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Why there's hope for Baker Mayfield
The quarterback madness has begun, but don't forget about the first overall pick in 2018. We talk to one former NFL GM who knows his game best. He still sees a future star, too.
Absolutely nothing matters more in this sport than how teams view the quarterback position. Coaches are fired, hired, fired again. Legacies are defined. Strip pro football down to its core — shed the salary-cap gymnastics, 40-yard dashes, any free agent wish list — and this decides wins and losses more than anything: what compels a team to write a quarterback’s name on that card come draft day.
It’s been four years since the 2018 NFL Draft, touted then as one of the best quarterback classes of a generation. Entire front offices planned a year in advance for this group.
Each quarterback’s gifts were in the eye of the beholder.
The Ravens, at No. 32, drafted Lamar Jackson and completely warped their offense to accommodate his unprecedented style. Playbooks were trashed, egos were swallowed and it paid off. Jackson was named the league MVP in 2019 and will soon shatter the quarterback market.
The Cardinals, at No. 10, took Josh Rosen. The 6-foot-4 UCLA product sure looked like everything our brains have been wired to want out of the position. Tall, cocky, clutch. Turns out, his lack of mobility was a fatal flaw. He’s now hanging on for dear life with his fifth team.
The Bills, at No. 7, gambled on Josh Allen. Everyone was salivating over his right arm but this was also someone who completed only 56.2 percent of his passes against inferior competition. After two decades of playing it safe at the position, Buffalo swung for the fences under GM Brandon Beane — they bet Allen was a worker who could do something with his God-given tools. It worked out. After a year or so of getting mocked for the occasional throw into the 14th row, Allen catapulted into quarterback royalty. His 150 touchdowns in 67 career games have totally transformed the franchise.
The Jets, at No. 3, opted for the archetypal face of the franchise. Perfectly coiffed hair, big arm, USC pedigree, what could go wrong with Sam Darnold? Plenty, it turns out. He contracted mononucleosis, a rare case of adamgaseitis, hurt his shoulder, was haunted by ghosts and, of course, the Jets didn’t do him any favors. Nor has he been rehabilitated in Carolina.
Which brings us to the man of the hour, the No. 1 overall pick in that draft: Baker Mayfield.
The Cleveland Browns had their choice of all the above and opted for the Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma. He was a polarizing fella that spring, with the flag-planting and crotch-grabbing and police-fleeing. Wildly productive, he still lacked that quintessential build. What was it exactly inside Mayfield that was so enticing? Believe it or not, Browns teammates actually saw it throughout a disappointing 8-9 season in 2021. In Week 2, Mayfield completely tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder, and played on. He barely said a word about it to his closest friends on the team too. Friends could tell he was gritting through something serious.
He also fractured the humerus bone in the same shoulder in mid-October, suffered a knee bruise on a hard hit from Matthew Judon in a 45-7 November loss to the Patriots. There wasn’t structural damage but it hurt like hell. He bruised his heel. He injured his groin. He acknowledged publicly it was as beat up as he’s ever been. So, into late December, right when Mayfield was getting crucified most, I thought it’d be good to check in with one of his pals, Andy Janovich. (We profiled the Busch Light-loving fullback a year ago, icymi.)
First, the Browns fullback Janovich noted that Mayfield was “one of the best f-----g guys that you’ll ever meet in your g--damn life.”
Nobody had a clue how bad he was hurting. Then, Janovich captured the essence of Mayfield with a touch of elegance.
“The thing about Baker,” Janovich said, “is he won’t say shit to anyone about anything. You could cut his dick off and he wouldn’t f-----g say shit.”
This is an important appendage, he’s informed.
“But you would never know.”
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This quality is exactly what shot Mayfield up the Browns’ board in 2018 and why there’s absolutely still hope for Mayfield in 2022 — and beyond.
This time of year, we all hyper-analyze everything we can see and measure at the quarterback position. Last week, deep balls from Liberty’s Malik Willis were treated with the media coverage of a game-winning Super Bowl drive from Joe Montana. Count on Cleveland bringing in a veteran this month, but all signs point to the organization rolling with Mayfield on the fifth year of his contract this season. It’s basically an $18.8 million trial run to discover — once and for all — if he’s worth a long-term extension. Understandably, the Browns’ brass needs to see more. His career arc is a difficult code to crack. After leading the Browns to their first playoff win since 1994, a battered Mayfield struggled last season.
