Even in dark days, Baker-mania gives Cleveland hope

IT HAD BEEN years, and it felt like even longer, since that many people stayed to watch the end of a Cleveland Browns game at First Energy Stadium. Trying to rush to an escalator, or elevator, was pointless. Almost everyone was caught in a slow-moving sea of orange and brown, a wave of thousands of jubilant fans, drunk on cheap beer or hope (or both), standing shoulder to shoulder and gradually inching their way down the labyrinth of ramps that wind their way to the stadium’s exit. Leaving a building long dubbed the “Factory of Sadness” had never been so difficult.

For the first time in 635 days, the Browns had won a football game, defeating the New York Jets 21-17 on a warm September night. A fan base that had been forced to accept misery as a regular part of its existence was now singing and clapping in unison, with such gusto that you could hear the chants echo off the buildings of downtown, and out into the waters of Lake Erie.

Ba-ker May-field! (clap clap clap-clap-clap!)
Ba-ker May-field! (clap clap clap-clap-clap!)

“I would say from end whistle to getting to my car took about 90 minutes because of how many people stuck around to the end of the game,” says Scott Sargent, a Northwest Ohio native who co-founded the Cleveland sports blog Waiting For Next Year, and who has been writing about Cleveland sports for more than a decade. “The entire time, people were doing the ‘Baker Mayfield’ chant. I’ve never seen one player come into a game and instill hope in a franchise the way he did that night.”

Some fans simply wouldn’t leave the stadium. As Mayfield stayed on the field to do an extended interview with the NFL Network, a small group stuck around to continue the chant, occasionally switching it up and treating Mayfield like a deity.

You’re the sav-ior! (clap clap clap-clap-clap)
You’re the sav-ior! (clap clap clap-clap-clap)

Mayfield rolled his eyes a bit when presented with a celebratory cake, but he played along. He knew what this win meant to the city. “It’s like one of those ‘Talladega Nights’ moments where I don’t know what to do with my hands,” he joked. “As corny as it sounds, that’s kind of how my whole life has gone. I’ve been a backup, and I’ve had to fight through some things.”

In that moment, you could forgive Browns fans for being unabashedly hopeful. In Mayfield, they suddenly had a player and a leader with enough charisma and swagger — and possibly skill — to wash away a decade of well-earned cynicism. “To put it into perspective, Baker Mayfield was drafted in every single local fantasy football league that I’m in, and he wasn’t even guaranteed to play a down this year,” Sargent says. “I think that’s indicative of the hope that he personified, that maybe this franchise was finally getting it right.”

All he had to do was keep performing miracles.

SIX WEEKS HAVE come and gone since that moment. The joy that was blossoming in Cleveland that night has, at best, wilted. Even the vendors hawking “Mayfield Mania” and “The Bake Show” T-shirts on Lakeside Avenue outside the stadium have felt the excitement wane. “We probably sold 3,000 T-shirts at $20 a shirt before the Ravens game,” DeAndre Stevens says. “It’s definitely slower since then. He’s the only player we got, but he can’t do it alone. It’s definitely frustrating.”

Lately Mayfield has been wearing the look of a man dropped into a long-running reality show, only to realize, a month in, that his hope to change the vibe would be in vain — that everyone has spent several years plotting against one another. The Browns have lost five of six, and the quarterback’s play since the victory against the Jets has been occasionally exciting, but mostly uneven. A behind-the-scenes power struggle between head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley resulted in both men getting fired. Owner Jimmy Haslam called the move a “rebooting” and insisted it was done to send a message that the franchise would not put up with infighting. General manager John Dorsey was quick to make it clear that the firings were made with Mayfield in mind, the franchise having already burned half a year making its young quarterback learn an offense that will be abandoned by spring.

It’s clear, even after only eight weeks, that Mayfield possesses leadership qualities that are rare, albeit hard to quantify. Any suggestion he was going to be Johnny Manziel 2.0 — another undersized, cocky quarterback from a powerhouse program who freelanced and partied his way out of football after being a first-round Browns draft pick — has proved to be the laziest of comparisons. Unlike Manziel, Mayfield has played primarily within the structure of Cleveland’s offense, throwing the ball in rhythm and through tight windows. (He’s completing 60 percent of his throws, even though the Browns are sixth in the NFL in dropped passes.) When he improvises, it’s generally because protection has broken down. In the locker room, he has earned the respect of the veterans without tempering his bravado, not an easy needle to thread for a young quarterback.

