On Thursday, Baker Mayfield made the Cleveland Browns something they haven’t been in 635 days: winners.
Playing in relief of an injured Tyrod Taylor, the no. 1 overall pick staged an 11-point second-half comeback against the Jets, exuding a Messiah-like essence that infected Browns fans with an unfamiliar feeling—hope—and seemingly inspired football fans across the country to root for the once-moribund franchise.
The script feels almost too cheesy for a movie. In a nationally televised game that featured three of the first four picks in this year’s NFL draft and a running back who rushed to the hospital immediately afterward to see his girlfriend give birth to their first child—on his birthday, nonetheless—Mayfield made his long-anticipated debut in epic fashion. He led the Browns to a field goal on his first NFL possession, caught a two-point conversion on a Philly Special that tied the game at the end of the third quarter, and went 6-of-8 on a 15-play, 75-yard game-winning drive capped by a touchdown run by the soon-to-be-father, Carlos Hyde.
After the 21-17 win, legendary Browns left tackle Joe Thomas asked Mayfield how he had the confidence to play after not getting any practice time with the starters.
“As funny as it sounds, it’s kind of how my whole life has gone,” Mayfield said. Moments later, he asked a question of his own.
“Are the Bud Light things open yet? DILLY DILLY!”
Mayfield’s star-making performance was possible because of his team’s lifeless first half. For the first 28 minutes, Cleveland’s offense was immobile. In their first five drives, the Browns went three-and-out three times. (One of those included a drive that began on the Jets’ 39-yard line where the offense failed to reach field goal range.) Taylor, the team’s starter for the first three weeks of the season, completed four of his 14 passes for 19 yards while taking three sacks for 22 yards. He badly underthrew a wide-open Antonio Callaway for an easy touchdown not once, but twice, and had to contend with unblocked rushers and occasionally confounding quarterback-draw calls from offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Making matters worse, former Browns running back—and current Jet—Isaiah Crowell scored two first-half touchdowns, putting New York up 14-0. After the second score, Crowell bent over, mimicked wiping himself with the football, and threw it into the stands.
Wiped his butt with the ball and threw it to Browns fans. pic.twitter.com/0j0BGxRfn3— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) September 21, 2018
Sometimes metaphors are too on the nose, and a former Brown pretending to throw fecal matter at Cleveland fans would seem to qualify.
On Cleveland’s penultimate drive of the half, Taylor sustained a head injury and was ruled out of the game with a concussion. With 1:23 left in the half, Baker entered the game and promptly halted the last 19 years of Browns’ misery. His first two passes were completions for first downs, garnering more passing first downs and yards in two throws than Taylor had in 28 minutes. Two plays later, Baker put the Browns at the Jets’ 27-yard line, setting them up for a 45-yard field goal attempt—almost the exact same distance as the Week 1 kick that then-Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez had blocked by the Steelers and nearly the exact distance Gonzalez missed early in the fourth quarter against the Saints on Sunday. Greg Joseph’s attempt started wide, wide left and then sliced right and through the posts.
After two straight games that came down to missed kicks, the arc of the universe seemed to be bending toward the Cleveland Browns.
“The energy in the stadium completely changed,” NFL Network’s Colleen Wolfe said at halftime about Baker’s entrance as Thomas frantically nodded. “It came alive.”
At the most fundamental level, a quarterback is supposed to make his teammates better, and Baker did that from the beginning, spreading the ball around, extending plays, and showing chemistry with his receivers despite not practicing with the starters to this point. Jarvis Landry, the team’s pricey trade acquisition who has been criticized for catching balls only near the line of scrimmage, led the Browns’ first touchdown drive with a spectacular down-field catch despite a knee injury.
Hyde scored on the next play, and on the subsequent two-point try, Duke Johnson Jr. took a direct snap and tossed the ball to Landry, who threw the ball to a wide-open Baker on a Philly Special redux.
Philly Special?— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) September 21, 2018
The words Cleveland Special dont go together
Mayfield outdueled the Jets’ Sam Darnold, this year’s no. 3 overall pick. Darnold was largely stifled by the Browns’ ascendant defense, which held him to just 5-of-12 passing with 45 yards in the first half and ended two potential game-winning drives in the fourth quarter with back-to-back interceptions. Fourth overall pick Denzel Ward, who had two interceptions in Week 1 but was criticized by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in August for his tackling, made an 8-yard tackle for loss on a Jets trick play in the first half and stripped receiver Robby Anderson, returning the fumble to the 8-yard line in the third quarter. The defense—which forced Pittsburgh into six turnovers in Week 1, held New Orleans’s Drew Brees to 243 passing yards in Week 2, and allowed just 268 total yards to the Jets on Thursday—seems to be a legitimate headache for opposing offenses as Myles Garrett and the team’s other young defenders blossom.
After the game, head coach Hue Jackson said he would watch tape before deciding who would start for the Browns in Week 4 (classic Hue), but it’s hard to believe after Thursday’s game the team could turn back to Taylor.
“The past is the past,” Mayfield told NFL Network after the game. “You’ve got to hit the reset button and you gotta take the next step forward.”