As Baker Mayfield looms, Tyrod Taylor struggles in Browns debut

CLEVELAND -- There were times Tyrod Taylor looked tentative Sunday, when the ball floated.

He seemed at times reluctant to make a throw, as he held the ball, and held it some more.

There were other times he was besieged; he was sacked seven times and was forced to run seven times (his eighth carry was a called run).

Overall, the numbers were not pretty, by his own admission: 15-for-40 for 197 yards with one touchdown and one interception, a rating of 51.8.

But Taylor’s bottom line was more succinct.

"At the end of the game, we still had a chance to win the game and that is really what it all boils down to," Taylor said.

The context that can never be avoided is that Taylor’s backup is the first overall pick in the draft. The Browns have committed to Taylor, but it’s not unfair to wonder how many 15-for-40 offensive-malaise games the Browns can handle before they decide it’s Baker Mayfield's time.

There is no indication that time is near, though. Coach Hue Jackson wasn’t asked about Mayfield after the game, or if he had considered a change. That’s how firmly the Browns have committed to Taylor.

Last week, general manager John Dorsey explained the thinking while admitting that what Mayfield did in preseason was "everything I thought he would do."

"What it takes [for Mayfield] is a broader understanding of what it takes to play the quarterback position in the National Football League, and it just doesn’t happen overnight," Dorsey said.

Dorsey said he aims to divide the season into quarters, which means a serious evaluation of individual players could take place every four games; the first such quarter would conclude after games at New Orleans, against the Jets (and rookie QB Sam Darnold) and at Oakland.

For much of Sunday's game, Taylor and the offense struggled. The Browns had the ball 19 times. After a scoreless first half, they scored a touchdown on an 86-yard drive fueled by the running game, scored a second touchdown on a 1-yard run following a fumble forced by Myles Garrett, and scored the game-tying TD on a 55-yard drive that lasted two plays, both fade routes.

But there were plenty of moments of struggle.

In the first half, the Browns punted on five possessions, then ended the half with a two-play possession that lost 14 yards and cost a field goal try. In the third quarter, Taylor was late on a deep post to Josh Gordon that could have been a touchdown had the pass been thrown earlier.

After the third-quarter touchdown, the offense punted three times in a row. And after Garrett forced a second fumble in the fourth quarter, the offense lost two yards on three plays.

Finally, with the game tied, the offense had four tries to win the game before Zane Gonzalez’s field goal try was blocked. The possessions ended with an interception and three punts in overtime as the Browns gained 16 yards in nine plays.

"I think the guys can see that we are an improved football team," coach Hue Jackson said. "But there are some areas that we have to clean up and clean up fast."

They'd better.

Because until the Steelers changed the momentum of the game with a fumble deep in their territory, the offense did little.

Consider: The defense forced six turnovers. Cleveland had a plus-five differential. And the Browns did not win. According to Elias, since 1999 teams that have had a plus-five turnover differential in a game have gone 132-4-1. The Browns have two of the losses, and one of the ties.

Jackson has committed to Taylor as the starting quarterback, and he said that Taylor "handled the game as well as you could expect him to in the first game."

"I have never been a stats guy," Taylor said. "Yes, it would be ideal to come out and light up the stat chart, but wins and losses are ultimately what a quarterback is judged on, and today was a tie. Like I said, you do not really know how to feel on that.

"Moving forward, I never pay attention to the stat category. The only stat that matters to me is wins and losses."

After watching the beating Taylor took in the opener, the Browns might be even more firm about their commitment to the 29-year-old. The last thing anyone wants is for the guy considered the future to go through mental anguish by getting beaten up as a rookie. Mayfield also won’t run for 77 yards the way Taylor did, nor will he score on a 20-yard touchdown scramble.

But the Browns offense converted just 5 of 18 third downs, and netted 150 yards in the passing game.

Taking a step forward to getting wins -- not ties -- requires better from the offense, and from its quarterback.