Browns' late third-down call didn't give Baker Mayfield a chance to beat Chargers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Late in the fourth quarter, clinging to a 42-41 lead, Cleveland faced third-and-nine from its own 15-yard line. That’s when the Browns took the game out of the hands of their quarterback, Baker Mayfield. And placed it in the hands of their defense, which stood little chance of stopping Los Angeles’ quarterback, Justin Herbert.

Cleveland conservatively called a run. Punted. And Herbert, predictably, guided the Chargers to the inevitable go-ahead touchdown on the way to a wild 47-42 victory.

The Browns have, in so many ways, a championship-caliber roster. The running game behind Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and an overpowering offensive line remains a juggernaut, even when they have resorted to playing their backup tackles. The defense, when healthy -- as it wasn’t against Los Angeles (without defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and cornerback Denzel Ward) -- still looks capable of developing into a top-tier unit.

But Sunday served as a stark reminder for Cleveland. If the Browns hold any aspirations of coming out a loaded AFC that includes Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and now, rather emphatically, Herbert, they need their quarterback to be able to win a game like the one played at Sofi Stadium.

But to find out if he can, they first have to give him the chance. Which, with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter, Cleveland declined to do.

“To win a game like this, one that turns into a track meet, you have to have a superstar quarterback to win it,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley correctly stated afterward. “You can’t win a game like that if you don’t have a player like Justin Herbert.”

Herbert was indeed otherworldly, passing for 398 yards and totaling five touchdowns while laying an early claim to NFL MVP honors. Yet for a decent portion of the game, Mayfield quietly matched him, passing for 305 yards and two touchdowns himself without a turnover.

Mayfield admittedly was awful last weekend against the Minnesota Vikings while battling a partially torn labrum to his left, non-throwing shoulder. But how quickly everyone seems to have forgotten, Mayfield is also coming off a breakout third season in which he quarterbacked the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years. Along the way, from Week 7 to Week 15, which is not exactly a small sample size, Mayfield ranked third in the league in QBR, trailing only Mahomes and the eventual MVP, Aaron Rodgers.

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, who claims it was his decision to run the ball on the third-and-nine, said Monday that he doesn’t believe that call sent any message that he didn’t trust Mayfield or the passing game in that situation (and to Stefanski’s credit, he also said he felt “sick” about the decision he made there). But calling a run in that moment didn’t exactly evoke confidence in his quarterback, either.

On the whole, Stefanski has done wonders in helping Mayfield resuscitate his career. But on the heels of last season, the Browns no longer hold the modest goal of simply snapping playoff droughts. Following years of compiling high draft picks and signing big-money free agents, this team is now built to contend for a Super Bowl. And handing off in critical third-and-long, fourth-quarter situations won’t get them there.

Time will tell if Mayfield is built for those moments. So far, he’s yet to prove in the NFL he is that quarterback. But he’ll never do so if not given the opportunity. And the Browns won’t move forward until they do.