There are games, when you look back at a player’s careers, that prove to be seismic events, pivotal points in defining the trajectory of their career.
Such moments and performances can be transformative, the springboard to success, or, alternatively, they can be terminal, extinguishing promise and potential. For Baker Mayfield, and by extension the Cleveland Browns, Sunday’s 35-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals points to the former.
Baker Mayfield Promising More Than Hope With the Cleveland Browns
Mayfield’s performance, in which he went 19/26 for 258 yards, threw four touchdowns and posted a passer rating of 143.9, was impressive enough. In a vacuum though, the numbers themselves don’t paint the whole story. What emerged is the culmination of Mayfield’s steadily improving season to date. An announcement that this is now not a rookie quarterback in progress, but a quarterback who is ready to not only fulfil expectations but exceed them.
Confidence. Arrogance. Brashness. However you define it (and every successful quarterback needs it all in spades) Mayfield has it. To wit, his post-game press conference ensured his words attracted as much attention as his play did.
In specifically targeting ex-head coach Hue Jackson in the way that he did he pronounced himself as a leader of the new-look Browns, a team desperately in need of such players to grasp the mettle.
“I don’t know. Left Cleveland, goes down to Cincinnati, I don’t know. It’s just somebody [who] was in our locker room, asking us to play for him and then goes to a different team we play twice a year. Everyone can have their spin on it, but that’s how I feel.”
This of course followed his quote-worthy ‘dangerous’ line after the 28-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Intentional or not, Mayfield is displaying the gravitas that has eluded the parade of quarterbacks who have gone before him since they re-entered the league almost 20 years ago.
Post-Jackson, Mayfield is thriving. Doug Farrar had a great look at the work that Freddie Kitchens has done in the wake of the firings of Jackson and Todd Haley. This has seen Mayfield thrown nine touchdowns to just one interception, completing 73.9 percent of his passes for 8.8 yards per attempt. The redzone efficiency has improved dramatically too, with the Browns converting on all of their visits over the past three games.
It is clear that the Browns are a happier camp minus the Jackson-Haley dynamic and the tensions and discord that it wrought. And for all the deserved praise that Kitchens is receiving, the perfect example of what good coaching can bring, plays still need executing.
And this is where Mayfield comes in.
Each of the quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2018 draft have now seen extended playing time, with all displaying the predictable bumps in the road as well as the bright spots and glimpses of promise that come with rookies regardless of situation.
None though have reached the highs as Mayfield has, or, importantly, displayed the command that he has shown. There was the semi-shock of him being taken first overall, where as the whispers grew that the Browns were going to select him, there were those who maintained their doubts. Too small. Not pro-ready. The usual clichés and knocks were trailed, but this is a changing league. The disconnect between college and pro-systems is dissipating. For those who did back him they were unequivocal in their conviction.
Mayfield announced himself in relief of the struggling Tyrod Taylor, coming off the bench to lead the Browns to a notable comeback victory, knocking off fellow first-rounder Sam Darnold. The victory of the Bengals crystallised Mayfield’s recent personal form, but in the process ended the Browns 24-game road winless streak, delivered back-to-back wins after 64 (yes, sixty-four) games and put up the most first-half points for the team since way back in 1991.
This week, interim head coach Gregg Williams heaped praise on his quarterback, saying “Baker has the innate leadership that shows me he belongs. Grown men can smell whether you belong. They know he does. In his mind, already, he can play the game at a slo-mo pace.”
Despite Williams’ propensity for hyperbole, it is a valid point. Look at the very best players in the NFL. They have the capability to lift each and everyone around them. Quarterback is the position that demands this more than most. It is a position notoriously difficult to not only grasp, but command.
Very few rookies or young passers have proven capable of achieving this. Patrick Mahomes is thriving this year in Kansas City but have we seen a true rookie impose themselves in the way Mayfield is doing since Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson entered the league?
The Browns have some pieces in key places now. After several mis-steps with high draft picks the likes of Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah and David Njoku are shining. All the signs point to Mayfield’s fellow 2018 draftees going down a far different route than Johnny Manziel, Corey Coleman, Barkevious Mingo et al. There have been so many false dawns in Cleveland. So many mistakes. So many times where they have had to start over.
But Mayfield isn’t just promising hope. For the long-suffering Cleveland Browns fans he’s delivering it.