Wednesday, Baker Mayfield strolled through radio row here at Super Bowl LIII adorned in a Pepsi jacket (his latest sponsor), free from all of that chatter. He had the gait of a proven star, with cameras filming his every step and even in an area where fans supposedly aren’t allowed, breathless ones asking for selfies anyway.
Mayfield was surrounded by an entourage of marketing directors and public relations specialists. They were there to shuttle him from one interview to the next, promoting a soft drink and basking in the glow of, in one rookie season, not just turning the Cleveland Browns into (gasp) contenders and becoming one of the more recognizable stars in the NFL, but perhaps rewriting the believed limitations of the quarterback position.
The Browns went from 0-16 to 7-8-1. Cleveland went from hopeless to hopeful. And short Oklahoma quarterbacks went from being doubted to having Kyler Murray bail on his baseball guarantee to enter the draft and follow Mayfield into the NFL.
“Everybody is going to knock him for his size,” the six-foot Mayfield said of the 5-10 Murray, who succeeded him in Norman and won the Heisman Trophy for the Sooners. “They are going to say the same things they said about me, about him. The kid is a winner. He’s won at every level he’s ever been at. He’s very gifted athletically. I’ve never seen anyone like him. … He blew all my stats out of the water. Blew all of that out of the water.”
That’s the broad impact Mayfield made on the NFL when he completed 63.8 percent of his passes and threw for 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns in just 14 games. It turned out he wasn’t too short or too undisciplined or too aggressive for the NFL.
Had he failed, Murray might be preparing to play in the Oakland A’s farm system this summer, not the NFL combine.
Instead, Mayfield took the moribund Browns and turned them into one of the hottest teams in the league. Cleveland finished the season on a 5-2 tear. With coach Freddie Kitchens taking over, expectations are suddenly about deep playoff runs and other recently impossible dreams for the franchise and the city.
“We didn’t even have a winning record and its through-the-roof excitement,” Mayfield said. “We’ve got to build on that. We aren’t satisfied. And it’s going to be a lot more fun when we win.
“I love it,” Mayfield continued. “Cleveland is a football town. I can’t ask for a better place to play ball in. The energy there. That feeling when I first went in was awesome.”
Cleveland was not just desperate for a winner, and not just desperate for a quarterback, but desperate for a star that could make them envision better days ahead. They needed legitimacy.
Mayfield carries himself with supreme confidence, a swagger that helped convince Cleveland that despite his measurables — 6-1, maybe — he was the guy for them.
He once famously planted an Oklahoma flag on the 50 yard line of Ohio Stadium after his Sooners beat the Ohio State Buckeyes.
He’s no less confident now. The NFL isn’t easy. It humbled him at times. It also sharpened him and made him realize that anything is possible. There was progress through the growing pains.
“I couldn’t be more thankful I was there during times when we were struggling through the building process, to see the culture change, to see the little things happen, to have a winning team,” Mayfield said. “It’s a lot but I’m very thankful I was a part of it. Adversity challenges and makes the best out of you.”
Mayfield’s boldness is not forced. This is him. It’s probably a requirement to succeeding in the face of so much doubt. He believes in himself, his teammates and his coach, and he isn’t concerned about anyone else’s opinion. It’s what draws people to him — from teammates to fans.
“Winning the respect of the guys in the locker room is the most important thing,” Mayfield said. “I’m never going to put out a front or be something I am not. I think they trust that and like that. I’m just a normal guy when it comes down to it and fans like that. They appreciate that I am going to be my normal self.”
So now he was walking through the belly of the NFL like a conquering hero. The goal is to play in this game one day, not merely get paid to tour radio row. But one year after no one knew what to do with the guy, when everyone was questioning everything about him, the tables had turned.
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