It's now Mayfield's team
The Baker Mayfield era as quarterback of the Browns was born Thursday night as the kid introduced himself to the National Football League and a national television audience with a spectacular debut.
If the club’s No. 1 selection in the last college football draft does not have the huddle against the Raiders in Oakland a week from Sunday and the 12 games that follow, coach Hue Jackson should be fired on the spot.
What Mayfield did in the Browns’ 21-17 come-from-behind victory over the New York Jets, which shattered a 19-game winless streak, more than qualifies him to show once and for all he can make a successful transition to the NFL.
He not only lifted the Browns to their first victory in 635 days, he lifted an entire city from an emotional standpoint at the same time. Fans refused to leave the Factory of Sadness they were so happy. Breathing in the aroma of victory is something Browns fans haven’t enjoyed often since 1999.
Makes no difference how Mayfield plays from now on, this is his team now. He’ll have his ups, his downs, his inconsistencies when opposing teams gather tape on him. But he is without question a far better choice right now than Tyrod Taylor.
If it hadn’t been for a concussion Taylor suffered late in the second quarter of a game that was slowly slipping away due to the incompetency of the offense he was operating, Mayfield probably would never have entered the game.
Normally in the NFL, a starting quarterback doesn’t lose his job to injury. In this case, though, the injured quarterback is at best slightly better than average. He proved it with a sluggish first half, during which the Jets jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
The underdog Jets were quicker on defense than the plodding Cleveland offensive line and blew up the Browns’ defense with a ground game that ate up chunks of yardage as ex-Brown Isaiah Crowell scored a pair of touchdowns. It was a rout in progress until Mayfield entered the game.
No matter what Taylor did with Todd Haley’s offense, nothing worked. It took seven attempts to complete his first pass. He twice badly underthrew speedy and wide open wide receiver Antonio Callaway. Mayfield has the arm to make those throws and Callaway has two long touchdown catches.
The offense gained a meager 79 yards on its first six possessions under Taylor with Britton Colquitt culminating each one with a punt, one of which was blocked. Fans grew progressively restless and began chanting Mayfield’s name.
When Taylor entered the tent in concussion protocol, the game turned. Mayfield officially introduced himself to the NFL with 102 seconds left in the first half and almost fumbled away an opportunity to do something Taylor failed to – put points on the scoreboard.
He was strip-sacked on his third play, but left guard Joel Bitonio fortunately recovered the ball. Two plays later, newcomer Greg Joseph made his first contribution to the offense with a 45-yard field goal to slice the Jets' lead at the half to 14-3.
The defense took the cue and played a much stronger and opportunistic second half, waiting until Mayfield and the offense caught up. And it was that side of the football that triggered the comeback midway through the third quarter.
Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, who is developing a reputation for making big plays, stripped the ball out of Robby Anderson’s arms after the Jets wide receiver rambled 17 yards with a Sam Darnold pass, recovered it and made his way to the New York 8.
In his only fail of the game, Mayfield was unable to move the ball and Joseph sneaked a 27-yard field goal just inside the left upright. After the defense limited to Jets to a four-and-out, Mayfield atoned for his only mistake.
He was four-for-four passing for 67 yards, hooking up with Jarvis Landry twice for 17 and 29 yards, the latter a spectacular catch just inside the New Yok 10 as he was running sideways and twisting his way to the 1, from where Carlos Hyde scored on the first play.
The Browns caught a big break on their first two-point attempt, which failed abysmally as Jackson went for the tie. Offsetting penalties created a second attempt, which turned out to be nothing short of wondrous and wonderfully creative.
Duke Johnson Jr. took a direct snap and pitched the ball to Landry on what initially appeared to be a reverse to the left side of the formation. But the wide receiver slowed down, pulled up and found Mayfield, who sneaked into the left flat all alone, with a soft left-handed lob. The crowd went nuts.
These weren’t the Cleveland Browns. The Browns don’t run plays like that, especially successful ones. And just like that, it was 14-14 and the momentum definitely swung to the Cleveland side of the field.
Darnold, however, converted two third downs in a 12-play drive before the Cleveland defense stiffened and forced a 28-yard Jason Myers field goal with nine minutes left in the regulation.
That’s when Mayfield, with another dose of good fortune, stepped up and all but clinched the starting job, engineering a 15-play, 75-yard scoring drive that took 6:52 off the clock.
On the fifth play, Johnson gathered in a short pass, danced for 15 yards and fumbled. Rashard Higgins covered the loose ball and chipped in with a 19-yard reception on the next play.
Mayfield kept the drive alive with a 10-yard hookup with Callaway on third down, moving the ball to the Jets 16, from where Hyde initially scored his second touchdown of the game. But it was wiped out when Landry was caught blocking a defender in the back.
He made up for it on the next play with a 12-yard grab before Nick Chubb ripped off a seven-yard run to place the ball at the 1. It took three cracks, but Hyde finally got that second score over right guard.
That’s when the Cleveland defense more than made up for its first-half malaise, twice picking off Darnold twice in the final two minutes as the Jets desperately tried to yank this one away in what normally is atrocious Cleveland luck in the final moments of a game.
Joe Schobert made the first, athletically diving for the ball at the New York 27, Then Terrance Mitchell sealed it with the third Cleveland takeaway of the night, giving them 11 on the season.
That began the unbridled joy as the players joined with the fans up close and personal in the stands in celebration of what those fans hope is finally a swerve in the right direction after all those years of abject misery.
Mayfield wound up 17-of-23 for 201 yards, but three of those incompletions were drops of perfect passes. His only hiccup was the fumble. The most important discovery, however, was how much better the offensive line played in front of him.
As television play-by-play man Joe Buck said, “The ball seems to come out of Mayfield’s hand differently than Taylor’s.” It sure does. It’s quicker, clearly more accurate and much more alive, arriving at its destination a lot faster.
When Taylor entered that tent, his days as starting quarterback of the Browns ostensibly ended. It’s not official, of course, until Jackson makes it so.
But that little formality is certain to come sometime between now and a week from Sunday when Baker Mayfield officially becomes the new starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, their 30th – and most likely last for a while – since the return in 1999.