Sports

Baker Mayfield Can Save the Browns, Assuming the Browns Don’t Destroy Him First

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 20:  Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns runs off the field after a 21-17 win over the New York Jets at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 20, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Baker Mayfield tips his cap to Cleveland.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For the first time since Christmas Eve of 2016, the Cleveland Browns have won a real, honest-to-God NFL game. They beat the New York Jets on Thursday, thanks largely to the performance of rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who replaced starter Tyrod Taylor late in the second quarter after Taylor suffered a concussion. The Browns were losing 14–0 when Mayfield stepped on the field, but he immediately started zipping passes to receivers and jump-started a comeback that ended with a 21–17 win. Is it time to get overexcited? Of course not, it was just one wi—cut to Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith celebrating with no shirt on.

It’s tempting to say, “The Browns are back!,” but that would ignore the neutral baseline at which the Browns exist. No franchise has lost more than Cleveland in the 21st century, and their current 1–1–1 record means they are in the midst of their most successful season since 2015. The Browns aren’t back; they are in uncharted territory for their modern incarnation. I mean, when was the last time you saw a guy in an orange helmet do something like this?

Mayfield went 17-for-23 and threw for 201 yards. He even caught a ball in the end zone for a game-tying two-point conversion in the third quarter.

The Browns selected Mayfield with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but the Oklahoma quarterback wasn’t the obvious choice. He’s a tad undersized and carried some euphemistic baggage (a 2017 public intoxication arrest), but all measurable metrics pointed to him potentially being a star. He impressed through training camp and preseason, so much so that outside observers like New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees took notice. “I think he can be a lot better than me,” the Super Bowl winner said last week. “He’s got all the tools. He’s more athletic. He probably can run around better. He’s got a stronger arm.” That’s high praise, indeed!

Mayfield is also a brash and charismatic dude, and he’s a good interview who’s shown he doesn’t suffer fools. If he weren’t a quarterback, you get the sense that he’d have reason to go around boasting about doing the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. These things don’t really have anything to do with winning or losing football games, but they certainly make him easy to root for. For the Browns, that’s a hell of a start.

Assuming he gets the nod next week, Mayfield will be the 30th quarterback to start for the Browns since 1999. All he has to do to be considered a success in Cleveland is string a couple of mediocre seasons together. The bar is endearingly low, but, luckily for Mayfield, he won’t have to raise it alone. The Browns have quietly assembled a young and terrifying defense. Myles Garrett is already one of the league’s best pass rushers in his second year, and rookie cornerback Denzel Ward has quickly become a playmaker at one of the toughest positions in football. If Cleveland manages to actually win a few more games this year, that unit will deserve all the credit you can spare.

Now’s a good time to remember who it is we’re talking about here. A Browns victory is the very definition of small sample size. The team has only had two winning seasons since they returned to Cleveland in 1999. Mayfield played great for roughly one half of one game. He still has fewer wins in a Browns uniform than Johnny Manziel, the guy everyone considered to be Mayfield’s worst-case scenario. There is still plenty of time for the Browns to destroy Baker Mayfield, assuming he doesn’t save the franchise before they get the chance. Seeing if he can will be the fun part, and it makes Cleveland worth watching for the first time in decades.