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The Real Baker Mayfield Is Back, and Future Looks Bright for the Browns Again

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterOctober 27, 2020

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) talks to his teammates during an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)
Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

The alert went out to sports fans across the world—"Baker Mayfield off to terrible start"—after the Cleveland Browns' third-year quarterback started 0-of-5 with an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

The 4-2 Browns weren't quite reeling, but they couldn't afford to get down to a Bengals team with a high-octane passing game led by rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Mayfield needed to answer—not just to get the win or silence the masses in Ohio who have flocked to Burrow as their favorite quarterback—but also to quiet doubters in his own fanbase and potentially in his own front office.

Answer he did, finishing the game with a career-high five touchdown passes and throwing just one incomplete pass following his slow start.

"It's funny, because after the game, you look at your phone and see all the alerts," one Browns player said after the win. "Knowing Bake like we do, that s--t motivates him, so it was great knowing he got the same messages we all did [about him struggling]."

It will be motivation for next week, but for one day, the Browns faithful and Mayfield had reason to celebrate a coming-out party for the quarterback who has battled through so much adversity to begin his NFL career.

On the night of the 2018 NFL draft, the Browns surprised many by selecting Mayfield with the first overall pick. But privately, those in the team's front office were convinced that the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma was the only passer in a lauded group who could lead a franchise that had struggled since its return to the NFL in 1999.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

"We called him the 'Pied Piper' in the draft room because wherever he went, players followed him," said one area scout who was with the Browns during the 2018 draft process.

That was seen in person during the regular season and also during a week of practices at the Senior Bowl that solidified Mayfield as a legitimate candidate for the No. 1 overall pick.

"I wasn't with the Senior Bowl when Baker played in it, but I know teams were impressed with Baker's on-field demeanor and how comfortable he looked executing an NFL offense," Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. "Just the way he carried himself with the coaching staff and other great players made a lasting impression. The other thing that helped Baker was that many of the decision-makers that had only seen tape on him finally got a chance to see him throw in person. It can be difficult to truly gauge arm strength on tape, so being able to show the GMs and head coaches that he had a live arm definitely benefited him."

Wherever Mayfield went, his teammates wanted to be, and his selection was met with praise even though most media analysts didn't consider him the top quarterback prospect in the draft class. His charisma, leadership and playmaking skills had many thinking the Browns just found their Brett Favre.

The next two years would be full of highs and lows. Mayfield took over as the Browns' starter in Week 4 of his rookie season, and he nearly pulled off a Rookie of the Year campaign even though head coach Hue Jackson got fired midway through the season. With a new head coach in his sophomore season, Mayfield threw an uncharacteristic 21 interceptions to only 22 touchdowns.

But with a decision looming on his future in Cleveland, the Browns made a quietly great move in hiring Kevin Stefanski to be their new head coach. The 2020 season would be crucial for Mayfield, and he finally had a coach who could maximize his talents and those around him.

Cleveland's Week 7's win over Cincinnati showed the coaching staff and front office just how good Mayfield can be in this scheme.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

"I don't think a lot of people want to give credit to how well [Baker] is playing given the situation," said a person close to the 25-year-old quarterback. "Excuses get made for everyone else, but he's in another new system with more new faces around him and there was no preseason. They're still acclimating to this offense and gelling together as a team. And the Browns are 5-2; let's not forget that."

It's valid to look at the Browns at this point in the season and believe the best is yet to come. Mayfield is still getting comfortable with the offense, and the team has been without star running back Nick Chubb and now loses Odell Beckham Jr. for the season. Those are obstacles that would plague any quarterback, especially in a pandemic-dominated season, but the adversity seems to be galvanizing Mayfield instead.

From an outside perspective, what stands out most on film is that Mayfield finally looks comfortable and confident in his offensive scheme. He trusts the play calls and strategy Stefanski has brought to Cleveland, and the combination of free-agent dollars and draft picks invested along the offensive line are paying off.

Another issue, and one that might be tough for Browns fans to accept, is the offense at least seemed to be better without Beckham in the plans. All quarterbacks have a tendency to force balls to their great receivers. In Minnesota, there was even a "Randy Ratio" for when the great Randy Moss was playing—despite the fact that Cris Carter, Robert Smith and Jake Reed also commanded targets in the scheme. Jerry Rice famously got upset when Terrell Owens broke the San Francisco 49ers' single-game receiving record in Rice's final home game. Great receivers want and need the ball, so quarterbacks force it to them.

The scheme of now running through the open receiver instead of the best receiver, at least for one game, had the offense reaching new heights and Mayfield playing the best game of his career. There was more confidence and decisiveness. With the offensive line protecting and Beckham out, the offense looked different—just not how many would expect with a star player out.

With no Beckham, the Browns had to rely on the entire cast of skill players. 

The result? The best stretch of football of Mayfield's career and the return of the attitude that made him the quarterback the Browns believed could handle the stress and pressure of turning around the NFL's least successful franchise of the last 20 years.

There is still work to be done. The Browns need Mayfield to cut down on his turnovers, but for the first time since his rookie year, there is optimism that Cleveland has its franchise quarterback on its roster.

              

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.

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