“I’ve been here through a lot of quarterbacks,” says offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, who has been with the Browns since 2014. “He’s the one guy who really does have that ‘it’ factor. It’s hard to explain what that is, exactly. Obviously, he’s a good player. But it starts with his competitiveness. Everything he does, he wants to be the best, but he puts in the work. I love him. No matter what’s going on in the game, he’s always in the huddle like, ‘All right, we’re scoring a touchdown this drive.’ It’s always good to have leaders, but to have your quarterback be that guy, that is special.”

When pressed by reporters early in the season as to why he and Jarvis Landry, Cleveland’s best wide receiver, weren’t connecting more often, Mayfield quickly tried to pin all the blame on his own throws.

“I’ll just be better for him,” Mayfield said. “I wasn’t the accurate quarterback they drafted me to be, plain and simple. I’ll fix that. It doesn’t matter on Jarvis’ end. He’s doing his job. I’ll be better at doing mine.”

Some of the best evidence of Mayfield’s potential, both as a player and leader, came in the Browns’ 45-42 overtime loss to the Raiders on Sept. 30 — Mayfield’s first career start. Miked up by NFL Films, his swagger was on display throughout the game, even during warm-ups, when he handed out a few high-fives to Raiders fans right before the national anthem.

“I have more Raider fans than they do,” Mayfield joked with Browns receiver Rashard Higgins. “I’ve got a damn rocket on my right arm!” he boasted after throwing a 49-yard touchdown to tight end Darren Fells over the middle.

But perhaps more telling was one of his pre-drive pep talks. “All right, listen,” Mayfield growled as the Browns took the field in the second half. “Nobody needs to step up. Just do our job the best we can. That’s all we need. We don’t need anything else. They’re not better than us. Do our f—ing job.”

When Nick Chubb broke through the line late in the fourth quarter for a 41-yard touchdown, giving the Browns a 42-35 lead with 4 minutes, 20 seconds to play, Mayfield sprinted to the end zone so he could hug his teammate, squealing like a teenage girl rushing the stage at an Ariana Grande concert.

“That’s what gets us going,” Browns tight end Orson Charles says. “A lot of people may not agree, but I love it. I don’t want a quarterback that’s timid. I played with Drew Brees, and Brees had a chip on his shoulder too, but he showed it differently. I’ll follow [Mayfield] wherever he wants to go. He can connect with anyone. I love that about him. He’s just like, ‘Hey, can you help us win? Then let’s go.'”

Mayfield’s ability to connect with people, to make them feel a part of something bigger than themselves, has always been one of his natural gifts, dating to his time at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas. His high school football coach, Hank Carter, often thinks back to a moment during Mayfield’s senior season, when the Lake Travis High marching band qualified for the state semifinals. “There is a tradition in Lake Travis, when an athletic team makes a state level of competition, the community will do a send-off,” Carter says. “The send-off for the band was on a Saturday morning, the day after we’d played a game. As you can imagine, high school boys are not particularly excited about showing up early in the morning to hold signs and cheer on the band. But not only was Baker down in front, he was leading the chants, the same type of chants you’ll see him still doing in huddles today. He made it feel really special for those kids. Most high school kids would think they were too cool for something like that, but Baker saw it as an opportunity to celebrate someone who had supported him.”

WHAT, THOUGH, ARE the limits of charisma and leadership? Can Mayfield’s personality truly make up for limitations in other areas? Brees gets plenty of praise for his leadership, but he’s also better at understanding when receivers are about to break into space than any quarterback to ever play. It’s not leadership or charisma that allows him to fit the ball into tiny windows, on time and under duress. It’s that he’s an athletic freak, maybe as much an NFL unicorn (in his own way) as Michael Vick was during his prime.

