Note: For more sensitive viewers, this story contains explicit language.
My best friend, Karl, is a Cleveland Browns fan. We met at a boys camp in Pennsylvania when I was 13, and he was 14. He overheard me say the word ‘football’ to another boy there and interrupted the conversation. “You like football?” he asked me. I nodded to confirm. “Oh, man, we’ve gotta talk,” he said.
The next question that he had for me was, “What do you think of the Cleveland Browns?” I just laughed. That’s what the Browns were for so long.
Cleveland is a city that embraces sports, especially football. It was a city devastated in the 1990s when owner Ozzie Newsome announced that the franchise would be leaving for Baltimore. It was a decision that Cleveland would never forgive him for.
Fast forward to January 2018. I went through a few down points of my life. I was searching for a job, running out of money, and almost homeless. Walking the streets of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, I called Karl as a way to try to pull myself out of the dumps. Karl always has that way with people being goofy and yet still making enough sense that he can make you feel better when you speak.
As always, the Cleveland Browns came up as a topic. They had just secured the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. “Listen, Karl,” I told him, “The best thing that the Browns can do with themselves stays at number one and take Baker Mayfield right there.”
“What about Sam Darnold?” he challenged.
“No, Karl, trust me,” I replied, “Baker has the magic to change that franchise.”
Where my faith in Baker Mayfield originated
The first time I remember seeing Baker Mayfield would have been working in a sports bar kitchen in September 2015. Living in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, most of us were Tennessee fans. We had the occasional Alabama fan as well, which we gave them hell for all the time. It was the week that the Butch Jones-led Volunteers hosted the Oklahoma Sooners.
Our bar manager was telling us about the Oklahoma quarterback. “He’s a walk-on who transferred from fucking Texas Tech,” he jeered. As Tennessee took a big early lead, both our bar manager and our store manager were in and out of the kitchen, providing updates every couple of minutes. Our grill chef brought a radio and posted it above his countertop, blaring Bob Kesling and Tim Priest calling the game. We felt pretty good as Tennessee fans.
Then, Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense pulled out one of the greatest comebacks in recent college memory. They pulled the win in overtime, 31-24, and the legend of Baker Mayfield was born into Oklahoma history.
Sealing the deal
Mayfield put up huge numbers over the next couple of years, dominating the Big 12. His next big moment in history? The Ohio State game in 2017. I had just gotten back from working a summer at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmaron, New Mexico, and had moved into Murfreesboro, Tennessee. My roommate was my ex-girlfriend’s brother, who was a friend of mine. He played some bush league football and had a general interest in football, which worked when I wanted the television in the living room.
After a stellar performance from Mayfield, when Oklahoma won the game, he pulled off one of the most unforgettable moments in college football history. Taking the Oklahoma flag, we ran around the field and then planted it at midfield over the Ohio State logo.
That’s one of those moments as college football fans that we ask each other, “Where were you when Baker planted that flag?” It was a special moment and criticized by many in the media.
My mind was made up
I started to get into sports writing that year, and I figured that was the career I wanted to pursue. That November, I wrote an article on my sports blog entitled “Why Baker Mayfield is the Next John Elway.”
“As I watched the Bedlam game on Saturday afternoon,” I wrote in the article, “the same thought kept coming into my head as Mayfield kept escaping pressure from a porous offensive line, throwing balls sixty-plus yards down the field and firing bullets across his body. ‘Man,’ I kept thinking, ‘he looks just like John Elway.'”
It was true. His big arm, electric personality, and pure ability to take command of the game were extraordinary. That November, I couldn’t understand why Mayfield wasn’t the center of attention in NFL circles. The media was spending a lot of their coverage talking about USC quarterback Sam Darnold, Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.
“The amazing thing is that we’re not hearing about scouting reports from NFL teams about what kind of a player he can be at the next level,” I wrote. “A player with his kind of talent, his skill set, and his dynamics, you would think scouting groups would be all over this guy.”
The truth? They already were.
Going into the 2018 Draft
The Cleveland Browns had seen some lackluster football seasons, two miserable years under head coach Hue Jackson. They were 1-31 and going into the class with the new general manager, John Dorsey, looking to change the culture in the Cleveland locker room. They needed a spark, someone to live up to the franchise and give it hope again.
When I looked at Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, two of the top quarterback prospects in that class, I didn’t see that with either of them. They didn’t have the grit that is needed to thrive in Cleveland. You have to be relatable to people to win their respect. They were good prospects, in my eyes, but not the right culture fits. Josh Allen could be, I thought, but he needed a lot of coaching.
At the NFL Combine that year, someone asked Mayfield if he wanted to go to Cleveland. “If it’s anybody’s going to turn around that franchise it’d be me,” he replied. “They’re close. They have the right pieces. Just need one guy at quarterback to make that difference.”
I wrote about it the day before the draft while writing for the Last Word On Sports, putting my final say on it. “So he has pretty much everything that an NFL scout is looking for in a quarterback,” I wrote. “Good, durable arm with decent athleticism and that special “it” factor.”
