Former Oklahoma football quarterback and overall No. 1 NFL draft pick Baker Mayfield vowed to bring the hapless Cleveland Browns back to relevancy, and he is delivering on his promise.
Mayfield, who transferred to Oklahoma after his freshman season at Texas Tech and walked on to the Sooner football program, set a number of NCAA, Big 12 and school records in his three full seasons as the OU starting quarterback. Oklahoma was 34-6 with Mayfield at quarterback, won three consecutive Big 12 championships and appeared in the College Football Playoff in two of the three seasons he was there.
The one problem with being the first player selected in the annual NFL Draft is that the team making the first plck is generally the one with the worst record in the league the year before. That was the fate waiting Mayfield, as the Browns, who had not won a game in more than a year and a half removed his name from the draft board as the very first pick in last spring’s NFL Draft.
In addition to his exceptional physical skills and extraordinarily high football intellect, Mayfield’s tank is always full with self-confidence and the ability to put bad plays behind him and deliver in the biggest moments.
But asking him to be the savior for a struggling franchise that had gone through as many as a dozen starting quarterbacks since the 2010 season, including Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, and 28 going back to 1999 seemed like mission impossible. During that same time frame Cleveland’s overall record since 2010 was a miserable 29-99 (.227) and the franchise had been through five head coaches over that time. Without question, the Browns had become the laughing stock of the NFL.
From the time he was drafted and continuing on through preseason training camp, then Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson made it fairly clear that Mayfield would not be the starting quarterback when the 2018 season kicked off. That job belonged to Tyrod Taylor, who had been traded to the Browns by Buffalo in March, several months before Mayfield became the Browns’ top draft pick.
Taylor did start the season as the Cleveland signal caller but lasted just two games before suffering a concussion in the third game of the season at home against the New York Jets.
The Browns were trailing 14-0 in the second quarter when Taylor left the game. Just like that, the pressure shifted to Mayfield’s shoulders, a moment that many NFL rookies would find too much to handle. But not Baker. He lives for such moments. It was time to show why he was deserving of becoming the No. 1 overall draft pick.
Mayfield was ready, as were the Browns fans, who had not experienced a Cleveland victory in 635 days. The former Oklahoma quarterback provided an immediate spark to the Cleveland offense. In his first series, Mayfield led the Browns on a six-play, 39-yard drive that resulted in a field goal just before halftime.
A nine-play, 50-yard drive stalled out on Cleveland’s first possession of the second half, but Mayfield led the Browns on scoring drives on the next three possessions, giving the Brownies a 21-17 lead. The Cleveland defense closed the door over the remaining two minutes of the contest, ending the Browns’ long losing skid at 20 games.
Instantly, Mayfield became the new king of Cleveland sports. He ended his NFL debut against the Jets with 201 yards passing, two touchdowns and a catch on a two-point conversion try, all in a little over two quarters of work.
And that was just the beginning. Mayfield has started 11 games for Cleveland since the Sept. 20 debut. The Browns have won five of those and currently own a 6-7-1 record heading into the final two games of the 2018 regular season. Cleveland has not won as many as six games since 2014 (when it won seven) and you have to go back to 2007 before that (10 wins).
Cleveland went 2-1 in November, with wins over Atlanta and Cincinnati, and Mayfield was named NFL Rookie of the Month. In his three November games, Mayfield completed 74 percent of his pass attempts and threw nine touchdown passes with just one interception. His quarterback rating for the three games was an impressive 129.5, second only to New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees for the month.
Mayfield’s rookie performance in Cleveland has converted a number of so-called NFL experts who believed he wasn’t tall enough or too stuck on himself to succeed at the next level. As he has done his entire athletic life, he is proving those who doubted him wrong.
Houston Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has played against Mayfield in college (while at Clemson) and has gotten to know Mayfield well off the field, isn’t surprised with what his friend has done.
“Everyone wants to play with him. The guy is a playmaker,” Watson told Associated Press sportswriter Tom Withers.
“He (Mayfield) is playing very well. That is the reason why they are having a lot of success because he is leading that team, he is leading that organization and he is going to have a bright future, win a lot of games, win championships.”
The Browns final two games are at home this Sunday with Cincinnati and at Baltimore the following Sunday. With Mayfield at quarterback, Cleveland won the earlier games this season against both teams.
They would need some help, but if the Browns win their final two games, they would finish with a record of 8-7-1 and have an outside shot at one of the two playoff wild-card spots in the American Conference. Imagine that for a franchise that hasn’t been to a playoff since 2002 and hasn’t won a playoff game since 1994.
Tell me Cleveland isn’t overjoyed with its No. 1 NFL Draft selection. And I’m certain the feeling is mutual.