When I pointed out to Baker Mayfield that he has now completed 16 games as Browns starting quarterback – the equivalent of a full NFL season – he was his typical smart-alecky self.
“It’s a full season, 16 games? I didn’t know that,” he said, rolling his eyes.
(I don’t know why he does that other than to remind us all that, despite carrying the hopes of a franchise and entire city on his shoulders, he’s only 24 years old.)
(Further, when you’re the target of Rex Ryan barbs on ESPN, it’s been a bad week. Whatever.)
The fact that Mayfield unofficially begins his “second” season in Baltimore presents some symmetry to Mayfield’s brief Browns career on a number of counts.
The Ravens were Mayfield’s first victim as a starter. He outlasted them, 12-9, Oct. 7 in Cleveland when Derrick Willies made a play and kicker Greg Joseph knuckleballed a field goal barely over the crossbar with two seconds left in overtime. That was Hue Jackson’s last win as Browns coach.
Also, the Ravens were the victors in the Week 17 finale in Baltimore, 26-24, when Mayfield and then-coordinator Freddie Kitchens failed to deliver one final play to set up another game-winning field goal. With the division title on the line and the Pittsburgh Steelers scoreboard-watching and rooting for the Browns from Heinz Field, Mayfield was intercepted on fourth down by C.J. Mosley after three frantic and feeble incompletions.
It was four dud plays in a row with a game on the line. Exactly like Sunday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“You look back on I missed an out route on the last drive of the game to Jarvis [Landry] where we would have had a first down and the interception to C.J. Mosley would have never happened,” Mayfield said. “It is looking back and seeing what got us beat and how can we get better but also focusing on what is at hand right now.”
What is at hand on Sunday is first place in the AFC North and redemption for Mayfield and Kitchens and the Browns. They’ve been in the crosshairs of outrage and criticism all week.
Despite all the angst and bandwagon-jumping, the Browns can be right where they need to be at the quarter pole of the Season of Great Expectations with a win in Baltimore.
Numbers: In Mayfield’s 16 starts, the Browns won 7 and lost 9.
(This does not count the relief win over the New York Jets that unlocked the beer fridges, set the downtown streets ablaze with blaring car horns, and launched the legend of Mayfield, NFL version.)
As a starter, Mayfield completed 62 percent of his passes (355 of 572) for 4,329 yards. He had 30 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. He was sacked 35 times. His passer rating was 88.9.
Those are decent numbers for a quarterback of a team that had gone 1-15, 0-16 and 1-1-1 before he took over.
He has kept his head above water despite having already played for three head coaches – Jackson, Gregg Williams and now Kitchens. Mayfield also has had three offensive coordinators – Todd Haley, Kitchens and now Todd Monken; and two quarterback coaches – Ken Zampese and Ryan Lindley.
All of which has presented him with a typically rocky road for a Browns quarterback.
And yet he finds himself at this early portion of his second NFL season taking shots from failed NFL coaches-turned-daytime network analysts like Ryan, and many others.
“It’s the position he’s in,” said receiver Odell Beckham Jr. “He’s the quarterback. He’s going to get the blame. Coaches going to get the blame. It’s just a blame game.
“But once you know it’s real, none of that really matters. It’s only his 16th game, so I guess he was still a rookie. I always give him a hard time for that. You just learn from your so-called mistakes and you just keep getting better. That’s all we can all do. I know that’s exactly what he’s going to do. We just have to make more plays for him.”
The noise: Mayfield was particularly edgy at his mid-weekly appearance in front of the locker room media gauntlet.
Asked about his dwindling completion percentage, he said, “Yeah, if you watch the game, you would see there [are] a couple of throwaways and there are some things that I am missing, but yeah, I am continuing to try and work on that.”
Asked if he might be leaving the pocket too soon, he said, “Did you take that one straight from the commentators, or what? There was one play that I feel like I could stick in there. Other than that, here is the thing: people are going to comment when I extend the play and make a scramble play, and if I leave the pocket too early, they are going to harp on it. I couldn’t really care less. I am going to do my job like I said and continue to improve.”
When he settled down some, I asked Mayfield to assess his first 16 games as the Browns’ starting quarterback.
“For me, definitely not the start I wanted to have this year, by any means, but [I’m] doing certain things better than I did early on last year,” he said. “I think the improvement for me was just continuing to eliminate negative plays. Obviously, some of the Titans game was a big [bummer], having too many turnovers and too many sacks. I think just continuing on right now is eliminating it quicker.”
There are a lot of numbers and metrics with which to analyze a quarterback. There are passer ratings and QBR’s, yards per pass attempt, touchdowns v. interceptions, fourth-quarter passing numbers, and comeback wins. The analytics set has its Pythagorean theorems, whatever those are.
I go by what former Browns GM Ernie Accorsi told me many years ago.
“You judge a quarterback by if he can take his team down the field and into the end zone with a championship on the line,” Accorsi said.
There wasn’t a championship on the line for the Browns in Baltimore last year or against the Rams on Sunday. Only a win against very good teams. Mayfield didn’t get it done then. It’s time for him to change that.