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Baker Mayfield Has Finally Become Everything the Browns Hoped He Would Be

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 21, 2020

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns have finally escaped the Dark Ages and entered the Enlightenment with quarterback Baker Mayfield leading the way. 

In the NFL, life without a quarterback is like dealing with the plague as a slow death becomes reality. Everything festers and spoils while flashes of hope are quickly extinguished. 

The Browns endured a miserable stretch nearly unmatched for any professional franchise.

But now they have Mayfield, an elite distributor aligned with Coach of the Year candidate Kevin Stefanski, who plays to the young signal-caller's strengths. 

After having the team stripped from the city only to have it come back and fail time after time with more regimes than a person can count on both hands and a string of quarterbacks so bad the failures became infamous and subject to public ridicule, the Browns finally found the right combination to become a successful team on the field with some staying power. 

The process began in April 2018 when the franchise invested the No. 1 overall pick in Mayfield, who was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. 

Early returns showed plenty of promise. After usurping the starting position from an injured Tyrod Taylor, Mayfield went on to set a rookie record with 27 touchdown passes (which the Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert has matched this season). The Oklahoma product could have easily been named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but the award eventually went to New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. 

Then, everything fell apart and Mayfield's viability as the franchise's long-term starter came under fire.

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In his first season as head coach, Freddie Kitchens was in over his head. The organization lacked alignment, and heavy expectations crushed the team during a disappointing 6-10 campaign. 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Mayfield regressed. Former Browns quarterback Drew Stanton explained to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot how the team failed its quarterback. 

"[Former offensive coordinator Todd Monken] gets such a bad rap, which isn’t fair. Looking back, he was just trying to do the best he could with the information he had. He was trying to implement some of his offense and then we also had [offensive line coach and former Green Bay teammate of previous general manager John Dorsey’s] James Campen, who came in and he was doing a lot of the run game stuff, along with the protections.

"Then, Freddie was trying to do things that he was familiar with, the Bruce Arians downfield offense, and stuff he knows that Baker’s comfortable with, so there was just wasn’t any continuity. You try to get everybody on the same page in a short amount of time, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out."

Context is necessary because quarterbacks often take the brunt of the blame even when they're not at fault. 

Some of the bad habits Mayfield developed carried into the early portions of the 2020 campaign. He looked jittery in the pocket, struggled with pressure, locked onto receivers instead of working through his progressions and didn't play with the looseness once seen during his time in Norman, Oklahoma. 

But his confidence grew in Stefanski's system with each passing week. Players around him, like wide receiver Jarvis Landry and running back Nick Chubb, started to get healthy. The play-calling catered to Mayfield's skill set. 

In essence, a system quarterback emerged. What too many see as a negative is exactly what good coaching is supposed to achieve. The great staffs look at the talent available to them and adjust. Stefanski brought in a complicated system that dates back nearly three decades, and Mayfield didn't have any experience orchestrating it. To make matters worse, no team had much of an offseason, as franchises had to learn their new approaches through Zoom meetings instead of reps on the field. 

Incremental growth is exactly what everyone should expect in this scenario, and Mayfield has provided it in spades. The burgeoning star methodically and systematically picked the Giants defense apart Sunday during Cleveland's impressive 20-6 victory as the Browns improved to 10-4 overall. 

The third-year quarterback completed 27 of 32 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Mayfield's 84.3 completion percentage broke a Browns franchise record, per ESPN Stats & Info (via ESPN's Jake Trotter). 

New York entered the contest with the game's ninth-best defense. Two weeks earlier, it held the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson in check. Yet Mayfield sliced and diced Sunday's opposition.

"I thought Baker was outstanding tonight. He was dialed in," Stefanski told reporters after the contest. 

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

He's been dialed in since Week 7. 

Granted, cornerback James Bradberry wasn't available because he was deemed a high-risk close contact for COVID-19. Still, the quarterback's performance is now a trend, not an anomaly. 

Over the last three contests, Mayfield has thrown for 974 yards and eight touchdowns compared to only one interception. He leads the NFL with seven touchdowns of 10 or more air yards over the last four weeks, according to NFL Next Gen Stats

These latest numbers only add to what Mayfield has recently accomplished.

Not including Sunday's performance, Mayfield held the fourth-highest QBR in the league since Week 7 behind Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, per Trotter. Pretty good company. He's been the NFL's best quarterback this season in the fourth quarter and overtime, per Pro Football Focus. Bonus, he's yet to throw an interception in the red zone, according to PFF Fantasy

While those numbers are fantastic across the board, the growth Mayfield has displayed recently really elevates his status among the league's best. 

For example, the former top pick had struggled against pressure packages for most of this season, doing his best work from a clean pocket. The Giants, meanwhile, feature one of the game's best defensive fronts. What looked like a potential mismatch on paper turned into another checkmark in Mayfield's favor.

As Trotter noted, Mayfield had career-best stats of 12-of-13 passing and 10.5 yards per attempt against the Giants' blitz packages. 

Furthermore, he displayed excellent eye discipline, which was something he struggled with just a couple of weeks ago. During Cleveland's Week 12 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mayfield provided one of the worst throws of the entire season by any quarterback when he missed a wide-open Rashard Higgins in the end zone. Mayfield became locked onto the wrong target within the route combination and was too slow to put himself in the right position and deliver a catchable pass. 

Fast forward three weeks, when he was in a similar situation for Cleveland's first score against the Giants. 

NFL @NFL

Mayfield finds Hooper. #Browns take the lead! 📺: #CLEvsNYG on NBC 📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app: https://t.co/upjRqowLf3 https://t.co/2dX5mZwxMk

Mayfield quickly glanced to his right, where tight end Harrison Bryant worked to the flat. The quarterback recognized two defenders in the area. He quickly snapped his head to the backside of the play where fellow tight end Austin Hooper stood wide open for the touchdown grab. 

Patience isn't commonplace in today's NFL. Players like Mahomes and Lamar Jackson ruined the curve by winning MVPs in their second seasons. Not everyone is as physically gifted or placed in ideal situations. Some have to struggle before finding their way. 

The Browns now have the right coach utilizing the right system for the right quarterback, which is allowing Mayfield to realize his full potential. 

"I said 'Baker Mayfield is your franchise quarterback and you need to fully commit to him,'" Stanton told owner Jimmy Haslam in the veteran's exit interview last year. "You've got to find out what you've got. You drafted this kid first overall and it's well documented the number of quarterbacks that have come through there and started games for the Cleveland Browns."

Well, Haslam and everyone else now know what the Browns have in Mayfield: a franchise quarterback. 

   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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