Photo Credit: Erik Drost (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Baker_Mayfield_(49206381928).jpg)
On April 13, 2022, Baker Mayfield, one-time first overall draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, currently in quarterback limbo, appeared on the Ya Neva Know podcast to discuss his football career. The episode covered numerous topics, from his college days as a walk-on, to being drafted by the Browns, to being usurped in the starting QB role by Deshaun Watson. By the end, one thing was absolutely clear: Mayfield is not happy with the Browns, nor should he be.
Throughout Mayfield’s football journey, there has been a common theme of betting on himself and overcoming the odds. Coming out of high school, Mayfield had led his school to the Texas 4A Championship, yet only received five scholarship offers to Division 1 schools. Betting on himself, Mayfield chose to enroll at Texas Tech University as a walk-on.
Despite his walk-on status, Mayfield appeared in the Red Raiders’ first five games of the 2013 season, replacing injured starter Michael Brewer. Mayfield would go on to win those first five games but was eventually replaced by fellow freshman Davis Webb. For the season, Mayfield appeared in eight games total, completing 64.1% of his passes for 2315 yards, 12 TDs and 9 INTs.
After the conclusion of the 2013 season, Mayfield fully intended to return to Texas Tech in hopes of receiving a scholarship and the opportunity to compete for the starting QB spot. Unfortunately for Mayfield, his hopes were dashed when he was told that he would not receive a scholarship for the spring semester. A scholarship for the fall semester was not guaranteed, either.
“I was so angry at the time of…leaving Texas Tech,” continues Mayfield, “I knew I deserved a scholarship, and they didn’t give me one.” Even though Mayfield had been productive and had helped the team earn an 8 - 5 record and a Holiday Bowl win, Texas Tech and head coach Kliff Kingsbury didn’t see Mayfield’s value or potential. Betting on himself again, Mayfield decided to transfer to the school he grew up rooting for, the University of Oklahoma.
Even though he was a walk-on, Texas Tech declined to approve Mayfield’s transfer request. As a result, Mayfield was not allowed to contact the Oklahoma Athletic Department. Together with his mom, Mayfield drove from Lubbock, Texas to Norman, Oklahoma to enroll as an everyday student.
Mayfield had to sit out the 2014 season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. Once eligible, Mayfield began the process of walking-on to the Sooners’ football team.
“I literally had to shake Bob Stoops’ hand and ask if I could be part of the team,” said Mayfield on the podcast. Stoops saw something in Mayfield and granted his request to walk-on. As part of the scout team, Mayfield, along with future NFL players Orlando Brown, Jr. and DeDe Westbrook, dominated practices, laying the foundation for his future successful campaigns with the Sooners.
In 2015, Stoops hired former East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to fill the same position at Oklahoma. Riley was familiar with Mayfield, having offered him a scholarship to East Carolina after his decision to transfer from Texas Tech. Mayfield wound up winning an open QB competition for the starting job with incumbent Trevor Knight and would go on to start 13 games for the Sooners, leading his team to the Holiday Bowl.
2016 would see Mayfield take his game to another level. He would start another 13 games for the Sooners, completing 70.9% of his passes for 3965 yards, 40 TDs and 8 INTs. The Sooners would go on to appear in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn, where Mayfield would lead the team to a 35 - 19 victory. Mayfield was named the MVP of the Sugar Bowl for his performance.
Going into his senior year at Oklahoma in 2017, everything was primed for Mayfield to dominate - and dominate he did. Riley was promoted to head coach following the departure of Stoops, and together with Mayfield, they engineered one of the most impressive QB seasons in recent memory.
Mayfield and the Sooners steamrolled their way through the regular season, finishing with an 11-1 record, first in the Big 12 Conference. Mayfield would go on to win the Heisman Trophy, becoming the first walk-on player to do so in the history of the award. Despite their regular season success, the postseason ended in disappointment for Mayfield and the Sooners, as they fell to Georgia in the Semifinal Round of the College Football Playoff.
For Mayfield, though, the arrow was still pointing directly upward. He would go on to be selected with the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. Even this was considered a surprise, as many expected one of the other top QBs, such as Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen, to be selected.
“With Baker Mayfield what we have is a guy who…wins the game of football, is ultra-competitive, is revered by his teammates and anybody who has ever been around him,” said Browns’ General Manager John Dorsey after selecting Mayfield, “This is a guy that has earned everything he has ever had…” Now with the Browns, Mayfield was given the unenviable task of turning around a franchise that had only known dysfunction.
We all know the infamous Browns’ jersey with all the failed signal-callers of the past. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, these are all the QBs who have started at least one game for the Browns. Take a moment to bask in awe of this list: Tim Couch, Ty Detmer, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Robert Griffin III, Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, Tyrod Taylor.
Mayfield was supposed to be the last name on the jersey, the one who could finally lay the jersey to rest. For a time, it looked like that was well on its way to happening.