How much of his inaccuracy problems were the result of the injury? Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. never meshed. The quarterback was clearly better without the eccentric wideout and, yet, OBJ proceeded to excel with a new quarterback. What does this tell us about Mayfield?
Even through Tuesday’s quarterback madness — with Aaron Rodgers staying in Green Bay and Russell Wilson heading to Denver — there’s arguably no quarterback more fascinating than Mayfield into the 2022 season. His career can take a hard turn, either way. It’s plausible he catapults into the upper-echelon. It’s also plausible the Browns are once again QB hunting in the 2023 draft and that infamous Browns jersey featuring the names of Couch and Weeden and Quinn and Manziel adds another. The reason everyone should have hope that Baker Mayfield is different than failures past is that trait that’s so, so hard to identify. The “it factor” that’d drag Mayfield onto the field regardless of, uh, any injury. I know, I know. We hear GMs use this cliché all the time, but it is a real thing and it’s particularly critical to the quarterback position.
This is a major reason why Mayfield was the choice over Darnold, Allen, Rosen and Jackson to begin with.
As early as the fall of 2017, longtime NFL personnel man Scot McCloughan went on record about how much he loved this Oklahoma quarterback. He then served as a consultant for the Browns when GM John Dorsey and assistant GM Eliot Wolf whittled their choice down to Mayfield at No. 1. Prior to this, McCloughan was widely regarded as one of the sharpest scouting minds in the league as the GM for the 49ers and Redskins and as a senior personnel exec with the Seahawks.
Today, McCloughan is still doing consulting work for GMs as well as agencies. He couldn’t wait to put his reports on hold to break down Mayfield’s game for an hour with Go Long.
Nobody is Brett Favre but McCloughan started as a regional scout with the Green Bay Packers under Hall of Famer Ron Wolf from 1994 through 1999. He was around for all three of Favre’s MVP seasons. In Mayfield, he saw the same “interior stuff,” the same “internal fortitude.” Speaking to OU coaches and opposing coaches and teammates and watching every snap he could, McCloughan was all in on the person, the competitor Mayfield is. He’ll never forget one scene at Mayfield’s pro day. Several prospects were participating, of course, with about 60 or so pro coaches and scouts present.
The indoor facility at Norman suddenly went quiet and — when McCloughan scanned the facility — he saw Mayfield strutting through the door.
“All of the players started snapping their fingers,” said McCloughan snapping his. “It was the f-----g coolest thing. Now, it’s ‘go time.’ That’s what they did before games. That’s when they knew Baker arrived. It just went pure silent, and all of a sudden, they started snapping their fingers. And everybody f-----g went crazy. That’s the kind of guy you want.”
He begins by taking it all the way back to Jeff George, the first overall pick in 1990. His brother, Dave, was a defensive back on the 1991 Colts and faced all of the best QBs in the early 90s: Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman. He’d tell Scot that George threw a better ball than them all — and it wasn’t close. There was just one problem: his personality, his leadership, everything he did when he wasn’t throwing perfect spirals.
“It was all about him and blaming other people and blaming the O-Line. Doing shit like that,” McCloughan says. “He put all the attention on other people in a negative manner. I look for guys who take the blame and want the pressure. They want the shit put on them — good or bad. I think one thing Baker showed me early, and I saw it from Anquan Boldin early and Frank Gore early, is he’s just a football player. You watch him on third down in the fourth quarter and two minutes in the fourth quarter and it’s his show. I just saw that with Baker. Was he the tallest? No. Was he the prettiest? No. Is the best athlete? No. But, when it was nut-cutting time, everybody looked for him to get them through. And he did. I foresee him doing it still in the NFL. I just see a football player and he’s going to find a way to get it done. He’s not afraid. He likes criticism. Does he always handle it the right way? No. No one does. Especially when it’s week-in and week-out. But he still likes that shit. That’s the kind of guy I want to go to battle with. You know what you’ve got, you know he’s not afraid, you know he’s not going to back down.
“I’d rather have that than the prima donna who every now and then, you say, ‘Ooo, that’s a hell of a drive.’ But when you need one, he can’t do it. People know in the huddle he can’t do it and you can’t trust him. I don’t see that with Baker. I see people trusting him and people wanting him out there. They want to fight for him and battle for him. I think that’s important for a quarterback to be successful in the NFL. He has that.”
