For the first time since before the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted LeBron James, the city’s NFL team is in the playoffs. Led in part by running back Nick Chubb and defensive end Myles Garrett, the Browns could win their first postseason game since 1994, when they were technically a whole other franchise that then moved to Baltimore.
The Browns’ chances largely depend on which of their quarterbacks suits up: early-season struggler Baker Mayfield or his clutch late-season alter ego. How do we know which Baker Mayfield we’ll get? The postseason is a whole other uncharted season, after all.
The question of Mayfield’s NFL aptitude feels like it should be settled by now, four years after he won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma and three years after he was picked No. 1 in a QB-heavy draft.
Usually, it doesn’t take long to make up our minds about passers. 2019 Washington first-rounder Dwayne Haskins might already be done as a pro, partly because of his off-field decisions. 2020 seems to have produced at least a couple swiftly minted franchise QBs in the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow.
And then there are quarterbacks who bounce between extremes, the Joe Flaccos who demand weekly reevaluations based on performances in everything from games to press conferences. Mayfield has existed in this Flaccosian Realm for quite a while now.
In college, his ability was never the question. He won conference or national awards in all four seasons as a starter. The debate instead revolved around him being a creature animated by pure spite. He planted OU’s flag on Ohio State’s turf, crotch-grabbed against poor lil Kansas, and nursed any and all available grudges, from an agent who erred on a biographical detail to every media member who ever doubted him.
His thin-skinned swagger entertained college football fans, but also generated ominous comparisons to the Browns’ 2014 first-round quarterback draftee: NFL burnout Johnny Manziel. That showy confidence has long been part of the challenge: How can we be sure we’re correctly scrutinizing the play of the loudest guy on the field?
Mayfield struggled early in his 2018 rookie season, before Cleveland fired head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley halfway through. The QB suddenly looked like a Heisman winner again, posting six of his debut season’s eight highest-rated games.
(Meanwhile, his beef with Colin Cowherd entered year two, with the QB calling the sports talker a “liar” and a “donkey.” Also, not many people speak highly of Jackson, but you have to admire Mayfield’s creativity in producing a grudge against his former coach for having the audacity to accept post-Cleveland employment.)
As a second-year starter in 2019—with Todd Monken as OC under newly promoted head coach Freddie Kitchens—Mayfield looked like one of the NFL’s worst QBs for about a month and a half before turning things around.
It was all surreal. The NFL’s advertising-industrial complex had sprinted to make the cocky Brett Favre type an instant superstar. Despite sometimes playing like rookie Peyton Manning, Mayfield was in as many commercials as retired Peyton Manning. During 2019’s playoffs, that meant Mayfield’s sitcom-style commercials, the ones where he’s preparing Cleveland’s stadium for visitors, were still airing after Cleveland’s stadium had no games to host.
“Baker Mayfield has more commercials than wins,” intoned ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith.
Undeterred, the Mayfield hype machine responded with a commercial about how many commercials he’s in.
In 2020, with yet another new head coach, Kevin Stefanski, installing yet another new offense, Mayfield struggled early on once more, including a benching during a helpless outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And then, for the third year out of three, a turnaround.
Going forward, could we expect the down-and-up cycle to end, now that Cleveland has some stability? Playing for four OCs in only three years is chaotic even by the standards of the Cleveland Browns. What can we make of such scattered evidence?
“Mayfield is both good and bad because he can only play at one speed,” said Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina, a former QB coach. “That’s why there is so much inconsistency. The fastball is as good as anyone in the league, but sometimes you need a second pitch, and Baker doesn’t have that quite yet. The guy needs a breaking ball. But with that said, Stefanski is doing a great job of manufacturing offense, regardless of QB talent right now.”
“He is good in the sense that it’s good when a child is starting to learn how to ride a bike,” said Charles McDonald of For the Win, “but he’s not ready for Stefanski to take off his training wheels yet.”
“In that run-heavy offense, those training wheels are the size of monster truck tires,” said Richard Johnson of the Split Zone Duo podcast and SEC Network’s Thinking Out Loud. “They really aren’t doing a ton of fancy stuff in the passing game. But it’s clear this season that you can win with him.”
In 2020, Mayfield’s intended air yards—a stat that measures how far each pass travels—average about a yard shorter per throw than in his rookie season. Part of that might be due to the absence of injured receiver Odell Beckham Jr., a fellow boom-or-bust talent who applies almost as much pressure to his QBs as he does to opposing defenses.
But fewer big swings has meant a steadier offense, whether anything about the Mayfield experience can ever truly feel steady. The starkest result might be his interception percentage, which ranked second-worst among 32 starting QBs in 2019, but ninth-best in 2020.
We’re seeing a high-variance personality being remodeled into an athlete with a higher floor, albeit with a lower ceiling for the time being. The hope will be to retain the former while raising the latter. And despite the sting of being benched, Mayfield’s main public performance this season has been throwing harmless pop culture references into his pressers.
However, there’s space within these new confines for the ultimate Mayfield priority: zapping haters. On Sunday, the Browns clinched their playoff berth thanks to a play that seems to have been named after a comment by Mayfield’s nemesis, Cowherd, who apparently said years earlier that Mayfield is more of a Mazda than a Maserati.
And, as Sports Illustrated explained, that just so happens to be the name of the play Stefanski sat on all year, one that kept the ball in Mayfield’s hands with Cleveland’s history on the line:
That’s right, a simple, one-word call signifying a quarterback sweep. As it turns out, Cleveland has had the play in its back pocket. But not only had Kevin Stefanski not called it this year, it actually wasn’t even in any of the Browns’ 15 previous game plans.
“It was for short yardage this week, and we called it,” said guard Joel Bitonio, the longest-tenured Brown, in his seventh season in Cleveland. “I was kinda giving Baker [Mayfield] a little bit of crap earlier in the week about his speed, having him run the ball.”
I hope never to become the subject of a Mayfield media grudge, because I think Mayfield can still become an awesome pro, even if he’s taking a while to meet the hype. We saw at Oklahoma how good he can be against elite talent when armed with offensive mastery. His Heisman year was not only his fourth at Oklahoma, counting a redshirt year there, but his fifth in the same air raid offense, thanks to his freshman stint at Texas Tech (where, yes, he developed a grudge against Kliff Kingsbury).
So a second full year in Stefanski’s system could finally help settle the question. Even if Cleveland wasn’t a, uh, traditional 11-win team during this regular season. (Their point differential is worse than even 7–9 Washington’s.) This can still become a team that does more than just beat up on weaklings.
For the time being, at least Mayfield’s playoff presence won’t be limited to just commercial breaks.