Quarterback Baker Mayfield talks to and takes command of HIS team
Matt Starkey/Cleveland Browns
Ever had one of those weeks at work when everything went wrong? Baker Mayfield’s was worse. He Who Will Remain Nameless but is readily identifiable by his initials (OBJ) because he so famously—make that infamously—smeared his quarterback in an attempt to get out of off-Broadway Cleveland, where he had never wanted to play. He Who . . . had been haranguing Browns management incessantly toward that end.
He Who . . . did not leave finger prints. His father (OBS) pulled the trigger on the smear by posting a video showing occasions in He Who’s . . . 2 ½-season Cleveland career when he was “available” but did not receive the football and blamed his quarterback. This, of course, forced management, coaches, and even teammates to choose sides.
Though it did not trade He Who . . . by the NFL deadline, the team had had enough. It rewarded He Who . . . with a day off and followed it others until the team negotiated an arrangement with He Who’s . . .representatives to give him the freedom he coveted. He even was recipient of a social media campaign to #FreeOBJ that Akron’s own LeBron James endorsed because He Who . . . makes friends easily and LBJ is one.
Unfortunately, his quarterback was not among them, which was unfortunate because other Browns were. Relative newcomer John Johnson III, a safety signed during the off-season from the Los Angeles Rams where he had played well, voiced in a media interview that he and other teammates wanted the Browns to retain He Who . . . .
An observer could have inferred that the players, if not management, had chosen to side with He Who . . . over Mayfield who himself had been known to be controversial. It was not a good look. The Browns were 4-4 and had lost 3 of their most recent 4 games. They were last in the AFC North and going to Cincinnati to play an up-and-coming Bengals team with a red-hot QB and a rookie receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, who was actually a close friend of quarterback Joe Burrow and looked like He Who . . . is supposed to look. In other words, he caught the ball and made more than style points.
And so that was the backdrop from a week of turmoil and doubt, with everyone seemingly having an opinion on He Who . . . and his quarterback, who handled the situation with maturity that some doubted he possessed. “There’s no manual for his,” he had admitted during his midweek media conference. He was hurt but unbowed.
If Mayfield did not appreciate what was at stake—and of course he did—Coach Kevin Stefanski had reminded him and the Browns during the week of preparation. “We’re desperate,” the desperate coach proclaimed and went on to add that when it came to another playoff berth “our lives depend on” being able to beat the Bengals.
Mayfield had at this point in 2020 saved the previous playoff season with a rare fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory in which he threw five touchdown passes. Without He Who . . . because of a knee injury, Mayfield proved himself leader and deliverer. But still, doubts remained and now he was the one injured (left, non-throwing shoulder) and soldiering on with an added helping of derision provided by He Who . . . and his friends.
In the end zone before the game, Myles Garrett, defensive leader who usually addresses the team, locked eyes with Mayfield. “He looked at me before I was about to speak,” Garrett explained, “and I pointed at him and said: ‘You got it’.”
Garrett previously had acknowledged that he wished that management had given Mayfield and He Who . . . an opportunity to resolve the situation. It was too far gone. There never had seemed to be any on-field chemistry between quarterback and receiver, and when the He Who . . . slimed Mayfield it seemed an irreparable breach. As Bill Cowher, Browns player, Pittsburgh Hall of Fame coach and now a CBS analyst, told the Akron Beacon Journal’s Nate Ulrich that He Who . . . “looks selfish.”
On some level, Garrett must have understood this about He Who . . . , because he thought Mayfield should have the opportunity to speak to the players about The Week that Was. “It was . . . important for him to address the team and show that this is not bothering him, it’s not on his mind,” Garrett explained, “[that] he’s looking forward and we all need to. I think that it was important that I give the reins to him.”
Garrett wouldn’t share with the media Mayfield’s message, but it worked. The Browns played like a team rather than a group of strangers with their own agendas—in other words, like He Who . . . . The 41-16 trouncing of the Bengals that included big plays on defense as well as offense created the impression that Garrett may have wanted to foster. It was obvious far and wide. Tyler Dunne’s story in the New York Times included this not-to-subtle-but-extremely-accurate observation: “The Cleveland Browns are Baker Mayfield’s team.” Be glad, be very, very glad that it isn’t He Who . . .’s.
Mayfield, unlike He Who . . ., eagerly shared credit, though he could have basked in a 60-yard, second-quarter TD bomb to Donovan Peoples-Jones about whom even the uneducated won’t be asking Who He? for long, and an 18-yard, fourth-quarter TD bullet to David Njoku. He finished 14 of 21 for 218 yards, the two touchdowns, and a 132.6 rating. He was a perfect 158.3 (7 of 8) in a first half in which others also made big plays.
Though Joe Burrow and Cincinnati dominated first-half time and yardage, a big-play defense and run-game gave Mayfield breathing room. Cornerback Denzel Ward, just returned from injury, outfoxed the talented Chase and intercepted a throw at the goal line and took it 99 yards for the lead the Browns never relinquished. Nick Chubb (137 yards on only 14 rushes) then added a 70-yard TD behind a smashing Wyatt Teller block.
And so it went. The Browns, who had had five takeaways in eight games, produced three, and Johnson, who can do more than talk when he shouldn’t, provided one of them along with Troy Hill, who also came from Rams. They showed that general manager Andrew Berry not only knows which player to get rid but also those to add.
“I’m proud of how they were able to focus up, despite all the bullshit going on this week,” Mayfield said of teammates who offered new hope on both sides of the football. They were able to do their job. It’s why I appreciate this group of guys and the staff we have.
“You look at the back half of last year, and that’s how we were the whole time.”
It is how the Browns were the “whole time” that they played without He Who . . . . It is the way it can be again, if they will think not of themselves but instead of the team’s needs. I once played on a team like that. We had our own smaller quarterback who inspired us to follow his example and be better than we were. We would have died for him. We loved and admired him that much. But, we didn’t have to die for our QB1.
Instead, he died for us, in a war that may seem far away and long ago, given all those that have occurred in subsequent years. To me, though, as I attempted to explain in the book Football, Fast Friends, and Small Towns, it seems as if it were only yesterday.
That’s the effect a leader like Baker Mayfield can have on those who around him.
NOTE: All of the enumerated Mayfield Memorandums can be found at: https://stevelovewriter.com/blog/