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Baker Mayfield Won the Browns a Game. He Could Have Won Them Three.

Mayfield’s performance in leading Cleveland past the Jets was glorious. It also raised a question: Why wasn’t Browns head coach Hue Jackson starting this guy all along?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Nobody has ever stopped Baker Mayfield before. The New York Jets certainly weren’t going to be the first.

Mayfield, the no. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft — the player we said should be the no. 1 pick in this year’s draft — made his pro debut Thursday night when Browns starter Tyrod Taylor went out with a concussion. The substitution could have been made without the injury. Taylor was 4-for-14 passing for 19 yards, and he took three sacks for a loss of 22 yards. When he dropped back to pass, the Browns, on average, lost yardage. When Mayfield came into the game, Cleveland’s offense transformed. By the end of his first drive, he’d already racked up more passing yards than Taylor. He finished the night 17-for-23 for 201 yards — and three of his incompletions were dropped passes. Pretty dropped passes.

Pro Football Focus gave Mayfield its highest game score of any rookie quarterback in a debut game since the site began grading QB play in 2006. Most importantly, Mayfield rallied the Browns back in a contest that seemed lost. The score was 14–0 when he entered, and, well, the Browns hadn’t won a game in 635 days. You could pencil them in for losses even in matchups in which they led by multiple scores.

But when Mayfield came in the atmosphere changed. It felt like last season’s College Football Playoff national championship game between Georgia and Alabama, in which the Crimson Tide benched starter Jalen Hurts for freshman Tua Tagovailoa at halftime and roared back from a 13–0 deficit to victory. On Thursday, it instantly became clear that Cleveland’s offense was more dynamic with Mayfield. It felt like the team had unlocked new chapters of its playbook. He made plays that Taylor couldn’t:

Mayfield didn’t just win games and trophies in college. He wrote his own legend week by week. He didn’t just beat Ohio State; he beat the Buckeyes in Columbus and then planted a flag in their field. He didn’t just win the Texas Tech starting job as a walk-on; he won the Texas Tech starting job, transferred, and then won the Oklahoma job as a walk-on. He didn’t just inspire the omnipresent haters to make T-shirts zinging him; he bought those shirts and wore them. That legend continued on Thursday. He didn’t just win his pro debut 21–17; he spotted an opposing team two touchdowns and two quarters, and still led a team that hadn’t won a game in two damn years to victory, bringing an entire city free beer.

As amazing as it was for the Browns to get their first win in eons in such dramatic fashion, though, it’s worth noting that Cleveland shouldn’t have had to wait so long. This team was competitive in its first two games this fall, tying the Steelers in Week 1 (coming a blocked Zane Gonzalez field goal attempt away from winning) and narrowly losing to the Saints in Week 2 (coming a missed Gonzalez field goal attempt away from sending the game to overtime). Unsurprisingly, the team cut Gonzalez on Monday.

The Browns came a few breaks away from starting 2–0 despite playing their second-best quarterback. Taylor went 15-for-40 passing for 197 yards against Pittsburgh. He was fine against New Orleans (22-for-30 for 246 yards), but we now know how much better the offense is with Mayfield. Cleveland wouldn’t just be celebrating its first win if it had played Mayfield all along — it’d probably be celebrating its third.

Taylor started for Cleveland not because of talent, but convention. When teams draft rookie quarterbacks, NFL logic dictates that they should sit and develop behind a veteran starter. The idea is that the NFL is more difficult than college, a large portion of the game is mental, and rookies might not be ready to be thrown straight into the fire — a poor performance might hurt their psyche and leave them permanently shook. You don’t use a high draft pick on a quarterback to win games right away, the thinking goes; you do it to win games for a decade, and it’s not worth jeopardizing that process.

I find this logic suspect. There is no other position in sports in which we consider game reps to be a potential negative in the developmental process. Some quarterbacks who have played right away have been great (Carson Wentz! Cam Newton!); some have turned out badly (Robert Griffin III! Mark Sanchez!). Some QBs who have sat and waited behind veteran starters have gone on to win Super Bowls (Aaron Rodgers! Eli Manning!); some have sucked (JaMarcus Russell! Jake Locker!). There is no clear-cut answer to whether it is better to start or sit young quarterbacks.

I have no problem with a team sitting a young QB, but I do have a problem with teams benching a young quarterback solely because it’s what you’re supposed to do. And that seems to happen a lot. In 2017 the Texans went into the season with Tom Savage as their starter, even though they had first-round pick Deshaun Watson on their roster. Savage lasted all of one half, getting sacked six times, before Watson came in and dominated the league until tearing his ACL in November. This year, the Bills went into the season with Nathan Peterman as their starting QB. That, too, lasted a half, with Peterman registering a 0.0 quarterback rating before giving way to Josh Allen. And the Cardinals haven’t let rookie Josh Rosen play, even though their Sam Bradford–led offense is about the worst in the league.

Teams shouldn’t start rookie QBs just because they were drafted highly, and they shouldn’t bench rookie QBs just because they’re rookies. Things should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Some quick guidelines:

  • If your veteran quarterback is Tyrod Taylor and your rookie quarterback is Baker Mayfield, play Baker Mayfield.
  • If your veteran quarterback is Tyrod Taylor and your rookie quarterback is Nathan Peterman, play Tyrod Taylor.
  • If your veteran quarterback is Nathan Peterman and your rookie quarterback is Josh Allen, play Josh Allen. (Basically, don’t play Nathan Peterman.)

There’s probably a wellspring of support for letting a QB develop because of what’s happening in Kansas City right now. Patrick Mahomes II spent last year riding the pine, and he immediately busted out this season by throwing 10 touchdowns in his first two games, seizing control of the league’s MVP race. We know that the Chiefs’ choice worked out, because last year they made the playoffs behind Alex Smith and this year they have a stunningly good young quarterback. But we don’t know whether their decision worked out because of how they made it. Mahomes reportedly looked excellent last preseason — maybe Kansas City would’ve been better with him all along?

As for the Browns, head coach Hue Jackson still hasn’t decided whether to start Mayfield moving forward.

Some suspect that this comment was just Jackson’s classy way of dealing with Taylor, who spent much of Thursday night getting medical treatment. However, I suspect that this comment is the way that a coach who has gone 2–32–1 over the past two-plus seasons tries to sound analytical, even though virtually everybody on earth knows what the tape will show.

Mayfield deserves to start for Cleveland. The Browns would probably be undefeated if they had realized that three weeks ago. (To be fair, they might also be undefeated if they had a decent kicker.) They feature a genuinely vicious defense and a tremendously talented young quarterback; that’s a recipe to win a lot of games. Jackson just has to decide whether he wants to risk going 1–14–1 while bowing to football logic, or whether he’s willing to let his talented rookie quarterback see just how much damage he can do.