Granted, McCloughan gets the criticism levied Mayfield’s direction. These last four years have been… odd. The No. 1 pick set a rookie record for passing touchdowns in 2018 with 27, then flopped with Beckham in 2019, then took the team to the playoffs in 2020, then had the painful, unproductive 2021. Sparring with the media and being on so many commercials, the former GM adds, isn’t the best look. But McCloughan — not one for hyperbole — is certain that if Mayfield can stay healthy, he’s destined to flourish. He remembers the long conversations with Dorsey and Eliot Wolf. All three learned from Ron Wolf that “a football player,” McCloughan says, “is a football player.” When it came to this decision, they weren’t going to obsess over height and weight and measurables so the debate between Mayfield and Darnold really wasn’t much of a debate. Meanwhile, Allen’s completion percentage at Wyoming scared them off. As it turned out, Allen was a gamer himself and the Bills’ supporting cast proved to be more ideal than the one in Cleveland. Brian Daboll was a better teacher of the position than Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens.
Stefon Diggs and Beckham are both alpha receivers prone to occasionally do their own thing on routes. One pairing worked; the other backfired.
Health is No. 1. The mystery central to Mayfield’s game — right now — is how much his lackluster season had to do with the injuries. In 14 games, he completed only 60.5 percent of his passes for 3,010 yards with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. As someone who studied Mayfield’s mechanics closely, McCloughan believes the labrum tear had a significant effect. He calls Mayfield a “body thrower,” a “power thrower,” who uses his legs and hips and everything to drive the ball.
“It’s a bitch now,” he says. “I don’t care what shoulder it is. It’s painful. It’s a lot of getting shot up. A lot of drugs to get through the stuff. Playing every Sunday while you’re practicing twice a week at most, that’s tough. But still, he could’ve shut it down. Easy. No one would’ve questioned him. But he would’ve questioned himself. That’s not who he is. And everybody in the organization knew that. Like, ‘He’s not going to shut it down. Somebody else would. He’s not going to shut it down.”
That is how Brett Favre ingratiated himself to teammates and became larger than life in Wisconsin and beyond. His stretch of 321 straight starts is one of the best records in sports. It’s downright ludicrous what Favre played through, as detailed by our Bob McGinn in his conversation with Favre. His willingness to sacrifice his body, week-in and week-out, absolutely compelled everyone around him to do the same. Favre didn’t even know what a nickel defense was early in his career, but also happened to be three-dollar-steak tough and, hell yes, that’s important.
We can all agonize over All-22 and analytics ‘til our eyes bleed. This is a tough game played by tough people, and if the QB is leading this way? That’s how a moribund organization like the Packers morphs into a perennial winner.
Inside the locker room, McCloughan calls this effect “gigantic” and makes the key distinction. He’s not saying quarterbacks need to ram through linebackers. It’s more of a mental toughness, than a physical toughness.
“It’s the confidence from other players knowing, ‘This guy’s going to do everything in his power to get this touchdown to win this game. So, let’s do everything in our power to make sure he has that success. He’s not going to back down. Why would we back down? You can’t teach that. You’ve got to earn that. In the NFL, these motherf-----s, they see through you. If you’re fake, they’ll see through you in a heartbeat. They’ve been around Baker long enough, there’s a reason why everybody in that building backs him.”
Players certainly do. They see the quarterback working three different notebooks with a million different colored markers in meetings. Janovich says it’s “unbelievable” to watch Mayfield operate behind the scenes. Usually, a team knows what it has in its first-round quarterback by the fifth year of the rookie contract. Let alone a first overall pick. GM Andrew Berry needs to see more, though, and Mayfield probably didn’t help his stock by playing through the tear, either. Back when I hung out with Wyatt Teller, for this, the guard even said at one point Mayfield can be “too tough for his own good.”
Thing is, he sincerely didn’t care. Mayfield was good to go, so he played.
“That’s just Baker F-----g Mayfield for ya,” Janovich says. “He’s just going to show up and do what he does every day. If I was Andrew Berry, I’d give him a big deal. But that’s just my opinion. Because of who he is. He shows up every day. He is on top of his shit. He’s just an unbelievable guy. He’s awesome. There ain’t much else to say about him. You can ask the question a million different ways and it’ll be the same answer every single time. Baker shows up every day and he’s Baker Mayfield. He does not give a shit what you think about him and he will show up and be Baker every day. He is very, very consistent.”
Mayfield waited until Jan. 19 to have surgery on the labrum when others with so much at stake likely would’ve shut it down in September or October.
What makes him special is also a negative. He started to press through the injuries, too.
