In Lieu of Revenge, Baker Mayfield Is Humbled Again by the Browns

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The end to Sunday’s game was abrupt and unexpected, just like Baker Mayfield has described the end of his time as the Cleveland Browns’ quarterback.

A 58-yard field goal, kicked with 8 seconds remaining, decided the Browns’ 26-24 win against the Carolina Panthers. But this game carried meaning beyond just a season opener, and beyond a player’s standard revenge game against his former team.

Mayfield, selected No. 1 overall by the Browns in 2018, started for the Panthers because his former team determined that he could not lead the way to a championship. The quarterback Cleveland has pinned its Super Bowl hopes to, Deshaun Watson, was not present because he will not be eligible to play until December as he serves an 11-game suspension for violating the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy, after more than two dozen women accused him of harassment or assault during massage appointments.

This meeting was a product of one franchise’s desperation: The absence of Mayfield’s $230 million replacement on the Browns’ sideline was a reminder of just how far the team had been willing to go to try to win.

For much of the afternoon, Mayfield’s play only seemed to validate the Browns’ decision to cast him off. Just two months after being traded to Carolina and eight months after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder, he did not lead the Panthers past their own 40-yard line on any of the team’s first three drives.

On Carolina’s fourth, Mayfield threw an interception on a third-down pass that sailed over the middle of the field, setting up the Browns’ first score. With the Panthers trailing by 20-7 in the third quarter, he was sacked on back-to-back plays by Myles Garrett, the former teammate with whom he had clashed during their four seasons together.

But Mayfield sparked the Panthers back into the game, first with a 7-yard touchdown run, then a 75-yard touchdown pass to Robbie Anderson that could only be explained as a Browns defensive collapse and that narrowed the Browns’ lead to 2 points.

Inside of the two-minute warning, Mayfield marched Carolina downfield for a 34-yard field goal that gave the Panthers their first lead of the game. He finished with 235 yards on 16 of 27 passing, with two total touchdowns.

The Browns responded with a long-shot field goal attempt of 58 yards, successfully converted, that spoiled Mayfield’s bid for on-field revenge.

He was bettered by the Browns’ stand-in quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, whose serviceable performance — 18 of 34 passing for 147 yards and a touchdown — was good enough.

“Everybody made this out to be the Super Bowl,” Mayfield said. “But despite what everybody is going to make this, there’s 16 more games.”

Mayfield’s attempts at downplaying the anticipation for this game strained credibility. He denied telling a sideline reporter during the preseason that he wanted to, in more colorful terms, mess his former team up in the season opener. And he claimed he “didn’t have any say” in the design of his own officially branded T-shirts, which were printed with a broken dog collar and the slogan “off the leash,” an apparent reference to his dissatisfaction with the restrictions he felt he had in Browns Coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense.

As Mayfield ran out of a tunnel onto the field before kickoff, he was met with a mixture of boos and cheers, his past and present each vocally represented. The juxtaposition was observable in the stands, too, where No. 6 Browns jerseys were intermingled with a surprising number of No. 6 Panthers jerseys.

The second act of Mayfield’s N.F.L. career has been humbling. It began with his trade to Carolina in July for a conditional draft pick, and sputtered with the Week 1 loss. The full context for why he is starting over, however, carries a weight unlike most routine N.F.L. transactions.

Last October, around the time Mayfield missed the first start of his N.F.L. career with an aggravated shoulder injury, the Browns began considering a pursuit of Watson. They opted to recruit him despite the torrent of detailed accusations of sexual misconduct that had been made against him over the preceding months.

In March, after a grand jury in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, Browns decision makers courted Watson at the Houston office of his defense attorney. Later that day, Mayfield posted on social media what amounted to a farewell note to fans in Cleveland.

That same week, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the Browns wanted “an adult” at the quarterback position, a knock on Mayfield’s fiery temperament as the team pursued a replacement who at the time was facing 22 civil lawsuits by women.

At Watson’s introductory news conference, Browns General Manager Andrew Berry said it had taken a “five-month odyssey” to arrive at their decision to trade with the Houston Texans for Watson. After initially denying Mayfield’s trade request, they agreed to move him, but it would be months before the team reached a deal with Carolina.

Watson, who has continued to deny the accusations of sexual misconduct against him, must spend his weeks away from the team taking part in a mandatory treatment program, as part of the disciplinary settlement he reached with the league. Any failure to “faithfully commit” to the treatment program could result in further disciplinary action or a delay in his reinstatement, according to the terms of the settlement.

The decision the Browns made in March has implications, both on and off the field, that will be long-lasting. On Sunday, the only thing that was decided was a single game.