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Mayfield Mania and the New-Look Browns Are Giving Cleveland Reason to Believe

After 20 seasons of misery, the Browns have a generational quarterback, the right coach to unlock him, and plenty of talent surrounding them. Can it all come together for a dream season in 2019?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next.

Drew Stanton has played in the NFL for 13 years, and he admits he’s never seen anything quite like this. He backed up two former no. 1 picks before becoming Cleveland’s second-string quarterback in 2018. He’s played for four playoff teams and has been to a conference championship game. But the climate around the Browns’ camp this summer has been something new entirely. “This is probably a lot different culture than some guys are used to,” Stanton says. “We’ve got a quarterback that’s willing to speak his mind. We’ve got a head coach that says woopty hell. There’s no recipe. There’s no right way. There’s no formula for how you win in this league.”

Nearly every Browns practice over the past month has been open to the public, and each day, fans have packed the team’s Berea, Ohio, facility to the point that it’s become standing room only. As the crowds have cheered for Baker Mayfield–to–Odell Beckham Jr. connections and Myles Garrett manhandling offensive tackles, an unfamiliar feeling has settled over northeast Ohio. The Cleveland Browns—the same Cleveland Browns that went 1-31 in two years under Hue Jackson and haven’t produced a winning season since 2007—look like the most exciting team in the NFL. And while the arrival of stars like Beckham and defensive end Olivier Vernon, and the development of young building blocks like Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward, and running back Nick Chubb have fueled the flames, the fervor surrounding the franchise starts with no. 6.

A popular shirt around training camp featured the notorious list of Browns starters since 1999, with “BAKER” spray-painted over it in massive red letters. The final eight games of Mayfield’s rookie year sparked Browns mania: He averaged 8.6 yards per attempt with 19 touchdown passes; during that span Cleveland ranked second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. That stretch motivated Browns ownership to retain interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens as the team’s head coach. It inspired general manager John Dorsey to push his chips into the middle of the table now and execute bold moves like the Beckham trade. And it’s compelled the Browns’ fan base—who celebrated the ceremonial opening of a Bud Light fridge 11 months ago—to suddenly harbor championship aspirations. “I don’t think the young guys realize how hard it is to get on that roll, where you can start stacking, stacking, stacking,” Stanton says. “You begin to develop this mentality where you feel, almost become, invincible.”

In a single season, Mayfield made the perennially dysfunctional Browns seem unstoppable. The hope now is that he and Kitchens can turn the team into a legitimate title contender. The Mistake by the Lake is no more: The Browns have become the most talked-about team in football—and now, it’s for the right reasons.

Baker Mayfield
Baker Mayfield
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Joel Bitonio has experience playing with Heisman Trophy–winning celebrity quarterbacks. The Pro Bowl guard was a member of the 2014 Browns, who drafted Johnny Manziel with the 22nd pick. Bitonio quickly became familiar with the circus that can follow a QB with an outsize personality, but he did his best to leave his preconceived notions at home when Cleveland picked Mayfield first overall in 2018. “You never know with a college guy,” Bitonio says. “Is he a big partier? Is he a big ‘me’ guy? I give them a clean slate when I walk in the door.”

Mayfield quickly impressed his veteran lineman. The rookie entered training camp as the team’s backup and was conscious of what that standing meant in the locker room. When Tyrod Taylor led the first-team offense, Mayfield blended into the background. When his time with the second-stringers came, Mayfield treated that unit like it was his own. “He had the ability to step back and say, ‘This is your team right now. I’m not gonna overtake that,’” Bitonio says. “That’s pretty impressive from a rookie. Either they’re too over-the-top boisterous, or they don’t say enough. And he had that perfect mix where you think, ‘This guy has a chance to be pretty good here.’”

After Taylor went down with an injury in Week 3, Mayfield took up the mantle that comes with being a starter, both on the field and off. He organized regular team dinners at popular Cleveland spots like the Marble Room. One evening, he invited teammates over to his house, where his now-wife Emily whipped up a huge spread of Mexican food. Bitonio says the groups of players at each meal varied: Sometimes it was the offensive line, sometimes the entire offense. Defensive players occasionally showed up too. In Bitonio’s mind, Mayfield’s ability to bond with anyone on the roster is his greatest gift as a leader. “I’ve had quarterbacks who are good people that talk to everybody, but he has a special way to connect with everybody,” Bitonio says. “It’s something you grow with. There are outside people that think of him as cocky and arrogant. But when you’re around the guy, he truly does care.”

This offseason has been Mayfield’s first as the Browns’ starter, and the change in his demeanor has been noticeable. His voice dominates practices, whether it’s barking orders to receivers or talking shit to his own defense. “He’s not timid about anything,” Bitonio says. “He doesn’t bring anything down. He’s not afraid to offend somebody. He’s gonna go out there and say what’s on his mind. He plays like he’s angry, and he plays with no fear. That’s who he is.”

