For John Harbaugh’s entire tenure in Baltimore, the Cleveland Browns have been the closest thing to an automatic victory on the Ravens’ schedule.
Every year, we hear how feisty the Browns have become, how they cannot be overlooked. And it’s true the teams have played their share of one-score games. But in 20 meetings with the team he rooted for as a child, Harbaugh has won 18.
So it’s fair to feel your skepticism welling when the Ravens say this year’s Browns are different. Just know that in 2018, it might finally be the truth.
“They’ve transformed the team over the last couple years,” Harbaugh said. “And they’re playing very well.”
Baker Mayfield — the brash, dancing quarterback who snagged the Heisman Trophy last year and headlined the NFL Draft this spring — is the leading man. The moment he replaced Tyrod Taylor under center in Cleveland’s Week 3 game against the New York Jets, the Browns became Twitter darlings. Then Mayfield rallied them to win an actual game for the first time in 21 months.
He led the Browns to 42 points in Week 4, though they succumbed to the Oakland Raiders in overtime. Now he’ll face a division rival for the first time before a home crowd eager to celebrate its new hero.
Mayfield has already inspired Cleveland fans to celebrate in the streets and tattoo their bodies with his likeness. And he hasn’t even played two full games.
“I think Baker Mayfield is this generation’s Brett Favre or John Elway,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “This guy knows where he wants to go with the ball, and he’s very accurate, has a quick release. He’s really playing well.”
Pressed to elaborate on the Elway-Favre comparison, Martindale said: “Obviously, you’re talking about two Hall of Famers when you say that. But the kid’s confidence and swag … when he comes out there, he thinks he’s standing on top of a mountain, and he’s making plays to show that he’s standing on top of the mountain. He can throw the ball in tight windows, and he’s not afraid to do it.”
All gushing over Mayfield aside, the best young player on the Browns is the previous year’s No. 1 overall pick, Myles Garrett. The Texas A&M product showed considerable promise as a rookie, when he accumulated seven sacks in 11 games. He’s become a full-fledged star this year, grading as the sixth-best edge rusher in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s one of those special players, absolutely, and we’ve faced a few of them,” Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
With Mayfield steering drives on one side and Garrett wrecking them on the other, it’s possible to envision the Browns with an exciting core for years to come. When was the last time you could say that?
“I think [general manager] John Dorsey has done a really good job of adding more talented players to the roster,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “I think we’re still working at it. I feel better about the direction we’re headed and what we’re trying to accomplish. I think everybody, to a man, is all in and trying to make sure we get there. Just like anyone else, we want to get there fast, as fast as we can.”
The players are well aware they’re trying to right the most misguided ship in the NFL. The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, and they’ve finished last in the AFC North all but two of the 15 seasons since then. This is no mundane improvement project. It’s a quest to stop being the greatest punch line in American sports.
“That was the mindset that we wanted to have as a rookie class, and also not just the rookies, but everybody that was new here to this team,” Mayfield said. “The goal was to change the culture. Anytime the two years prior to that the record was 1-31, you want to change the culture, because unless you have that change, nothing changes on the field. So, I’m very happy to be put in the opportunity and given a chance to do that. That’s something that I take pride in, that challenge, and I love to go to work for it every day.”
The influx of talent from recent drafts goes beyond the No. 1 overall picks.
The Browns faced criticism in April when they used the No. 4 overall pick on Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward instead of N.C. State pass rusher Bradley Chubb. But Ward has quickly become a stalwart, ranking second on the Browns in defensive snaps and earning the third-best coverage grade among all starting cornerbacks from Pro Football Focus.
Second-round 2018 pick Nick Chubb has received just 10 carries but has made the most of them with 146 yards and two touchdowns.
Fourth-rounder Antonio Callaway has 10 catches for 155 yards. Fifth-round pick Genard Avery has made an immediate impact as a pass rusher.
From the 2017 draft class, first-round pick Jabrill Peppers has improved at safety and third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi has settled in as a solid defensive tackle. From 2016, fourth-round pick Joe Schobert is a quality starter at middle linebacker.
All of these players are 25 or younger.
This represents significant progress for a franchise that routinely squandered its draft picks. From the last decade alone, Cleveland’s top-10 busts include defensive back Justin Gilbert, edge rusher Barkevious Mingo and running back Trent Richardson. And that doesn’t even touch on the Browns’ misadventures with quarterback Johnny Manziel.
It would be wrong to pretend the Browns have cast off all their bad mojo. They’re 1-2-1, after all, when they could easily be 3-1 or 4-0.
They had to dump kicker Zane Gonzalez after he missed two field goals and two extra points in a blown upset bid against the New Orleans Saints. And Mayfield committed four turnovers, including an interception that was returned for a touchdown, in the three-point loss to Oakland.
Jackson is 2-33-1 in his three seasons as Cleveland’s coach.
But the Ravens swear they don’t see the Browns as some mutt, there to be kicked whenever convenient.
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“They’ve always had talent, and they’ve always played us really tough,” safety Eric Weddle said. “When I think of all the close games we’ve had over the last couple years, Cleveland comes to mind every time, whether it’s last-minute wins or a dogfight and we pull away in the second half. Listen, they’ve built a team that has talent in a lot of areas. We’ve never looked at them like the same old Cleveland Browns, but it’s even more so this year.”