Can Mayfield really develop into a poor man’s version of Brees? There are times when he’ll make you a believer. Against the Steelers, he made a handful of Houdini escapes, including one where he somehow avoided getting sandwiched by Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt and pirouetted backward to find open space and zip the ball to Landry. But he struggled when forced to throw from within the pocket, averaging just 5.0 yards per completion. It was after that loss that Jackson and Haley were fired.

“He’s not as accurate as I expected him to be — just a couple of throws that aren’t quite as pinpoint as what you saw at Oklahoma,” one front-office executive says. “But I chalk that up to growing pains and everything he’s got going on around him. It’s clear his teammates respond to him, and early on you saw the eye-opening plays that made them believe he was the guy. I’m interested to see how he handles the coaching changes and whether we see progress the rest of the year, or if he starts to look overwhelmed.”

It seems apparent already that he’s not Patrick Mahomes, the man with whom he shared a pregame hug Sunday before Mahomes roasted the Browns, throwing for 375 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-21 Chiefs victory. And it seems clear Mayfield’s not Carson Wentz, who finished third in the NFL MVP vote last season despite missing three games because of a knee injury. The Browns could have had either player in consecutive drafts but chose instead to focus on defense.

Was Mayfield, plus defensive end Myles Garrett (the No. 1 pick in 2017), a better gamble than Mahomes alone? Were the 11 picks they got as a result of their trade with the Eagles better than picking Wentz? At this point, the answer doesn’t matter. The Browns have to make it work, whether or not they develop doubts about Mayfield’s long-term potential. The pressure on the franchise to get it right this time is enormous.

At the very least, the fan base knows Mayfield will be the quarterback in 2019, a rare piece of continuity for a franchise that hasn’t had a quarterback start at least 12 games in back-to-back seasons since Tim Couch did it in 2001 and 2002.

“As a fan, I think you become numb to it after a while, especially when you draft or have guys under center you know aren’t going to be there for the long haul,” Sargent says. “Cody Kessler was not selected to be the quarterback of the future. Mike Holmgren might have sworn by him, but no one paying for tickets, or merchandise, or affording their 3½ hours on Sunday, thought that was going to be the case. When the winningest quarterback in your stadium since the resurrection of the franchise is Ben Roethlisberger, you know your team hasn’t exactly been a stable one at the quarterback position.”

There is a sense, within league circles, that the Browns job is more attractive to potential head coaches than it initially appears, despite the constant dysfunction. Observers are quick to draw parallels between the Browns under Jackson and the Los Angeles Rams in their final season under Jeff Fisher. Jared Goff looked lost as a rookie, but after being paired with Sean McVay, he looks like an MVP candidate. It might be the reason former Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said this week Cleveland’s was the only job he’d consider coming out of retirement to take.

Mayfield, for his part, has been reticent to do anything that might make it look as if he’s eager to get attention, primarily limiting his interactions with the media to his weekly news conference. Approached after the Browns lost in overtime to Tampa Bay and asked if he’d be open to sitting down for an interview, Mayfield was clearly annoyed.

“It’s just a really inappropriate time for you to be asking me about that right now,” Mayfield said, still fuming from the loss as he walked to the team bus.

That strain of competitive rage simmers in everything Mayfield does, and it’s one reason the Browns remain hopeful this is the perfect match: underdog franchise and perpetually aggrieved player. Bitonio couldn’t help but smile during one of the practices in the week leading up to the Browns’ game against Kansas City when, during a “seven shot” drill — where the offense has seven chances to get into the end zone — a shoving match broke out between a pair of burly lineman. As it got more heated, several other players joined the scuffle.

“Most quarterbacks stay out of that stuff, but Baker jumps right into the heart of it,” Bitonio says. “He’s throwing guys off, he’s getting up in guys’ faces. Well, if your quarterback goes into a fight, you can’t let him go in there unsupervised, so now everybody has to jump in. It’s all in good fun. But if he has your back like that, you know you have to have his back on the field.

“Football is such a unique melting pot, because you have 53 guys from completely different backgrounds. When you have a quarterback who connects with everybody? That’s pretty special. He’s been good for us, man. Now we need to protect him, and keep him out there as long as we can.”

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