Full disclosure . . . actually more like an admission . . .
When Browns General Manager John Dorsey defied the experts/pundits and selected Baker Mayfield for the Browns with the No. 1 overall pick in the last college football draft, I was skeptical at best.
I was steadfastly and stubbornly in the Sam Darnold camp almost from the time he dismantled Penn State in the 2017 Rose Bowl. The timing was perfect. The Browns would have the top pick when Darnold decided to leave USC.
He was the perfect choice to lead the Browns into a new era. A fresh young face with oodles of talent, Darnold was a winner. Dorsey surely had to know and see that.
What we did not know at the time is the GM also had his eye steadfastly and stubbornly on Mayfield mainly because of his intangibles. He was a leader. He didn’t just hate losing; he abhorred it.
And most important of all, he wanted to enter on the ground floor and build something. The only drawback was his height. In a league where prototypical quarterbacks are at least 6-3, he fell short (pun intended) at a thumbnail over six feet tall.
Why in the world would Dorsey risk his excellent reputation as a master talent evaluator on a short, arrogant, full-of-himself, supremely confident player at the most important position on a football team?
When he took Mayfield, I thought, “Okay. If that’s what he wants, he can’t take it back now. Might as well see how far this goes. Hopefully, this is not just another typical Browns draft blunder.”
He and the other wise heads he assembled in his front office in Berea said Mayfield reminded them of Brett Favre when he arrived in Green Bay from Atlanta in a trade. They had all seen him while serving in the Packers’ front office.
It was that self-assured Favre persona that helped make the Packers one of the National Football League’s best franchises that captured their attention. And they held on to that notion until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell put them on the clock.
When Browns head coach Hue Jackson refused to give Mayfield a shot at the starting job in training camp, Dorsey and his guys remained silent, at least publicly. Their job was to provide him with the players; Jackson’s job was to coach them.
Because history has a way of ultimately correcting mistakes, it would be only a matter of time before Mayfield became the starter. It took two games and almost half of a third before Tyrod Taylor, Jackson’s anointed starter, was injured and the entire season turned. Just like that.
From the moment Mayfield trotted onto the field at home in a nationally televised game against the New York Jets, football felt different in Cleveland. The Browns trailed, 14-0, to Darnold and the Jets at the time, headed for their 20th straight game without a victory.
Mayfield led the club to a 21-17 victory, clicking on 17-of-23 passes for 201 yards, and a new era in Cleveland football was born. “I’ve just been waiting for my moment,” he said after the game. “I’m just getting started.”
Later, he added, “Dilly, dilly to the Cleveland fans. It’s not the only win we’re going to celebrate.”
As a prognosticator, he was right on. The Browns went on to win six of the next 13 games, which might not seem a lot but it served to elevate him to near royalty with Browns Nation. It forecast a bright future for this franchise.
Numerous losing streaks that had strangled the franchise began to tumble. The Browns appeared to be turning a corner for the first time in a long time and he was the reason why.
As a quarterback, though, he was even better. He excelled to the point where he has made NFL media seriously think of considering him for the league’s offensive rookie of the year.
Once Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley were fired in midseason, Mayfield flourished. He completed nearly 68.4% of his passes, averaged 282 yards a game and threw 19 of his NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes in the final eight games.
He also learned how to better protect himself in the pocket, limiting his sack total to just five in those eight games after being dropped 20 times in his four-and-a-half games.
There is no question he can make all the throws. He has the arm to laser an 18- to 20-yard out. Fitting the football into tight windows is not a problem. His touchdown throw to Antonio Callaway Sunday in Baltimore shows up in the stats as just a one-yard TD.
It was a lot more than that. Mayfield superbly squeezed the ball in to Callaway in heavy traffic at the goal line where only he could make the catch. Many veteran NFL quarterbacks have trouble making that play.
Mayfield can feather his passes with touch when necessary. He is also getting quite good at escaping the pocket when plays break down, extending them to where he can deliver a strike. And here is the best part. For someone so short, very few of his passes are deflected at the line of scrimmage.
So now everyone, including a certain former Darnold fan, knows why Dorsey picked him and are glad he did. His guy has quickly transformed the Factory of Sadness into a Factory of Happiness.
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Dorsey might want to take a long look at his offensive line during the offseason, compare it to the Ravens’ and then do something about it. Because of what the Ravens did to the Cleveland defensive line Sunday, he might consider addressing that in the draft.
The Baltimore OL ravaged Cleveland’s front all afternoon, compiling just shy of an unbelievable 300 yards. The Ravens’ front is much more agile and athletic than the Browns’ plunderers.
The Browns are incapable of pulling the left tackle and left guard and execute successful counter plays and misdirection plays. Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst had a field day pulling and opening holes on the strong side of the formation with a lot of help from tight end Maxx Williams.
Greg Robinson of the Browns cannot pull and lead plays in the opposite direction, He excels in short area blocking, but is not athletic enough to do much else. Same with right tackle Chris Hubbard.
The middle of the defensive line needs also to get stronger and a whole lot quicker. As for the edges, Myles Garrett is getting virtually no help from the other side of the lone. Emmanuel Ogbah is thisclose to being a bust.
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John Harbaugh is a terrific coach. He is arguably the best coach the Ravens have had since moving from Cleveland 23 years ago. He has coached numerous great players and even won a Super bowl with them.
That’s why it looked and sounded strange after the Ravens knocked off the Browns Sunday and gained a spot in the playoffs that he said the following:
“This is the best team I’ve ever been associated with in 34 years of coaching and even back to peewee. Look at this team, this bunch of guys. This is what a real team looks like. A bunch of guys who make a team. That’s why we’re where we’re at.”
Didn’t he notice how close the Browns came to eliminating him and his “bunch of guys” from the postseason in the last game for the second straight year? They scared the crap out of everyone else on that sideline. Perhaps Harbaugh was feeling somewhat overcome with joy and excitement after his team escaped disaster.
And “this is the best team” he’s been associated with? Really? This is a man who has won 104 games in 11 seasons and has coached teams that are 15-10 in playoff games with a Super bowl title after the 2012 season. Wonder how Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and that crew think.
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Finally . . . The next several years will be interesting in the Cleveland-Baltimore rivalry with Mayfield and Lamar Jackson meeting twice a year. If it’s anything like the season finale, buckle up. . . . It will be an upset if the Browns don’t open up competition for a new placekicker for next season. Greg Joseph was just okay after replacing the inconsistent Zane Gonzalez, who by the way nailed a 55-yarder for Arizona Sunday, The Browns need better than okay at the position. . . . Nick Chubb just missed joining the 1,000-yard club Sunday. He was dropped for a five-yard loss on his last carry of the day on the penultimate possession, lowering his season total to 996. . . . Final Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 21 yards; one reception, three yards. Total: Five touches, 24 yards. Final season totals: 40 carries, 201 yards; 47 receptions, 429 yards. Total: 87 touches, 630 yards, 7.24 yards a touch. Last season: 82 carries, 348 yards; 74 receptions, 693 yards. Total: 156 touches, 1,041 yards, 6.67 yards a touch.
Happy New Year One & All