Mayfield began his rookie year on the bench behind Tyrod Taylor, being inserted into the lineup when Taylor was injured in Week 2 versus the New York Jets. Facing a 0 - 14 deficit in his first NFL action, Mayfield led the Browns to a comeback 21 - 17 victory, completing 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards. From that point onward, Mayfield was the Browns’ starter. He would finish the 2018 season with a rookie record 27 touchdown passes (since surpassed by Justin Herbert) and was 2nd in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting.
With head coach Hue Jackson fired midseason, the Browns decided to promote offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, who had a strong relationship with Mayfield. Unfortunately, their relationship did not seem to contribute to much on-field success in 2019, as the Browns regressed from their 7-8-1 record in 2018, to 6-10 in 2019. Mayfield also saw his statistical production fall, going from 27 TDs in 2018 to just 22 in 2019 along with an unsightly 21 INTs.
The Browns’ front office parted ways with Kitchens after the season. As a replacement, they hired former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Together with Mayfield, Stefanski would help lead the Browns to their best season since rejoining the NFL. They went 11-5, finished 2nd in the AFC North and qualified for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. There, they would face the #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. In one of the more shocking playoff-results, the Browns smashed the Steelers 48 - 37, sending Pittsburgh home early after their franchise-best 11-0 start to the regular season. The Browns would go on to give the #1 seed Kansas City Chiefs everything they could handle in a 17 - 22 loss in Arrowhead Stadium.
2021 was set up to be the Browns’ and Mayfield’s best season. It wasn’t meant to be.
In week 2 of the 2021 campaign, Mayfield tore his labrum in his left shoulder, which was a massive setback for the fourth-year pro. Even though he was in incredible pain and unable to perform at his previous level, Mayfield gutted it out. The Browns stumbled their way to a disappointing 8-9 season, finishing 3rd in the AFC North and out of the playoff picture.
It became clear that something was wrong in Cleveland. Mayfield was receiving undue criticism from fans and the media for his 2021 performance, despite the fact that he’d played through pain, discomfort, and diminished ability. While it's fair to point out that Mayfield could have sat instead of playing through the injury, that discounts Mayfield’s primary reason for gutting it out: he was playing for his next contract.
Prior to the 2021 season, the Browns had the opportunity to extend the contract of their former #1 overall pick. Instead, the Browns’ front office decided to pick up Mayfield’s fifth-year option and delay extension talks until the end of the season. Mayfield was obligated to play through the injury, as sitting might have been just as detrimental to his future earnings as poor play.
As the 2022 offseason began in earnest, reports began to circulate that the Browns, as well as several other teams, had interest in the Houston Texans’ QB Deshaun Watson. Watson, who sat out the 2021 season, was under investigation for sexual assault claims stemming from alleged conduct during massage sessions with women he contacted on Instagram. A jury in Harris County, Texas, declined to criminally charge Watson - all of a sudden, suitors were lining up for his services, never mind those pending 22 civil lawsuits.
It was widely reported that, after a certain point, the Browns were no longer in the Watson-sweepstakes. It was down to the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. Mayfield, though, had had enough. He posted a memorable, and somewhat ambiguous, farewell message on Twitter, addressing Cleveland fans directly, thanking them for accepting him and his family and for being part of so many wonderful memories.
The Browns’ front office was now backed into a corner. The situation with Mayfield was becoming untenable. Something had to be done. So, they pulled out all the stops and extended Watson and the Texans the “Godfather” offer. Out went three first-round picks and in came Watson. That’s not all, folks. In one of the most ridiculous moves in the history of the NFL, the Browns handed Watson a fully guaranteed, $230 million contract over five years, making him the highest paid player in NFL history. All of this while being currently sued by 22 women for sexual impropriety. Incredible.
Mayfield, as you can imagine, is not happy. “I feel disrespected, 100%, because I was told one thing and they completely did another,” said Mayfield when asked about his current situation. He should feel disrespected. The fact that the Browns traded for Watson is appalling on its own. But the way they’ve discarded a former franchise icon is disgraceful as well. Mayfield, for all of his faults, has been far and away the best QB for the Browns in the last 20+ years. Before Mayfield, the Browns had reached the playoffs once in 23 years. Mayfield took them to the postseason and won a game in Pittsburgh!
The Browns front office decided that they’d rather have a guy who uses massage therapists as a personal escort service. There are plenty of other ways to disrespect the player you once put all your franchise’s hopes and dreams in, but I can’t think of a better or more ironic one.
So now, Mayfield is in QB limbo. His starting role with the Browns has been filled and the number of open jobs around the NFL is small and dwindling. Fortunately for Mayfield, he will be paid his $18 million option in 2022, regardless of how things shake out. The Browns are looking for a trade partner, but they may end up cutting the 27-year-old QB. For Mayfield, anywhere outside of Cleveland is a positive development.
With a complete recovery from his injuries, Mayfield is in a great position to turn his career around and prove that he can still regain that top-end QB trajectory he seemed to be on before the 2021 season. Getting away from the incessant mess that is the Cleveland Browns is the best thing that could happen. Mayfield’s entire football career has been defined by overcoming adversity and proving doubters wrong. Now he gets a chance to do what he’s done best throughout his life: prove his doubters wrong.