At this point in the season, after thrilling performance after thrilling performance, I’m finally ready to make an announcement: I’m all in on Baker Mayfield.
Over the years of Cleveland sports misfortune and anguish I’ve witnessed, I’ve developed a hard outer shell to protect myself from being burned. In order to avoid a major letdown, I’m slow to anoint any player who dons a Cleveland jersey our “savior,” no matter the sport.
Of course, this excludes LeBron James, who found the Cavaliers in exile, toiling in the dungeon of the Eastern Conference and took them to the Promised Land. That man is clearly not of this Earth. But other than King James, there hasn’t been any player on the Cavs, Indians or Browns who I watched and crowned the “next big thing.” Don’t get me wrong, Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, Kyrie Irving, etc. These are potential Hall of Famers who, when all is said and done, will have spent large chunks of their careers, if not their entire careers, in Cleveland. But while they are all great players and have made watching Cleveland sports more exciting, none of them have meant nearly as much to this city as Baker Mayfield does right now.
On Sunday afternoon, the Browns defeated the Carolina Panthers, 26-20, to advance to 5-7-1 on the season. In doing so, Cleveland gave the Panthers their seventh loss overall and fifth in a row. The Panthers came into First Energy Stadium looking to get off the proverbial schnide and win their first contest since beating the Ravens on October 28. Instead, what they encountered was a first overall pick on a mission.
As if it even needed to be said, Baker Mayfield put to rest long ago any notion that he would be a flop at number one. Through 10 games started for the Browns in 2018 (plus the Jets game), Mayfield’s statistics are considerably better than those of the three quarterbacks on whom some members of the media floated as potential candidates for the Browns to use the first overall pick: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen. All three of these quarterbacks were drafted in the top 10 in the draft and all three have played in nine to 11 games this season (Mayfield has played in eleven).
So far though, Mayfield has proven the Browns made the right choice in taking him. Sam Darnold is the closest of the three to Baker’s completion percentage, registering a 54.4, ten behind Baker’s 64.4. He’s also the closest in terms of yards, with 773 less passing yards than Baker’s 2,877 through his 10 starts for New York. But the category that really makes Mayfield look good is QBR. Josh Allen owns a 62.8 quarterback rating, Josh Rosen has a 68.3 and Sam Darnold’s got a 69.5. But do you know what Baker Mayfield’s QBR is?
Less than one full year into their careers, Baker Mayfield has statistically played the best of those four top 10 QBs drafted and it hasn’t really been close. The greatest quality about Mayfield, though, and the reason I believe he means more to the city of Cleveland than any other Northeast Ohio sports figure, is his attitude. That grit and never-say-die spirit that he brings to each and every game the Browns play is exhilarating to watch, contagious for his teammates to be around and the breath of fresh air Cleveland Browns fans have so desperately needed for so long. When is the last time a Browns player carried himself with such a confident swagger and consistently backed up that swagger with excellent play on the field?
The rest of the team has rallied behind this man, and as a fan, observing his progression thus far this season has been a ton of fun. But beyond all of this, Baker Mayfield’s season in Cleveland thus far is shaping up to be something even more special: historic. The NFL gives the Rookie of the Year Award to only two players in the entire league–one offensive player and one defensive player. The Browns have completed sixty-five seasons in the league, and over that time, the organization has not laid claim to even one Offensive Rookie of the Year. One player in team history has been named Defensive Rookie of the Year, linebacker William “Chip” Banks, in 1982. No disrespect to Chip, but he didn’t exactly change the culture of this town in his five years playing for the Browns.
We cannot take for granted what Baker Mayfield has done to this franchise in the short time since he was brought in by John Dorsey, who also deserves an immense amount of credit for selecting him at the top when so many members of the media vehemently cautioned against doing so. May we never forget the fact that Cleveland only won one (1) singular football game in the two seasons prior to Baker Mayfield’s arrival in The Land. Comparatively, in the 11 games since he came in for an injured Tyrod Taylor on that Thursday night in September, Mayfield has led the Browns to five victories, two of which in spite of conflicts with then-Head Coach Hue Jackson and then-Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley.
Mayfield has been awarded Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors four times, more than any other player. He’s also got the best numbers of any rookie quarterback this year and he’s reinvigorated an entire fanbase in a matter of months. Through Week 14, Baker Mayfield unquestionably deserves to win the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. And if he does win it, he’ll be the first Cleveland Brown to ever do so. Would that make him the best player in team history, better than the likes of Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Leroy Kelly and Bernie Kosar? In and of itself, it’s unlikely that winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award would propel Baker Mayfield over every Browns all-time great to come before him.
But then again, did Jim Brown ever say he woke up feeling dangerous?