He’s had a great offseason, he’s had great OTAs, he’s had a great training camp — there’s nothing that leads me to believe you would vary from that mantra. Because, as we’ve said, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
“This is for the betterment not only of the organization long term, but it’s also better for the development of Baker, in terms of when it comes time for him to actually step on the field and play … Guess what? He understands the complexities of a very difficult position. I think the adjustment will be that much easier for him to be able to recognize defense, understand the speed of the game. I think it’s just a natural transition into that position. And why vary from the plan we have in motion right now?”
The story of the 2018 Browns isn’t all about the quarterbacks, though that’s certainly a core part of it in a place where Derek Anderson owns the only Pro Bowl appearance among 28(!!) QBs who have started regular-season games since the Browns’ post-relocation rebirth — now entering its 20th season with exactly one playoff appearance. There’s another top-four pick, cornerback Denzel Ward, and last year’s No. 1 selection, defensive end Myles Garrett. There’s the saga of receiver Josh Gordon, whose rocky road back to the NFL has taken him to Florida for treatment the past three weeks, rather than here for practice. There’s the spate of practice dust-ups, including a recent shouting match between offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. There’s the trade dump of former first-round pick Corey Coleman, and a dalliance with Dez Bryant, and a roster reload since Dorsey’s hiring in December that buoys Jackson’s typical optimism, notwithstanding the infamy of 0-16 — and a 1-31 record over the past two years with five different starting quarterbacks, none of them still on the roster.
“Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Joel Bitonio, David Njoku, all those guys, I’m excited about that group,” Jackson said. “I look at defense and it’s Myles Garrett and (Christian) Kirksey and Jamie Collins and (Mychal) Kendricks and (Joe) Schobert. I mean, we have some guys. Now, we’ve got to go play good. But I think we have a good start and we’re headed in the right direction.
“I’ve wanted to win since I’ve been here. I didn’t come here for any other reason. It just hasn’t happened that way. So, on we go. But we’re going to win now.”
To do that, you need a quarterback — and while the Browns have seen early signs they might have two, they’re not backing off the pecking order, despite all the history that suggests things are likely to change.
Of the 22 quarterbacks previously taken No. 1 overall in the common draft era, 14 started in Week 1 as rookies, according to NFL Research. Five others took over the starting job by Week 13. The outliers are Michael Vick, who made two spot starts in 2001; Carson Palmer, who didn’t play a snap in 2003; and epic bust JaMarcus Russell, who started the meaningless 2007 finale. (All three started Week 1 the next year.)
Go back through summer sentiments about the top QB chosen in other drafts, and you can find almost identical quotes to what Dorsey and company are saying now. We’ve heard previous coaches and GMs talk about letting the likes of Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky sit and learn as rookies … only for circumstances to put the inexperienced signal-callers on the field within weeks. None of the other three teams that drafted quarterbacks in the top 10 this year have ruled out playing them as rookies; the New York Jets already moved up No. 3 pick Sam Darnold to first string in practice after his encouraging initial outing. John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning, among others, turned out OK after playing immediately — and not playing particularly well — as rookies.
On the flip side, you can pick apart how many of those No. 1 picks didn’t have a QB as accomplished as Taylor, 29, in front of them. And how many played on terrible teams. And how many failed to develop into franchise QBs after playing early — Jeff George, David Carr, Tim Couch, Russell, et al. And what a transition it is going from Oklahoma’s “Air Raid” offense to the NFL, no matter Mayfield’s innate feel for the game and the praise NFL scouts offered before the draft for the job Sooners coach Lincoln Riley did developing Mayfield’s understanding of protections, defenses, etc.
“I think we owe Baker the right opportunity, when he walks in, to hit the ground running with a team around him that he can go win with,” Jackson said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve got Tyrod Taylor, who’s going to start this thing and lead the group and play great football, and I think we feel very comfortable with that.”
The excitement over Mayfield’s debut — 11-of-20 passing for 212 yards and two touchdowns, a performance NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger called “one of the greatest rookie starts to a career that I have ever watched” — isn’t lost on Jackson. Or Dorsey, who was the Green Bay Packers’ college scouting director when Aaron Rodgers spent three years backing up Brett Favre and the Kansas City Chiefs’ GM when they drafted Patrick Mahomes to redshirt under Alex Smith.
“Yeah, but it’s preseason,” Dorsey said. “The complexities of a defense are very minimal, as we well know, right now.”
Standing nearby, Browns assistant GM Eliot Wolf added: “And Tyrod had a perfect passer rating.” Indeed. The veteran QB completed all five of his passes for 99 yards and a touchdown against the Giants. Browns QB coach Ken Zampese referred to Taylor this week as “an untapped player in the league” who’s only going to get better in Year 8, with the first four spent on the bench in Baltimore.
No matter how firm the Browns are publicly, of course, every mistake by Taylor, every turnover, every loss is going to bring questions about when they might turn to Mayfield, 23. Taylor is used to that, having been benched (and quickly un-benched) last season with the Bills, who traded him to Cleveland in March for a third-round pick and visit the Browns on Friday. Fellow players are bound to hear it, too.
“We can’t let it affect us in here. We can’t let it affect our mindset. We know there’s a lot of noise outside of this building and we’ve got to keep everything intact,” receiver Jarvis Landry told me. “Bad games are going to happen. Interceptions are going to have happen. Tom Brady f—ing throws interceptions. But at the same time, it’s (about) how do we respond from that? There’s going to be negativity, but how do we respond?”
One thing the Browns accomplish with their stance is keeping each passing week with Mayfield on the bench from becoming a public referendum on his development, as it was for the Los Angeles Rams with Jared Goff a couple years ago. If Mayfield isn’t playing, well, that’s part of the plan. Then again, Goff didn’t flash in the 2016 preseason the way Mayfield did against the Giants.
What happens if Mayfield simply outplays Taylor from here?
“Time will tell,” Dorsey said. “We’ll see.”
Could the Browns trade Taylor, as the Eagles did Sam Bradford a week before the 2016 opener, clearing the way for No. 2 pick Carson Wentz? Could they simply go back on all these proclamations and turn to Mayfield at some point if they feel it’s not going to compromise the big-picture plan? It’d sure make for an interesting conversation between Jackson and Dorsey.
For now, their message is clear: While the Browns believe they have a chance to start winning some games, finally, they’re not going to compromise their future — or Mayfield’s — for the present.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.