Random thoughts . . .
The space for chips on Baker Mayfield’s shoulders is disappearing with the latest snub, the one that deprived him of a signature National Football League honor.
Having had to walk on to win jobs at two different colleges was bad enough. Winning the Heisman Trophy in 2017 was salve for one of them.
When it came time to select the Associated Press offensive rookie of the year in the NFL last season, the Browns quarterback finished a close second to Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants in what many observers believed was an upset.
Not that Barkley didn’t deserve the honor by ringing up spectacular numbers, a few of which broke club records. But his contributions did not in any way move the needle for the Giants, who win five games last season.
Mayfield, on the other hand, moved the needle almost seismically in Cleveland in ways that changed a culture that had stagnated and lingered for the better part of two decades.
He immediately grabbed hold of a moribund franchise and almost magically turned it into one that not only gained instant respect around the league, but reached the point where the “wait till next season” trope took on an entirely new meaning.
He caught the media’s attention – apparently not enough, though, since Barkley edged him out – by shattering the NFL record for touchdown passes in his rookie season, although he began the season on the bench for the first two and a half games.
He elevated this sad franchise to heights not seen by the lakefront since the late 1980s when Bernie Kosar thrilled the Browns faithful by taking them to the precipice of the Super Bowl on a few occasions.
Mayfield’s reward? Another cold shoulder. That’s where the next chip comes in.
It seems that setbacks in life serve as motivators for the Mayfield persona. Being short (for an NFL quarterback) is yet another reason to show skeptics he can be as productive as the bigger guys.
There are those who believe that not winning the offensive rookie award can inspire him, can motivate him to perform even better this season. That’s close, but not quite correct. Substitute will for can in that thought and you’ve got it right.
Not winning – Mayfield prefers to think of it as losing – that award definitely will be in his thoughts throughout 2019 and beyond. That’s just the way he thinks. It comes naturally to someone who has fought his entire life as an athlete.
Now factor in the notion that rookie sensations are frequently victims of the dreaded sophomore jinx. Sometimes it takes an entire season to figure out hot rookies in efforts to cool them down.
There is no question Mayfield will wear a bull’s-eye on his uniform this season. It’s just another motivating factor for a young man who very well might have to play this way his entire career. It’s a challenge he more than stared down as a rookie.
Drew Brees and Russell Wilson are perfect examples of smallish quarterbacks who have defied the odds and produced spectacular careers. Brees is a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Wilson has at least one leg up.
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There is no question Mayfield has become the face of the franchise, which has really not had one since the return in 1999 when you stop and think about it. Unless, of course, you consider Joe Thomas.
With all due respect to the future Hall of Famer, I don’t. An offensive tackle on a team that racked up losing records in 10 straight seasons after posting a 10-6 mark in his rookie season? Really?
There isn’t one player who has worn the Seal Brown and Orange the last 20 seasons good enough and popular enough to be considered as the face of this sad franchise. Mayfield changed that in a blink.
Mention his name these days and fans, not just in Cleveland or Browns Nation but anywhere in the NFL stratosphere, and the associative response is inevitably the Cleveland Browns.
His success has also caught the attention of the NFL. The fact he was among those chosen to appear the league’s terrific 100th anniversary video that debuted during the Super Bowl is proof.
Mayfield was in it for just a few seconds (1:13 into the wild two-minute spot) as he urged New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to “get out there, old man.” Brady obliged, peeling off his five Super Bowl championship rings and dumping them into Mayfield’s hands. “Hold these,” he said. Mayfield smiled broadly, almost wistfully.
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Whattaya know. It took an ex-Brown to make the play of the game in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. New England cornerback Jason McCourty, who struggled through a 16-loss season with Cleveland last season, successfully defended a pass that would have given the Los Angeles Rams a 7-3 lead over the Patriots late in the third quarter.
If Rams quarterback Jared Goff a second and a half earlier had spotted wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who took advantage of a blown coverage to break wide open, that would have been the score and who knows what would have happened after that.
The Rams struggled all game against a Patriots defense reminiscent of the brilliant 1986 Chicago Bears defense of Buddy Ryan. A touchdown at that time – they settled for a field goal – might have energized a defense that had held its own against the Patriots in the snoozefest.
McCourty arrived just in time to deflect the ball away from Cooks in the back of the end zone If Goff sees Cooks early, the wide receiver catches the football in stride and McCourty would not have been anywhere near him.
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There is an old saying in the NFL that has proven true many more times than it hasn’t. Offense wins football games. Defense wins championships. A good offense will almost always stop a good offense. A great defense makes it nearly impossible for a great offensive team to win.
Case in point: Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta last Sunday. The Rams entered the game with the second-best offense in the league after the Kansas City Chiefs, who were disposed by the Patriots in the AFC title game.
Great defenses generally make great defenses look mediocre at best, awful and embarrassing at worst. The team that averaged more than 32 points a game during the regular season managed only a field goal in 60 minutes, a 53-yard blast by Greg Zuerlein.
The flummoxed look on the face of Rams whiz kid head coach Sean McVay throughout the game said it all. The this-can’t-really-be-happening expression never went away.
His Rams owned the football a dozen times. They punted on nine of them. The other three wound up in the field goal, a missed field goal and an intercepted pass. They never ran a play in the red zone.
Great defenses shut down great offenses. That should resonate in Berea come draft time in April. The Browns’ offense needs tinkering in a few areas. The defense needs major work.
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Finally . . . The Patriots played a lot of zone in the secondary, relying heavily on a blitzing pass rush. It confused Goff all evening. Expect to see a lot of that from new Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who ran a similar defense at Carolina with a variety of looks at the snap. . . . Hey, wasn’t that former Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton making a couple of nice plays for the Patriots? Sure was. . . . Now on to the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 26-March 4 in Indianapolis.