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Fun, Brash Baker Mayfield Is Back—and That’s Good for the NFL

Freed of Hue Jackson and unleashed on the field, the first overall pick is finally feeling himself at the pro level and looks like a superstar in the making

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield throws a pass Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

The biggest surprise of Cleveland’s season is not that Hue Jackson got fired or that the Browns are playing decent football, but that Baker Mayfield went nearly 13 weeks before landing himself in the news. After a police-evading, flag-planting, ball-grabbing, Heisman Trophy–winning final year at Oklahoma, Mayfield was a lightning rod entering the league. But despite the Browns being featured on a reality show in the preseason, the Cleveland coaching staff crumbling during the regular season, and their former head coach signing with their in-state division rival two weeks after getting fired, Mayfield had stayed mostly above the fray.

That changed this week, and it’s clear Mayfield is finally feeling himself at the NFL level. After the Browns rocked the Cincinnati Bengals and former coach Hue Jackson on Sunday, Jackson tried to greet Mayfield at midfield. Mayfield responded like he had seen his ex-girlfriend the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.

Everything escalated Monday when ESPN’s Damien Woody said on First Take that Mayfield, who had also transferred to a rival in college, needed to grow up. When that clip was posted on First Take’s Instagram page, Mayfield commented.

Baker Mayfield commenting on an Instagram post disputing a Damien Woody claim that he “needs to grow up” by saying “Not even comparable... I didn’t lose 30+ games be fake and then do that... I wasn’t gonna have a scholarship. Good try though buddy.”

“I’m not a cookie-cutter quarterback,” Mayfield said this week when asked whether he regretted any of his comments (in real life or on Instagram). “Never have been, never will be. I speak my mind, that’s how I am. I didn’t like [Jackson going to the Bengals] and people don’t have to care. I’m not looking for anybody’s approval.”

That’s a much politer way of saying, “lol, no.” With Jackson gone, Mayfield has been freed to be fun again. His “I woke up feeling real dangerous” press-conference line from earlier this month was being sold on T-shirts within 24 hours. The NFL is better when a quarterback is saying these things about his former coach.

“Somebody that was in our locker room asking for us to play for him, and then goes to a different team we play twice a year,” Mayfield said after the Browns’ win over the Bengals on Sunday. “Everybody can have their spin on it, but that’s how I feel. … We have people that we believe in calling the plays now.”

That’s not just lip service. The person calling plays in Cleveland now is Freddie Kitchens, who was promoted from running backs coach after offensive coordinator Todd Haley was fired along with Jackson, and the difference in Mayfield’s play since Jackson’s and Haley’s ousters has been night-and-day.

Baker Mayfield in 2018

By the Numbers Jackson-Haley Williams-Kitchens
By the Numbers Jackson-Haley Williams-Kitchens
Starts 5 3
Touchdown Passes 8 9
Interceptions 6 1
Passing Yards 1,270 1,270
Yards/Attempt 6.35 8.76
Completion % 56.5 73.9
Passer Rating 76.5 129.5
Sacks 19 2
Record 1-4 2-1

As USA Today’s Doug Farrar pointed out, Kitchens’s successful midseason turnaround of the Browns is extremely rare, and he’s accomplished it by changing up how the team aligns (tighter to the offensive line) and being more creative with the passing concepts they run (more interwoven options on each side of the field). After scoring a touchdown on 13 of 24 red zone drives under Jackson and Haley, the Browns are 10-for-10 in converting from inside the 20 in the three games under Kitchens, according to SB Nation’s Geoff Schwartz.

Even if you want to point out that Mayfield’s three-game stretch under Kitchens featured three of the weakest pass defenses in the league with the Chiefs, Falcons, and Bengals, one of the quarterback’s worst games this season came against the Buccaneers, by far the league’s worst pass defense, with Jackson and Haley running the show.

Mayfield has lifted the Browns offense—the team just won back-to-back games for the first time in four years—but just as importantly, he’s giving Cleveland a personality. And Mayfield genuinely seems like someone players can rally around—and maybe the coaches too.

Mayfield coming into his own is great for the Browns, but it’s also great for the league at large. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about why NBA players are more famous than NFL players even though the latter league is a more popular sport. There are a lot of structural explanations: NFL players wear helmets, have shorter careers, and are less promoted by their league. But it’s also because the best NFL players are quarterbacks, and most quarterbacks are boring. Mayfield is anything but. Forget the cookie-cutter—Baker’s gonna Bake.