Dorsey obviously felt the same way when he took Mayfield with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Baker Mayfield struggled early with coaching
Baker Mayfield struggled early in his career as his head coach changed three times over his first 13 NFL games. Hue Jackson, the Browns’ least successful headman, was fired after a rough 2-2-1 start in Mayfield’s rookie season. Gregg Williams, the team’s defensive coordinator, took the interim spot, and the offense changed drastically in the first few games following the change.
People can not forget the unforgettable term that Mayfield coined after the Browns 28-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons. When he was asked about his astonishing rookie performance, he compiled a 151.2 passer rating and completed all but three of his passes; Mayfield smiled. “I woke up feeling dangerous,” he said. That term became a rallying cry around the city of Cleveland. His personality was an infectious fit for the city, from his confident, semi-cocky demeanor to his quick “fuck you” to opponents taking cheap shots.
At the end of the year, the Browns hired the interim offensive coordinator, Freddie Kitchens, to take over. A disappointing 2019 season resulted in another head coaching change; this time, general manager John Dorsey was canned. The Browns hired former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, to take over the Browns.
Mayfield’s early struggles came from coaches’ desires for him to be a drop-back passer. Mayfield is much more than that. He can extend plays with his feet. He throws off his platform better than anyone in the league right now. They had serious offensive line issues his first two years in the league, too, that didn’t allow him to play well as a drop-back quarterback.
What the Cleveland Browns did in 2020 to change things
Stefanski seems to be the first head coach that Baker Mayfield has had at the NFL level who understands how to unleash Mayfield. When you watch his tape at Oklahoma, Mayfield slams the ball all over creation like a gunslinger. Oklahoma ran a wide-open-spread offense and utilized a lot of the speed outside one-on-one. It’s harder to do that in the NFL because the speed threshold isn’t as wide as college. Stefanski finds ways to allow Mayfield to use his legs, move the pocket, and get the one-on-one opportunities outside.
Stefanski brought his wildly successful Minnesota offensive style to Cleveland. It matches the grit and toughness of the city, too. The main philosophy that the Browns offense impresses is to establish a strong run game. The Browns used Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt very well to create this. They run a lot of tight, power formations and run them north and south.
What this does is it creates massive opportunities with the play action. Let’s talk about some of the things that Cleveland runs to unleash Mayfield.
Browns bootleg levels concept
Levels is the terminology in football in which a play moves either to the left or the right and has different receivers crossing at different depths of the field. It’s extremely effective against zone coverage, which generally attacks a side of the field and finds openings left by the defense.
The Browns have two terrific playmakers at wide receiver – Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry. As a result, Stefanski uses bootleg action to create opportunities for Mayfield to make great decisions. In this case, the Browns create a misdirection with the tight end, moving him into the backfield as a fullback. When this pre-snap motion happens, it creates a strong side to the formation. The defense, sensing power run, will bite on the play-action fake.
Now, the Browns have one-on-one opportunities across the board. They create a levels concept here, with Beckham Jr running a clear out go. With one-on-one chances and no deep help, he’s the perfect big play target.
The other key part of this play is that it’s a bootleg left with a right-handed quarterback. This makes the throw much more difficult for Mayfield, who has to turn his body to throw without making it across his body. Mayfield does this extremely well – consistent and accurate, flashing a rapid release.
The Browns red zone concept
Baker Mayfield is adept at reading coverages pre-snap and can quickly move through progressions on a play. This one, in particular, is a four-step progression that’s almost guaranteed to have a player open. Mayfield scans concepts, combining his pre-snap reading ability and his smarts as a quarterback.
The Browns bring their fullback, Andy Janovich, in motion from the tight end spot. Their tight end, Stephen Carlson, starts in the fullback spot before motioning as the far tight end, creating a goal-line strongside look. The motion that Janovich creates will draw linebackers away from the middle of the field. It’s an easy touchdown throw to Janovich if the linebackers are a step late to react.
The two main targets here, David Njoku and Carlson, attack the middle of the field, which the linebackers have hopefully vacated. Njoku is the short target running a slant, while Carlson works behind the slant on an in-route. If they aren’t there, Mayfield works his progression to Austin Hooper on the drag route that has worked against the motion created by Janovich.
Baker Mayfield’s ability to throw off platform accurately opens the playbook
Mayfield’s ability to throw off the platform with incredible accuracy gives the Browns and Stefanski versatility when designing the playbook. The Browns can use Mayfield as a traditional drop-back passer and a bootleg artist off of their play-action. His extendibility and improvability make him a dangerous combination.
Between his on-field demeanor and ability to play the game, the media can make an argument that Mayfield is a top-five quarterback entering the NFL in 2021. The wide variety of concepts that the Browns run with Mayfield at the helm is truly commendable and rare. People can continue hating, but he’s dangerous, he’s smart, and he’s an incredible player who has turned the corner for the Browns organization. He’s the man who changed the tide.