Updated October 21, 2021

Could Case Keenum Take Baker Mayfield's Job If He Replicates His Minnesota Magic?

The Cleveland Browns were hit with a big blow this week when it was announced that Baker Mayfield will be forced to sit out Thursday night's tilt against the Denver Broncos after reinjuring his left shoulder. That means veteran Case Keenum will get his first start since 2019. 

Mayfield is dealing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and, unfortunately, this is not something that will heal quickly. Mayfield will most likely need season-ending surgery to fix it. While the former No. 1 pick has been adamant that he will not miss the season, reality will eventually sink in that this is more serious than they are letting us know.

Either way, the Browns will rely on Keenum against the Broncos in Week 7 and possibly longer than that. If Cleveland does need Keenum for an extended period of time, what does that mean for the Browns? Can they still compete? What happens to Mayfield if the Browns go on a run with Keenum?

There are a lot of questions, so let's dive into why Keenum can make the Browns a winner.

How the Browns Can Win With Keenum

The problem for the Browns is not that Keenum is starting, it's that Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are both out while three starting offensive linemen — Jedrick Wills Jr., J.C. Tretter, and Jack Conklin — are listed as questionable. That is a recipe for disaster on a short week. 

With their entire running game neutralized and the offensive line looking very weak, what do the Browns do? Well, nothing is really going to change this week besides the personnel. All the pieces to make Stefanski's scheme work are still in place.

Expect a lot of short-range and low-risk-high-reward throws. This may mean we will see a lot of screens, drag-routes, check downs, and the occasional deep shot. The Browns are not going to let this offense give the game away with stupid mistakes. In order for the Browns to win, they are going to have to confuse the Broncos' defense with a lot of short, but effective plays.

Look for a lot of tight end action from the Browns tonight. Cleveland has three serviceable tight ends in Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Harrison Bryant. On the season, the Broncos have given up 44 receptions for 367 yards and four touchdowns against tight ends. It may not be the most flashy way to beat teams, but the Browns are out of options on offense. They have to get every healthy body involved tonight. 

The injury list is a mile-long and the Browns are missing the majority of their offensive production in this game. However, with Keenum's experience in this league and in Stefanski's offense, all the keys are in place for the Browns to have success on 'Thursday Night Football.'

The Rise Of Case Keenum

Keenum signed with the Browns on a three-year, $18 million contract in 2020. Coincidentally, this is the same year that the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski to be the new head coach in Cleveland. Stefanski was the quarterbacks' coach in Minnesota when Keenum was there and together they were a part of one of the most iconic plays in NFL playoff history.

That legendary play sent the Vikings to the NFC Championship game and Keenum was set to make a lot of money in the offseason, and that is exactly what happened. Keenum signed a two-year $36 million contract with the Broncos that offseason to be the new starting quarterback. After a very poor first year with Denver, Keenum was traded to Washington where he once again looked very average.

It is pretty clear that Keenum is in the stage of his career where he is a journeyman backup and veteran leader. He did not sign a big deal with the Browns to compete for the starting job, he signed with Cleveland so he can teach Mayfield about the game and so he can reunite with Stefanski.

The Kevin Stefanski Difference

Keenum signed with the Vikings after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a freak knee injury in practice that left the Vikings without a quarterback. After a year with Sam Bradford as the starter, Keenum signed a one-year, $2 million deal to be in the quarterback rotation that now included Bridgewater, Bradford, and Keenum.

Bradford started four games and looked serviceable until he had a game where he threw for 36 yards on 5-of-11 passing. Even then, they still won. Keenum then took over and won 10 out of his 11 starts and led the Vikings on a miracle run that had them fall one game short of playing in the Super Bowl.

Not only did the Vikings win, but Keenum looked like he did when he was breaking college records at Houston. Under Stefanski's tutelage, he completed 67.6% of his passes for 3,547 yards and 22 touchdowns, all but the passing yards are career highs. He also put up career highs in yards per attempt (7.6), adjusted yards per attempt (7.6), TD% (4.6%), QBR (72.8), passer rating (98.3), and net yards gained per pass attempt (6.78).

Keenum also had eight games with a 100+ passer rating, which is second all-time in Vikings history for a single season. Every year besides his year with Stefanski in Minnesota has been average or bad. So why has Keenum performed better under Stefanski? Is it a comfort thing or does Stefanski just have the best system in the world? Let's dive a little deeper.

The Kevin Stefanski Difference 2: Baker Mayfield Addition

Mayfield has played two seasons without Stefanski as his coach. In those two seasons, he completed 61.5% of his passes for 7,552 yards and 49 touchdowns to 35 interceptions. Diging a little deeper, Mayfield averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, 6.4 adjusted yards per attempt, 85.9 passer rating, and a QBR of 52.8.

In his 22 games played with Stefanski, Mayfield has completed 64% of his passes for 5,037 yards and 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. His yards per attempt only increased to 7.6, however his adjusted yards per attempt (7.9), passer rating (96.4), and QBR (59.4) all increased.

It is clear that Mayfield benefited from Stefanski's roll-out heavy offense that prioritizes short-to-medium passes and gets the best playmakers involved. As you can see from Keenum's numbers with and without Stefanski, he also benefited from this system.

All the pieces are in place for the Browns to succeed with Keenum taking the snaps. If Mayfield ends up getting season-ending surgery, the Browns are still a threat to make the playoffs thanks to Keenum's experience and recorded success in this system. 

Photo: Getty Images

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