“His mentality is, ‘OK, f--k everybody else. They’re on me? I’m going to do more to prove that I can do it,’” McCloughan says. “That’s when he gets in trouble. So what you love about him, hurts him, too. That’s fine. That’s fine. He ain’t gonna back down. He ain’t gonna quit. He ain’t gonna shy away. All of these naysayers now? Wait and see them in two or three years if he can stay healthy. They’ll all be back on the bandwagon — ‘Oh, what a great story. Comeback Player of the Year.’ All that shit. Where were you two or three years ago when you questioned if he’d be the starter in 2022? Of course, he’s the starter. Who else are you going to get that’s better. It’s ridiculous.”
There will be a temptation for Mayfield, he adds, to say “F--k everybody in this world” and try to prove everyone wrong. That’s where McCloughan says he’ll need to take a deep breath and remember he has one of the best ground games in the league. “But,” he repeats, “I foresee him being one of those guys, Comeback Player of the Year.”
McCloughan knows people in front offices all over the league.
He’s adamant that at least half of the NFL would take Mayfield as their starting quarterback right now.
“Everybody saw it in college. Everybody’s seen it in the NFL,” he says. “He’s had success. The best ones to come through it need adversity. How do you respond to adversity? It can definitely make you stronger and a better player or you can go south and start finger-pointing. I see him stepping up. I’m telling you: at least half the league right now would love to have him. They’d pay to have him as a one. Hell yeah. You’re telling me the Colts wouldn’t want him right now? They’d do backflips. You’re telling me Mike Tomlin wouldn’t want to have Baker Mayfield on his team? Cleveland knows that. He’s a wanted man.
“I’m telling you: At least half the league. It’s the dead-ass truth. And they see that in Cleveland. That’s why they protect him. That’s why the coach says, ‘Hell yeah, that’s my starter. Hell yeah, in 2022, he’s my guy. Hell yeah, he is.’ If you put Baker on this market? It’s not even close. Every team that needs a quarterback? First in line for Baker. No. 1 on the board. Guaranteed.”
This time of year, it's easy to fall in love with supernatural traits. Throwing the ball 70 yards is fun, but McCloughan is right to say quarterbacks aren’t throwing Hail Marys all game long. He believes people around the league too often get enamored with such “bullshit” instead of hunting for that Favre-like internal fortitude. And that’s where a team can make a mistake.
Be it a Jeff George, a JaMarcus Russell or a Ryan Leaf. The former No. 2 pick, Leaf, is incredibly honest about this time of his life, too.
Josh Allen was the anomaly because Allen’s work ethic is rare. He turned himself into an accurate passer.
Finding the right pieces around the QB is huge, of course. Thinking back, McCloughan wouldn’t have drafted a quarterback first overall as the San Francisco 49ers’ boss in 2005 if he knew Alex Smith would’ve endured five different coordinators his first five seasons. He knew adjusting to the NFL would be a process for a quarterback out of Urban Meyer’s spread at Utah. Smith was never under center and never called a play. It was all from the sideline. But Smith had some of internal fortitude stuff he loves. Once things settled down around Smith, that toughness defined him. He was an overtime away from the Super Bowl as the 49ers starter in 2011, led Kansas City to three 11-win seasons and there’s a good chance nobody repeats what Smith did in Washington. After horrific leg injury — followed by an infection — Smith’s leg required 17 surgeries and four hospital stays over nine months. The images are grisly. The story is nothing short of a miracle. After a year off, Smith returned to the field and went 5-1 as the starter to lead Washington to the playoffs at age 36.
There’s some normalcy in Cleveland now. Into Year 3 with Kevin Stefanski and Alex Van Pelt, McCloughhan expects Baker Mayfield to do less thinking and more reacting.
And it’s in this reacting that Mayfield’s essence breaks through. He calls them “F--- it”-mode plays. Favre had more than a few. It got to a point in Green Bay where he’d pretend his headset wasn’t working and would change whatever play Mike Holmgren called in to do his own thing.
“Because he’s a football player, and he’s just going to make the play,” McCloughan says. “And he would. I could tell you stories about Holmgren wanting to fight Favre when we’re in practice. All the time. Because Brett’s Brett. He’d say, ‘We’re going to do it this way.’ And Holmgren would say, ‘No, we’re going to do it this way.’ Come game time, Brett would do it his way and score a touchdown. On the sideline, Holmgren would give him a smile and slap him on the helmet and then jump his f-----g ass after the game. ‘You can’t do that. You’re going to f--k this team up. You’re f-----g everybody else. It’s not about you. It’s about the 11.”