As he’s gotten more comfortable pushing his teammates in practice, Mayfield has also grown more confident pushing the envelope. Rather than go through the motions of a certain play design and his own read associated with it, he’ll often test that concept’s constraints by throwing a different route or focusing on a different receiver than the play initially suggests. This has led to uneven points in practice, but it’s also helped hone the Browns’ knack for home run completions. With Beckham now in the mix, those should happen early and often this fall. “It’d be easy to sit back here, go through your progression, hit the first guy every time,” Stanton says. “But that’s not how this game is played. You’ve got to be able to play in a box, play in a phone booth. And he does a really good job keeping his eyes downfield, creating vertical plays.”

Feeling dangerous means sometimes playing dangerously, and that aggressive mind-set meshes well with Mayfield’s new head coach. Before coming to Cleveland, Kitchens spent five seasons as a position coach under Bruce Arians in Arizona, and he’s well versed in Arians’s “No risk it, no biscuit” philosophy. While Mayfield’s exceptional throwing accuracy tends to be his most celebrated trait, Kitchens says that he most appreciates his quarterback’s ability to throw on the move and create explosive plays out of thin air. “He won’t ever shy away from fitting it in windows,” Kitchens says. “I want him to try to fit it in windows. The good ones do that.” Over the final eight games of last season, 15.6 percent of Mayfield’s passes traveled at least 20 yards in the air, which ranked fourth in the NFL, and he also led the league in adjusted completion percentage on such throws. Cleveland produced 20 passes of 20 or more yards after Kitchens took over, tied for second most in the league over that span. Against the Panthers in Week 14, with Cleveland facing a third-and-17 from its own 49-yard line, Mayfield bailed left from the pocket and launched a picture-perfect 51-yard rocket to Jarvis Landry for a game-tying score.

Any quarterback who takes the sort of chances Mayfield does is bound to have a nightmare game every so often, and that disaster performance came in a 29-13 loss to the Texans in Week 13. Mayfield threw three interceptions in the first half, as the Browns fell into a 23-0 hole. At halftime, Bitonio wondered how the rookie would respond the following week against the Panthers. But Mayfield’s resilience showed much sooner than that. “He comes out in the second half and throws for [nearly] 400 yards,” Bitonio says. “I was like. ‘All right, we didn’t win this game, but nothing’s gonna hurt this guy.’”

In Cleveland, nothing is going to limit Mayfield Mania, either. He’s found the perfect environment for his game and that outsize persona. Mayfield has rejected the notion that a QB must be mind-numbingly boring, and the fan base has embraced him for it. Here, he’s free to be Baker Mayfield—a mustache-wearing, beer-guzzling, joke-cracking QB. And in Bitonio’s mind, that’s a good thing: Because it’s all Baker can be. “He’s not changing for anybody,” Bitonio says. “It’s impressive. You want guys who are themselves out there. I think those guys make the best leaders because you don’t see any phoniness. You don’t see any fakeness from the guy. It’s just 100 percent real, who Baker Mayfield is.”

Freddie Kitchens
Freddie Kitchens
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Freddie Kitchens wasn’t sure he’d ever get this job. The 44-year-old had spent his first 13 years in the NFL as a position coach, overseeing tight ends, running backs, and quarterbacks during his time with the Cowboys and Cardinals. Before last season, Kitchens had never gotten a shot at being a coordinator, let alone a head coach, and he could sense that his chance was dwindling. “I knew that it was becoming more and more difficult to get one if you didn’t [lobby] through the media,” Kitchens says. “You had to sell yourself out to get a job or get an opportunity to get a job. I knew if I ever got in front of someone and spoke my plan, I liked my chances. I just never got in front of anybody.”

The CliffsNotes version of the Browns’ 2018 season is that Jackson got fired in October, Kitchens took over the offense, and the unit exploded. But Kitchens’s rise is more complex than that. In one day, he went from leading the team’s running backs to being its coordinator and play-caller; from overseeing positional meetings to building and installing a game plan; from relative anonymity to being a forward-facing member of the franchise. Stanton spent four seasons in Arizona with Kitchens as his quarterbacks coach, and the QB says that Freddie kept exuding his trademark aw-shucks personality even after he got his chance at the front of the room. “He stepped into that offensive room and said, ‘Hey guys, I don’t have all the answers,’” Stanton says.

