Case Keenum's respect and admiration for Baker Mayfield grew considerably in 2021.
Keenum, the Browns' backup QB and ninth-year veteran, was side-by-side with Mayfield as he persevered through a torn shoulder labrum suffered in Week 2. Mayfield still played 12 of the Browns' next 14 games and gave them his all throughout a playoff run that ended in Week 17 due to difficult losses from the Browns and results in games Sunday around the league. Not much about the season was easy for Mayfield, but Keenum watched as he put his best foot forward toward giving the Browns the best shot at the playoffs.
Now, Keenum will step in for Mayfield to finish the season. He'll start Sunday for the Browns against the Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium as Mayfield plans to undergo surgery to repair his shoulder, and he'll do his best to send the Browns out on a good note — which is precisely what Mayfield would have wanted, too.
"I did have a front-row seat to one of the gutsiest, toughest performances of a quarterback playing in a season that I have ever seen," Keenum said. "I think his entire season, he was battling a lot of things. He's one of the toughest guys I know, and he's a fighter. He came to fight every single day and pushed through a lot of adversity just to get on the field on Sundays.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and it grew."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Steelers yesterday by the Browns photo team
Keenum acknowledged the disappointment that has circulated since they were officially eliminated from playoff contention. That disappointment was compounded by a difficult, 26-14 loss Monday in Pittsburgh, where the offense never quite established a rhythm.
But Keenum is also aware that his job this week isn't just to take snaps under center in place of Mayfield. As quarterback, he's responsible for leading the entire offense and motivating the Browns to finish strong — but he hasn't felt an urgent need to vocally rally those around him.
That's because he believes everyone else feels the same desire as him to play for pride, play for the team and play for Cleveland.
"I'm coming in and giving everything I have," Keenum said. "We've been dreaming about playing in the NFL since we were kids, all of us. It's a dream come true to be able to go out there and represent not only the name on the back of our jerseys — our family's — but the name on the front. There's a lot of pride in Cleveland. I've experienced that in the short two years that I've been here."
The Browns are confident Keenum can execute those game plans and lead that charge. He's already led them to a win this season in Week 7, his only start in his two years with the Browns, completing 23-of-33 pass attempts for 187 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski values Keenum's veteran experience and ability to efficiently pace the offense. He already appreciates how Keenum has carried himself throughout the week once it became evident he would start the game.
"He's a pro," Stefanski said. "Just in my conversations already with him this week, he's ready for the opportunity. He very badly wants to get a win like the rest of our guys do. That's the role Case has played for this team throughout this season as a backup."
Nearly all of Keenum's work so far with the Browns has been behind the scenes — that's the life of being a backup quarterback, and Keenum has acknowledged that since Day 1 in Cleveland.
So he'll always cherish opportunities to take the field on gameday. He wishes the circumstances for why he'll be doing that Sunday were different and knows Mayfield wanted to finish the season, but it's another chance for Keenum to win the Browns a football game.
And that's an opportunity he or anyone else on the Browns won't take for granted.
"I know we have a group of guys in there who compete their tails off and are excited for every opportunity we get," Keenum said. "We have coaches up there who are putting together the best gameplan they possibly can this week. In all of our minds, this is going to be the biggest week of the year."