CLEVELAND — Certainly not everything has gone according to plan for the Browns lately, but the concept of paying a backup quarterback well so he can keep a season afloat in a pinch worked to perfection in Thursday night’s 17-14 win over the Denver Broncos at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Case Keenum should not and will not start over Baker Mayfield when Mayfield is healthy enough to play.
Yet the veteran backup deserves credit for giving the Browns the type of competent play they needed at the sport’s most important position to prevail when they were desperate for a win.
The Browns are 4-3 and have a little bit of time to rest a roster decimated by injuries before their next game Oct. 31 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The entire aura of the franchise would be different if they had lost to the struggling Broncos, who are 3-4 and on a four-game losing streak.
“We had to keep the dream alive,” All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett said. “We definitely could not go under .500. It was a big game for us, especially because they had the same record as us. We have to knock them off and then have Pittsburgh come to the house.”
It seems like every day there is a new revelation about what’s wrong with Mayfield’s injured left, non-throwing shoulder.
On Tuesday, Mayfield told Browns beat writers the labrum in the shoulder had been completely torn since Sept. 19, when it popped out against the Houston Texans, and that it had been damaged more Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. On Wednesday, Mayfield told Fox’s Jay Glazer more damage meant a fractured humerus bone. Glazer revealed the information Thursday.
After Thursday night’s victory, coach Kevin Stefanski said the fracture doesn’t change the equation for Mayfield to return this season. Mayfield is hoping he can make it back in time to face the Steelers.
Yet Mayfield also hoped to play against the Broncos, and that obviously didn’t pan out.
The comfort level in Keenum’s ability to hold the fort down should only increase after he went 21-of-33 passing (63.6%) for 199 yards and a touchdown without an interception for a rating of 90.3.
He didn’t light it up, but he played clean ball without the benefit of receiving any first-team repetitions Tuesday in the only real practice the Browns had this week in the buildup to “Thursday Night Football.” Stefanski said Keenum’s lone reps with the starters were in walk-through sessions.
“I felt calm and poised,” said Keenum, who started for the first time since Dec. 29, 2019.
Keenum steadied the Browns, and their rushing attack powered by the offensive line and third-string running back D’Ernest Johnson dominated. The Browns finished with 33 carries for 182 yards (5.5 average). Johnson compiled 22 carries for a career-high 146 yards (6.6 average) and a touchdown.
Those key ingredients helped Keenum win as a starter for the first time since Oct. 13, 2019.
“It feels pretty good,” Keenum said. “It was a lot of fun tonight.”
Stefanski’s trust in Keenum is a huge reason the Browns signed him in March 2020 to a three-year, $18 million contract.
The trust factor also played a role in Stefanski going for it on fourth-and-3 from the Denver 6-yard line in the third quarter. Keenum scrambled up the middle for 5 yards and a first down.
“We had a good play called,” Keenum said. “I think we were trying to get to the line quickly. I looked right and should have looked left and Juice [wide receiver Jarvis Landry] would have scored, but as I went through my check down, felt a pretty big opening there and tried to score.”
“Case fought like he always does,” Stefanski said. “I thought he orchestrated the operation. He took care of the football. That was a huge play.”
On the next play, Keenum threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Johnny Stanton IV, who was wide open in the end zone, and the Browns went ahead 17-7 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter.
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Stefanski and Keenum have been through this before. They went all the way to the NFC Championship Game together when Stefanski coached quarterbacks for the 2017 Minnesota Vikings. Keenum went 11-3 as a starter that season, then 1-1 in the playoffs.
If Keenum’s teammates didn’t already believe in him like Stefanski does, they should now.
“Case has been there before,” Landry said. “He’s a guy that has been to the NFC Championship Game. He’s been there. So the way that he’s prepared throughout this whole entire time for the past two years has been something that you don’t blink when he gets in there. You know that he still has the ability to lead us to a win.”