Many have speculated that Mayfield’s performance under Kitchens last season was the driving force behind the Browns’ decision to give him the head job, but the coach maintains that the quarterback wasn’t the focus of his interview with Dorsey and owner Jimmy Haslam. Kitchens didn’t need to present a detailed plan for how he’d shepherd Mayfield’s career. He had eight games of tape to do that for him. “I’m sure it was brought up, because he’s your franchise quarterback, but I’m pretty sure they felt comfortable in my ability to develop him,” Kitchens says. “And that’s just one guy. If you’re hiring somebody just to coach the quarterback, then you’re missing the boat a little bit.”

With full control of the offense last season, Kitchens implemented some of the core principles from Arians’s system. Stanton says that a few vertical passing concepts were tweaked and some reads were simplified for Mayfield, but it was far from a wholesale reset. “Nothing really changed about the system,” Kitchens says. “For lack of a better word, those guys started believing. That was to their credit. They believed in something. We tried to keep fueling that as we went along.”

In addition to Arians’s plays, Kitchens borrowed his coaching methods too. Throughout his career, Arians has held Saturday meetings with his starting quarterback in which they pare down the final version of the game plan. In those meetings, his QBs are afforded a rare amount of say. Stanton remembers being shocked before the Colts’ first preseason game in 2012, when Arians asked rookie quarterback Andrew Luck what the team’s first third-and-long play call should be. Kitchens has tried to adopt that same humility now that he’s calling the shots. “Not to put people in boxes, but Freddie doesn’t have an ego,” Stanton says. “Most guys that are offensive coordinators, offensive head coaches, they want everybody to know that they’re the one running the offense. He’s fine saying, ‘No, I’m not the one running the offense. This is Baker’s offense. I’m just the one calling the plays.’ That takes a secure human being.”

If the quarterback feels skeptical about a particular play against a particular coverage that week, or if he feels like he’s not seeing a route combination the way that he’d like, that play gets scrapped. The end result is a quarterback who trusts any play Kitchens could dial up on Sunday. As Stanton puts it, Kitchens is just as comfortable being the guy in Cleveland as he was being a guy in Arizona—and that transition has given the Browns a chance to reach new heights this fall. “When you empower us as people, it’s infectious at that point, because you’re confident in everything that you’re doing,” Stanton says. “There’s a precise reason for everything that we’re doing. Baker and Freddie do such a good job of that. That’s why we were able to take off last year as an offense.”

Odell Beckham Jr.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Todd Monken garnered plenty of interest from teams this offseason after piloting the high-flying Buccaneers offense in 2018. In Monken’s first season as an NFL play-caller, Tampa Bay averaged 6.3 yards per play, tied for third best in the league behind Kansas City. Several franchises came calling after Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and his staff were fired following the team’s 5-11 finish, but the 53-year-old coach says that calling plays was his “fourth or fifth” priority as he looked for a new job. Monken has worked as a position coach for prolific offenses like Oklahoma State’s 2011 group (which averaged 48.7 points per game), and he’s been the play-caller for a 2013 Southern Miss team that finished 119th out of 125 FBS teams in scoring offense. “Calling [plays] and not being very good is not fun,” Monken says. “I’m not wired that way. I’m miserable. The ego of calling it doesn’t outweigh that.”

When it came time to make a decision, Monken saw a budding winner in Cleveland, complete with a quarterback any coach would clamor to work with, and a front office with the resources and ambition to surround that QB with a championship roster. In Monken, Kitchens saw a coordinator candidate with a let-it-fly Air Raid background and shared commitment to letting his quarterback uncork a deep throw at any time. So in the end, Monken picked the Browns over teams like the Packers and Jets for the same reason that football fans have fixated on Cleveland all preseason: He thought it’d be fun. “I felt very good about where this place could be headed, and getting on the front end [of that],” Monken says. “It was important to me to be around the right people: Freddie, John Dorsey, the coaching staff, Baker Mayfield. We didn’t even have Odell at the time.”

After last season, optimism was already pervasive in the Dawg Pound. But the trade for Beckham sent Browns fans into a Super Bowl–hungry frenzy. Adding Beckham meant dropping arguably the most thrilling playmaker in the NFL into an offense that had been one of the most explosive units in football over the second half of last season. Beckham had been prolific while catching passes from Eli Manning. And now, he’ll be catching them from Baker Mayfield.

This group hasn’t played a snap together, but it’s already easy to imagine Beckham hauling in deep shots from Mayfield while tight end David Njoku streaks down the seam, slot man Jarvis Landry tears up defenses underneath, and Chubb runs roughshod over helpless defenders. The mere thought of those elements working in concert is riveting. Teams like the Chiefs and Rams will likely have offenses that rival the Browns in terms of production, but with players like Beckham and Mayfield—stars with personalities big enough to have their own gravitational pull—this team just feels … different. And the mood around Cleveland does too. For the first time since the franchise was resurrected in 1999, Browns fans have more than hope. They have reason to believe.

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