Photo: Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire
When former Browns General Manager John Dorsey drafted Baker Mayfield out of Oklahoma with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, most NFL Draft experts were stunned. While Mayfield had won the Heisman Trophy award a few months prior during his senior season at OU, compiling over 4,500 yards through the air and 43 touchdowns, many predicted USC Quarterback Sam Darnold to head to the 216. Known for his swagger and borderline cockiness, Mayfield was seen as a swagger-filled leader, but there was concern about his frame. Going into the draft, he was listed at only 6’1 and 209 pounds compared to Darnold’s height of 6’3 and weight of 225 pounds. Despite the concern among draft experts, Cleveland was excited to potentially have found their franchise quarterback after searching long and hard for one once the franchise returned in 1999.
The “Pied Piper” as former head coach Hue Jackson called him, would make his NFL debut
during a two-minute drill in the first half against the New York Jets on September 20th, 2018.
Trailing 14-0 at his own 34-yard line after original starter Tyrod Taylor exited the game with a
concussion, Mayfield ran the two-minute drill as best he could, giving the Browns a field goal to trim the lead to 11 at the half. Mayfield would rally the Browns in the second half, outscoring the Jets 18-3 in the second half to give the Browns their first victory since Christmas Eve 2016. The rookie signal caller wound up throwing for 201 yards and completing 17 of 23 pass attempts in the contest.
From that win, the Browns and Mayfield never looked back, and Mayfield never relinquished the starting job. Unfortunately for the team, they would start off 2-5-1 before firing Jackson and naming Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams the interim head coach. A season that looked lost would turn into almost an incredible one to remember as Mayfield and the team took off under the veteran Williams, going 5-2 in their next seven games and almost earning a playoff spot before losing to Baltimore in the season finale. The 7-8-1 finish was seen as a step in the right direction for the organization after the disastrous start, and Mayfield had answered the bell, finishing with 27 passing touchdowns, breaking the previous record set by Peyton Manning in 1998 for most touchdown passes thrown as a rookie (though Charger signal caller Justin Herbert would break Mayfield’s record with 31 in 2020).
Following his rookie year, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Browns after the
surprising finish the prior season. With a new head coach in Freddie Kitchens (who was
promoted from running backs coach to offensive coordinator once Jackson was fired), to a
brand new weapon in Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns and Mayfield were projected to be one of the top teams in all of football. However, Mayfield and the team disappointed, scoring only a 6-10 record, and Baker threw more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (21). Questions began to be raised if his rookie year was a one-year wonder.
Another year, another head coach for Mayfield and the Browns. This time, it was Kevin
Stefanski, the former Vikings offensive coordinator who worked with Kirk Cousins during his
best seasons statistically in Minnesota. After being in Minnesota for 14 years, the Browns hoped Stefanski’s zone run and play action scheme would unlock Baker’s potential. The scheme has done wonders for quarterbacks such as John Elway and Bret Farve.
Baker and the Browns started off rocky. Through their first six games, they notched a 4-2
record, and Mayfield had only 10 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Then, in Week 7
against the Bengals in Cincinnati, Beckham tore his ACL trying to run back on Mayfield’s
seventh interception on the first play from scrimmage. However, from that moment on, Mayfield took off. The team finished 10-6 and secured their first playoff spot in nearly two decades during a Week 17 victory against the arch-rival Steelers. After Beckham went down, the third-year pro threw 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions over the final 10 games during the regular season.
He would lead the Browns over the Steelers once again the following week in the Wild Card
round with a stellar statline, going 21/34 for 263 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions
and a Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 90.6. Unfortunately for Mayfield and the
Browns, they would fall in a heartbreaker in Kansas City in the Divisional Round 22-17 after
Chad Henne replaced star-studded signal caller Patrick Mahomes and ran for 13 yards on 3rd and 14, then flipped a pass to Tyreek Hill on fourth down to seal the game for the Chiefs.
In a way, that heartbreak of a game was the beginning of the end for Mayfield and the Browns.
A rematch between the Browns and the Chiefs kicked off the 2022 season for both teams, and just like the playoff battle, the Browns came close, yet, no cigar thanks to a late interception by Mayfield to seal a 33-29 victory for Kansas City. The following week, during the home opener against the Texans, Mayfield tore his labrum trying to make a tackle on an interception return. He would try to play through the injury, but the former Heisman winner never truly recovered. After re-injuring his shoulder against the Cardinals after taking a hard hit from J.J. Watt, Mayfield sat out the team’s Thursday night Week 7 win against the Broncos, leaving many fans and media experts calling for Mayfield to be shut down as reports had surfaced Mayfield needed surgery.
Despite the pressure from outside the building, inside the building, the Browns, at least publicly, stayed committed to Mayfield, but he never looked the same. He had a noticeable limp while playing and struggled to throw the ball and move the Browns offense. Sitting at 4-3 following the Denver game, the Browns would finish 3-6 with Mayfield as the starter over the last nine contests, only netting more than 20 points three times in those ball games. In that stretch, Mayfield threw only 11 touchdowns and tossed 10 interceptions. During the Monday Night game against the Steelers on January 3rd, Mayfield was sacked nine times and openly criticized coach Stefanski and the play calling after the game.
Mayfield would not start for the Browns during their meaningless season finale win against the Bengals. The writing was already on the wall: It was time for the Browns and their former No. 1 pick to move on. However, the Browns were not going to move on without a game plan.
The game plan turned out to be Deshaun Watson, the troubled, but talented Texans
quarterback who was looking to make his way out of Houston. After initially saying no to the
Browns brass, Watson retracted his stance, and General Manager Andrew Berry gave up a
boatload to go get his new superstar quarterback and pay him $230 million dollars, fully
guaranteed, something unheard of in the NFL up to that point.
Even with Watson’s looming suspension, Mayfield knew his time in Cleveland was done, writing a goodbye letter to Cleveland on Instagram, 72 hours before the Watson deal was even known. Wednesday, after a couple months of negotiations, Mayfield was shipped to Carolina for a conditional 2024 draft pick.
The former Oklahoma signal caller and No. 1 overall pick was supposed to be Cleveland’s
savior at the most important position in all of sports. He was not that. He gave Browns fans a lot of angry and unhappy moments, but he gave Browns fans reason to believe again as well. He was the first quarterback to win a playoff game for the team in over two decades. His time in Cleveland may have been a roller coaster, and it may not have ended the way both parties
envisioned, but for that January 2021 victory at Heinz Field, Baker should be thanked. He’s part of the reason why the Browns went from a losing organization to a team with optimism moving forward.
We bid farewell to #6 as we move into a new era at quarterback.