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry provides ‘the juice’ in his return
Mayfield, running backs Nick Chubb (calf) and Kareem Hunt (calf, on injured reserve), All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) and rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah (high ankle sprain, on IR) didn’t play.
Cornerback Denzel Ward (left hamstring) exited the game in the fourth quarter, and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (groin) didn’t play after being hurt in pregame warm-ups. They’ll undergo MRIs on Monday, Stefanski said.
But Landry returned from a four-game absence caused by a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and his close friend and fellow receiver Odell Beckham Jr. pushed through a right shoulder injury he suffered in Sunday’s 37-14 loss to the Cardinals.
Landry caught five passes on eight targets for 37 yards. Beckham caught two passes on six targets for 23 yards.
Although Landry’s production was far from elite, it seemed to energize the offense. Perhaps him accounting for three first downs helped. Either way, his intensity made a difference.
“I’ve played with many great receivers, and I’ve never seen anyone quite have the look in his eye at times during games where it’s just the ability to take the game over,” Keenum said. “It doesn’t matter where the ball is, if it’s close to him, he’s going to catch it. He’s making big-time plays and did so tonight on many occasions.”
Landry is a leader who’s loved and respected by his teammates.
“It meant a lot to this team [to get Landry back],” Stefanski said. “Having him come out of that tunnel last [during player introductions], I think it meant a lot to our fans. He brings the juice, no pun intended. He brings it to our sideline. Having him out there, a guy who fights, I could be talking about a bunch of different guys, but he’s one. He fought like crazy to be out there with his teammates.
“Odell fought like crazy to be out there with his teammates. To see those guys do that throughout the week and then get out there and not feel perfect but do whatever it took, I thought was so impressive.
“Odell wanted to play very, very badly, and he wanted to be out there with his teammates very, very badly. He does not feel 100%, and a lot of those guys don’t, but to do what he did, fight through it and make a play late in the game for us, again, really proud of those guys.”
Landry and Beckham played together for the first time since Oct. 25, 2020, when OBJ suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“He’s a fighter. He’s been through a hell of a lot,” Landry said. “The one thing about this game, at some point, you’re going to have to play through injuries, and his toughness and a lot of guys’ toughness that was displayed tonight and really throughout the whole rest of the season, it’s something that we’re going to continue to need. Obviously, no injury should hurt the team, right? But at the same time, in a sense, if guys can push through it and play through it, obviously every man counts and that’s what’s the most important thing.”
Beckham landed on his injured shoulder while trying to catch a pass along the Browns’ sideline with 42 seconds left in the second quarter, but he returned for the offense’s first snap of the third quarter. He immediately caught passes of 6 and 17 yards on back-to-back plays.
Landry tweaked his problematic knee as cornerback Ronald Darby tackled him on a 7-yard reception with 3:26 left in the fourth quarter, but Landry returned to the game.
Asked how the knee felt after the game, Landry said, “I got 10 days,” until the Steelers visit.
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With 1½ sacks Thursday night, Garrett surpassed Michael Dean Perry for the No. 2 spot on the franchise sacks list.
Garrett has 52 career sacks. Perry had 51½ sacks with the Browns.
Garrett needs 11 more sacks to overtake Clay Matthews (62 sacks with the Browns) atop the list.
“I’m going for Matthews a little bit,” Garrett said. “Trying to get it before the end of the season.”
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Garrett leads the league with 9½ sacks this season and would like officials to penalize more offensive linemen for holding him as he makes a run at NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s tough,” Garrett said. “I have a lot of respect for [Denver’s] offensive line and [left tackle Garett] Bolles. I don’t have a problem with what he’s doing because if they’re not going to call it, then there’s no reason for him to change his game. He can keep doing what he’s doing to stop pass rushers like myself. If you go by the book, it’s holding. The refs are kind of giving me the Shaq treatment right now, so hopefully I can get around that.”
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at [email protected].