Which is when when Favre would remind Holmgren that the Packers just won the game.
He was the ultimate “reactor.”
“I have a really good feeling,” he adds, “that when it’s said and done with Baker — healthy — this year, that’s going to be him. He’s going to be like, ‘I’m going to make the play. This is something I’ve done all my life. There’s a reason I won the Heisman Trophy. There’s a reason why I was the No. 1 pick.”
Both sides must do more to get to this point.
Mayfield obviously needs to, No. 1, stay healthy and, No. 2, improve his accuracy. We’ll know soon if those passes that sailed on him were the result of the injuries or not. But this Browns receiving corps also needs a makeover. For whatever reason, the OBJ experiment was a disaster and the Browns can save $15 million by releasing Jarvis Landry. There will be options in free agency — Allen Robinson? Amari Cooper? — and this draft is loaded with speed outside. As he studies the tape on this rookie class, McCloughan wouldn’t be surprised if the Browns find two starters in this draft. Cleveland’s strength is running the football. That’s what Stefanski wants to do. When the Browns went 12-6 two years ago, behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, they ran for 2,374 yards as team.
Berry was the youngest GM ever when he was hired at age 32, back in 2020, and has made some shrewd moves on both sides of the ball. He has one of the best personnel staffs underneath him, too. I’d trust whatever Cleveland does at any position with this group — smart people run this team. As a member of the Indianapolis Colts’ front office that waited until Year 4 to give Andrew Luck an extension, part of this wait could be philosophical for Berry. The more intel Cleveland can get on Mayfield, the better.
Given last season’s struggles, that makes a ton of sense.
Still, the sense I’ve gotten is that Mayfield wants more intel on the Browns, too, before marrying into a four- or five-year deal. That’s nothing against Berry. Historically, the Browns have simply been a tire fire of an organization. Owner Jimmy Haslam hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency. There’s a good chance Mayfield wants a clear sense for where the Browns are headed as a franchise before signing anything. Because it’s also fair to wonder how things would’ve unfolded if Allen went to Cleveland and Mayfield to Buffalo.
The Bills created a near-perfect infrastructure for their rookie quarterback.
So, expect the Browns to be very aggressive. There weren’t many open windows for the quarterback in 2021. The Browns receiving corps was a collection of possession receivers. What makes Mayfield so polarizing is that there is proof that he can make those tight-window throws. Beckham’s dad might’ve shared a video of his son getting open, but it’s also true the wide receiver freelanced on his share of routes. For an offense built so much on timing, that can ruin a play. And that’s not something either Beckham was in a rush to share with everyone. OBJ might’ve been open but, at times, that wasn’t even where he was supposed to be on the play.
Many alpha No. 1’s operate this way, and that’s OK if he’s seeing the same thing as his quarterback. Whoever the Browns add at wideout this offseason ought to just move right in with Mayfield the day after the ink is dry. Hours upon hours go into this timing. When a certain route is called in Stefanski’s offense, the QB and WR know when the ball’s coming out. “It’s an orchestra,” said one source close to the QB. “That’s how well-timed it is. And when that timing is off, it can devolve into a broken play. It’s not a small thing. People casually observing it have no idea what’s going on behind it.”
There’s a lane. Both sides can still be best together.
Meeting in the middle to allow for a few more of those “F--- it” reaction plays would be a good thing, too. Who knows? Maybe there really is some Favre deep down in Mayfield. McCloughan doesn’t want to make excuses for him but says he’d still take Mayfield “in a heartbeat” as the starter if he was a GM.
“And,” he adds. “I’d pay the son of a bitch. I’d give him a long-term deal. I’d say, ‘Here you go. Run with it.’”
Given everything we know about Allen in Buffalo, would he still take Mayfield No. 1?
He realizes most out there will disagree with his take.
He also doesn’t hesitate.
“From that draft, yes, I would. Yes, I would. I’m telling you: you wait and see. I’ve been around 27 years. I’ve seen the quarterbacks who can and can’t. I’ve seen some who can’t — who don’t have the skills like a (Matt) Hasselbeck — get to the Super Bowl because he had that ‘it’ factor. That’s what Baker has. Adversity, certainly. Being the No. 1 pick overall and Josh Allen getting the big deal before he does. Everybody’s pointing fingers. He doesn’t give a shit about that. He just wants to compete and win.
“I think he just has that ‘it’ factor. If he can stay healthy, I know it’s going to show. It’s going to show eventually. I know it.”