In a perfect world, Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield would be standing on the sidelines on game day with a clipboard in his hand and his baseball cap turned backward while charting plays.
Mayfield’s world isn’t perfect, but football fans in Cleveland are happy. First there was LeBron James and now there is Baker Mayfield.
Maybe Cleveland has a new sports superhero.
“He’s played very well,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Mayfield, who will be making his second start of the season against the Ravens on Sunday. “Just what we thought coming out. He’s the same quarterback in the NFL that he was in college.
“Very accurate, very aggressive, and a lot of juice, a lot of energy, and he’s making plays for them.”
Mayfield is the centerpiece of a youth movement that is trying to change the culture of a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2007. The Browns have some other top young talent such as second-year defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Jabrill Peppers and rookie cornerback Denzel Ward. But no other position can merit the attention of a quarterback, especially one in the same rookie class with the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold, Arizona Cardinals’ Josh Rosen, Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.
Fans in Baltimore are still going crazy over Jackson and he seldom plays. Mayfield has completed 38 of 64 passes for 496 yards and two touchdowns since replacing starter and former Raven Tyrod Taylor late in the first half of Game 3 against the Jets.
Mayfield rallied the Browns from a 14-point deficit to a 21-17 win that game, and he almost won another one last week at the Oakland Raiders as he completed 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-42 loss. The kid keeps getting better.
“Baker has helped the organization win a game a couple weeks ago,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said. “I think he did some good things last week. I think his teammates saw the talent in him. I think the fans are seeing it. Obviously, he has to continue to play better and get better, but I think he has brought a little life to the organization.”
Mayfield came to Cleveland with the right credentials. He threw for 4,627 yards and 43 touchdowns his final season at Oklahoma and was the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner as well as recipient of the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards. Although some draft analysts thought other members of the rookie quarterback class were better than Mayfield, the Browns still made him the No. 1 overall selection in April’s draft.
Over that last couple of weeks, it’s easy to see why. Mayfield is accurate, which is something you can’t teach a quarterback. He either has it or he doesn’t. He is elusive enough to extend plays outside the pocket and athletic enough to use run-pass-option plays.
One of the knocks on Mayfield coming out of college was he was arrogant, but that can change quickly in the NFL. Mayfield already had his “Welcome to the NFL” moment when Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox tossed him around like a rag doll during the preseason.
But Mayfield likes to spar with words. He isn’t going to back away.
“I kind of love that — the trash talk, the rivalry stuff — throughout a game,” Mayfield said. “That comes with football, and I enjoy that. You have to be competitive. You want the game to be like that. You want it to be heated and passionate to have fun.”
There have been adjustments to his game, some slower than others. Oklahoma’s passing attack was based on a three-step drop and getting rid of the ball quickly. The pros run almost everything from three-, five- and seven-step drops to rollouts and bootlegs.
Mayfield also had to communicate more with words.
“Just the verbiage of it — I had a lot of hand signals and stuff that I did at Oklahoma, just playing very fast, and just slowing the game down for me, getting in the huddle,” Mayfield said. “Yes, there were more of the deeper drops. But at the same time, it’s just another couple of steps when I drop. I just needed to be more detailed on it. It’s all about the little details. At this level, everybody is so talented.”
It’s all starting to settle and slow down for Mayfield. He has worked with two of the better offensive minds in the league in Jackson and Todd Haley, the Browns’ first-year offensive coordinator who spent years running the Pittsburgh Steelers offense and working with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
Jackson has talked to Mayfield about the Ravens and their traditionally tough defense. The Ravens are currently ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total defense (275.8 yards per game) and fourth against the pass (193.2 yards per game).
Mayfield’s lack of experience fits perfectly into the mindset of Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s philosophy of constantly bringing pressure with blitzes or overloads, but he better be careful.
“With a rookie quarterback going against kind of a veteran defense, you want to confuse, do different stuff. But Baker is a little different,” said Ravens safety Tony Jefferson, a former Sooner. “I’m not being biased because he’s from Oklahoma, but he does have that effect on defenses where he’s not afraid to throw the ball in there.
“He’ll fire it in there. He’s not really hesitant, so we’re preparing for him like we do with any other quarterback.”
That’s a good compliment from a veteran to a youngster who only has one pro start. But Mayfield’s life has changed dramatically since the NFL draft in April.
“I’m engaged now, so that was a big change — very happy about that,” Mayfield said. “And then obviously, throughout the football process, given the opportunity to do my dream job and to be able to work for that. So, it’s been a very exciting time for me. Just trying to stay focused on doing my job and realizing that I’m blessed to be in this position.”
And Browns fans are feeling the same way.