Cade York told offensive teammates 'just get me to the 40.' He made good on that directive in his first NFL game. (Cleveland Browns)
Cade York saved the day and much more in an emotional win over Baker Mayfield
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Jacoby Brissett fought back tears in the post-game interview as the emotions of perhaps his highlight moment as an NFL quarterback took hold of him.
In a win-or-lose final drive with no timeouts, the replacement quarterback for Deshaun Watson advanced the Browns just far enough to try an ambitious game-winning field goal and grab back a game that relentless Baker Mayfield had taken from them in the final two minutes.
Cade York’s 58-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining was a fitting climax to that rarest of Browns’ instant classics – a hard-fought, totally desperate win in the first game of the season.
The heart-pounding, 26-24 triumph over the Carolina Panthers broke an 18-year, non-winning streak in Game 1s for the Browns and averted a hellish, nightmare start for the franchise that can’t seem to get out of its own way.
It’s impossible to predict what a loss to Mayfield would have meant to the Browns’ season, especially after he made up a 9-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take Carolina’s only lead, 24-23, with 1:13 to play.
But it is fair to say life would have been miserable in Camp Haslam for at least the coming week had not York saved the day in his very first NFL game.
After Brissett left the post-game interview room practically in tears, the kicker bounced in on a cloud of calm and self-awareness and greeted the media with the innocent look of a 21-year-old rookie.
“Well, hello everyone,” said the hero of the day.
Now, York had been the talk of training camp, to be sure, booming kicks through the uprights for six weeks. But on this day, York had suffered what he termed “a crappy warmup.”
In fact, he pull-hooked several kicks way left of his target in his pre-game warmups. And on the final exercise that sends the team to the locker room before official introductions – a field goal with all 22 on the kicking teams in formation – York’s 33-yarder banged off the right upright.
So that ghost of past doomed Browns’ kickers made it down here, too, along with thousands of Browns fans.
“I was [aware of York’s pre-game troubles],” coach Kevin Stefanski shrugged. “Do you miss putts on the putting green?”
Stefanski said York’s “crappy” pre-game was not the reason he eschewed a 54-yard field goal try on the offense’s first possession. He called for a short sideline out to Donovan Peoples-Jones that Brissett badly missed – a harbinger of a miserable first quarter for him.
“I didn’t want to try a 50-yarder early in this game,” Stefanski said. “I wanted to give him some extra points and make some field goals. Just wanted to have him see the ball go through.”
Ultimately, that strategy worked. By the time of the long game-winning attempt, York was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals and 2 for 2 on PATs and the muscle memory of his missed warm-up kicks was out of his system.
Not that the Browns’ offense was ruling the day. It left two or three touchdowns on the field in the first half because of Brissett misfires – one to Amari Cooper, one to Kareem Hunt, one particularly bad throw for Peoples-Jones five yards out of the end zone. All of which contributed to Brissett’s post-game emotions.
“Emotions were … just … this moment, uh, sorry …,” Brissett began, haltingly. “The buildup to this moment, it goes further for me than just being here. It’s a long time coming to reach this point. And I have to do a better job of calming my emotions down.
“Like I said, I made the right plays at the right time.”
The Browns built a 17-7 lead at halftime – Hunt scored one on a 1-yard play-action pass from Brissett and ran unstoppably from 24 yards for the other. But it was the Browns’ fired-up defense winning the day.
Through six series, the defense abused Mayfield with three sacks, tipped four of his passes, forced an interception and held him to 6 of 13 passing for 17 yards. Mayfield also fumbled a shotgun snap, though the Panthers recovered.
The Bank of America Stadium crowd was on the verge of booing Mayfield until he came alive on his seventh possession for a touchdown ignited by a 50-yard connection with uncovered tight end Ian Thomas.
When the Browns stretched the lead to 20-7 on York’s 34-yard field goal on the first series of the second half, it looked like Mayfield was down for the count.
But, as Stefanski allowed, “He fought like crazy like he always does.”
Once Carolina coach Matt Rhule rediscovered the great Christian McCaffrey as a weapon – he made two outstanding runs, one on a broken play after he picked up another fumbled snap by Mayfield – the Panthers offense came alive.
Mayfield made it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter with 7-yard TD run when the middle of the Browns’ defense parted like the Red Sea.
A 36-yard York field goal re-upped the Browns lead to 23-14. But the sigh of relief heard from the Browns’ sideline was short-lived. Mayfield struck on first down with a strike to Robbie Anderson streaking behind the secondary for a 75-yard touchdown.
"That should never happen," Stefanski said.
And after a Browns punt sailed into the end zone, Mayfield took over from his own 20 with 2:14 – needing only a field goal to put the dagger through the hearts of his former teammates and fans.
How many times did Mayfield fail in game-winning situations for the Browns? This time in his first game with his new team, he willed it downfield fast.
With the crowd chanting “Let’s go, Baker!,” there was a 26-yard completion to D.J. Moore and then a 21-yard catch-and-run by McCaffrey, on which a horse-collar tackle by John Johnson tacked on 7 more yards to the Browns’ 14.
Mayfield had another fumbled snap (he recovered) and the defense made two stops. But when Eddy Pineiro made a 34-yard field goal with 1:17 to go, it felt like the Browns had committed an all-time choke job that would set this season off on the worst possible note.
It was amazing that Mayfield was able to overcome all the mishaps forced by the Browns’ defense – plus 141 yards rushing by Nick Chubb -- to give the Panthers their first and only lead.
He tried to hide his profound disappointment after the loss.
“Everybody made this out to be their Super Bowl but despite what everybody is going to make this, there are 16 more games,” Mayfield said. “The Super Bowl is not until February and this is the beginning of September. A lot of anticipation … we are going to flush this, we are going to learn from it and we are going to get better from it.”
It was not to be for Mayfield, thanks to Brissett and Carolina’s Brian Burns (15-yard roughing penalty on first down when he hit Brissett in the helmet), Peoples-Jones (a clutch 15-yard reception) and, of course, York.
Weeks ago, at the annual rookie dinner, conversation actually turned to just the situation that would arise in York’s first game.
“Just get me to the 40,” York joked then to Brissett and other veterans nearby.
They may have laughed at the brash rookie kicker then. They're not laughing now.