When Drafting Doesn’t Work…

Hello, Cleveland sports fans!

My name is Jim Johnson. I’m happy to be one of the contributors here at Cleveland Sports Talk. I’ll be writing about the Browns, mainly from a historical perspective and they’ve got some great history. Even their history that’s not so great is interesting, so there’s lots to write about.

So, I hear there’s a new QB in town (two really but one that obviously dominates the conversation). For now, I’m going to avoid Deshaun Watson’s off-the-field issues and whether he is worth the bazillion-dollar guarantee the Browns gave him. What I was curious about is what drove the Browns to make such a huge and risky move to finally get the player they hope is their franchise QB.

I looked at their history of drafting QBs and stopped wondering. With all the hue and cry about Baker Mayfield’s sub-par play last season, would you believe that he rates as the best QB the team has drafted since its return in 1999? Find that hard to believe? Don’t worry, I brought the receipts.

In reverse order, here are the QBs drafted by the Browns since 1999:

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma -2018 1st round, 1st overall

DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame-2017 2nd round, 52nd overall

Cody Kessler, Southern Cal-2016 3rd round, 93rd overall

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M-2014 1st round, 22nd overall

Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State-2012 1st round, 22nd overall

Colt McCoy, Texas-2010 3rd round, 85th overall

Brady Quinn, Notre Dame-2007 1st round, 22nd overall

Charlie Frye, Akron-2005 3rd round, 67th overall

Luke McCown, Louisiana Tech-2004 4th round, 106th overall

Spergon Wynn, Texas State-2000 6th round, 183rd overall

Tim Couch, Kentucky 1999-1st round, 1st overall

This trend had actually started before the move. The last three QB’s the original Browns drafted were Mike Norseth (7th round), Steve Slayden (12th round) and Eric Zeier (3rd round).

The last big-time quarterback the Browns drafted was (do I have to say his name at this point?) Bernie Kosar in the 1985 supplemental draft.

That was 36 years ago.

THAT’s the kind of trend that breeds desperation folks.

Over 23 drafts, the Browns spent five first-round picks (two overall #1’s), a second-rounder, three third-rounders, and two late-round picks on QBs. That’s a ton of draft capital to spend on a steaming pile of mediocrity.

Their best shot at a franchise quarterback was probably their first-Tim Couch. He set passing records in high school and as a sophomore was at the wheel of new Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme’s “Air-Raid Offense,” with an up-and-coming Mike Leach as his coordinator. In two seasons Couch threw for over 8,000 yards against SEC defenses (before those numbers were commonplace) and seemed like a logical pick for a new franchise to pick and build around.

Browns head coach Chris Palmer was prepared to let Couch learn the ropes of playing NFL quarterback slowly, planning to sit him behind veteran QB Ty Detmer.

After the Steelers gave the Browns a 43-0 beatdown in their first game, the plan changed-much to the detriment of Couch’s career. To put it bluntly, we’ll never know how good Couch might have been in part because of the punishment he absorbed beyond an expansion-level offensive line. He started 14 games as a rookie, won two of them (the first one on this memorable Hail Mary pass) and got sacked 56 times. The QB drafted immediately behind him in 1999, Donovan McNabb by the Eagles, had the wheels to maneuver away from a pass rush-Couch not so much.

In 2000, Couch broke the thumb on his throwing hand in practice and missed the season’s last nine-game, then returned in 2001 and endured 51 more sacks. Despite that, the team improved to 7-9 under new head coach Butch Davis and made the playoffs in 2002 with a 9-7 record. Unfortunately, Couch suffered a broken tibia in the regular-season finale and the Browns lost a 36-33 heartbreaker to the Steelers in the wild card game.

Couch’s time in Cleveland ended following the 2003 season, in which he had alternated as starting QB with Kelly Holcomb. The team had fallen to 5-11 and cut ties with Couch after signing Jeff Garcia as a free agent. After catching on with the Packers, Couch was diagnosed with a torn labrum, rotator cuff and bicep in his throwing arm. He never played another NFL snap.

Although Tim Couch never developed into the franchise QB the Browns hoped, I think calling him a bust would be unfair. For most of the other guys on this list, however, yeah, that would be fair.

There may not be a bigger bust on this list than Johnny Manziel, not as much for his draft position as the buzz that surrounded him. They drafted Manziez, Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn in the same draft position, 22nd pick of the first round. Seems like trading the pick for, anything really, would be a good move the next time they wind up in that position.

Skipping over the less-than-illustrious careers of the other QBs on this list, I come back to Mayfield, who came into a situation arguably worse than Couch did. How many of you Browns fans would have been happy to scrap the entire roster and start over after the 0-16 nightmare of 2017? Anyway, Mayfield came off the bench in week three of 2018 and led the Browns to a 7-7 record. After slippage in 2019, the Browns bounced back to go 11-5 in 2020 with Mayfield starting every game and throwing 26 TD passes vs. eight interceptions.

There was slippage again in 2021 with injuries to Mayfield mixed in for good measure. The front office and the fan base both seemed indecisive about Mayfield’s future this offseason until the front office pulled the trigger on the Watson deal.

While neither QB’s short-term future is clear, there is one thing clear to me.

With their track record in the draft, including three first-round picks in a trade for a player who is clearly good enough to be the first Cleveland franchise QB since Kosar makes sense, with a bonus that it ensures they won’t be tempted to burn another first-rounder on a QB anytime soon since they won’t have one.

Soon, we’ll see if Watson can become The Man in Cleveland and whether Mayfield can become the first player on that QB draft list to have success beyond the Browns.

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