On Thursday night, after the crowd at AT&T Stadium stopped booing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the Browns selected Baker Mayfield from the University of Oklahoma with the no. 1 overall pick. He is joining an eclectic fraternity.
Since the Cleveland Browns franchise was reincarnated in 1999, 28 different players have started for the team at quarterback. Tyrod Taylor, acquired from the Bills in exchange for the 65th overall pick in March, will likely be the 29th player on that list after head coach Hue Jackson named him the Week 1 starter in March. That means Browns fans are hoping that the 30th time is the charm.
For years, Cleveland seemed to be the destination people would wish upon their worst enemies. Plagued by organizational incompetence, ownership interference, and a rotating door of executives (nine general managers in 18 seasons) that led to a slightly-faster-revolving door of coaches (10 in 18 seasons), the Browns have been the NFL’s—and perhaps professional American sports’—least successful franchise in the 21st century. Good quarterbacks succeeding there seemed impossible. Asking Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel to succeed seemed like a punishment of the Greek gods.
Mayfield is the best quarterback the team has ever taken a chance on. He led the NCAA in every passing category that mattered in 2017, won the Heisman Trophy, and nearly took Oklahoma to the national championship game. Just as importantly, if anyone has the swagger to change the culture in Cleveland, it’s Mayfield. His trash-talking, flag-planting, Instagram-captioning attitude might be exactly what the Browns need to break free from the perpetual misery that has enveloped the franchise this century.
Mayfield in Cleveland could be the beginning of a cultural sea change. Baker is just the first of the plethora of picks Cleveland has in this year’s draft, including five in the first two rounds as part of the NFL’s Process started by ousted former GM Sashi Brown. The result is that Cleveland actually, somehow, some way, seems like a great fit for a rookie quarterback. The receiving corps of Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, and David Njoku plus a backfield with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson is a far better skill group than most rookies get to begin their career with, and having the veteran Taylor likely under center in Week 1 will take away pressure to start Mayfield before he is ready. Joe Thomas may have retired, but the Browns’ core offensive line of guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler, center J.C. Tretter, and right tackle is above average.
Baker may be the perfect player to fix the Browns—a quarterback who was a three-star prospect out of high school, who walked on at Texas Tech, transferred to Oklahoma, improbably won the Heisman Trophy, and rose to be the no. 1 overall in the NFL draft. The Browns have been waiting 20 years and 29 quarterbacks to get to this point. Mayfield might be the only quarterback unfazed by that pressure.