BEREA, Ohio — The distinctive voice begins to rise in the background, softly emanating from Myles Garrett’s eclectic playlist.
“I’ve paid my dues …”
Seated in front of his locker, the Cleveland Browns defensive end quickly glances down at his iPhone to check the song, then returns his focus to the question at hand.
A question he knew was coming. A question about Baker Mayfield and the moment he believed.
“You mean, in person?” Garrett says, smiling. “Or on TV, when I saw him hold his crotch?”
“… Time after time …”
As he continues, Freddie Mercury’s bravura tenor builds toward the defining crescendo of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” — perhaps, a portend of better days ahead, or merely a random coincidence of an Apple-derived algorithm.
“That’s when I knew he was different, man. He had something to him,” Garrett says, detailing the precise moment he knew Mayfield was a special player: The then-Oklahoma quarterback’s infamous crotch grab and “f— you” directive at the Kansas sideline almost a year ago to the day.
“… But I’ve come through …”
“I’m not a smack-talker myself,” Garrett, the Browns’ 2017 first-rounder admitted, “but I believe I can go toe-to-toe with anybody. But he’s willing to let you know.”
Mayfield’s teammates were convinced of his talent long ago. But in the months since the rookie quarterback was drafted No. 1 overall by the organization in late April, they have come to believe in the player, but more so, the man.
He is exactly as advertised: A hot-tempered, aggressive competitor who energizes a meeting room — or an entire stadium — merely with his presence. His bravado is an acquired taste for some. And Mayfield knows it.
“I mean, he’s a d— … when you have to play him,” Garrett matter-of-factly adds with a grin. “Even in practice, sometimes, I wanna chop him in the throat. He talks smack to everybody.”
But there’s more to Mayfield than merely a cocky guy who plays with an edge. Stories abound in the locker room of the type of person he is: The sensitive guy with a big heart. The family-oriented guy who goes out of his way to make teammates feel like kin. The sore loser who despises being seen as second-best. And the fiery force who inspires those around him to play with more grit.
That was evident Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, when Mayfield went 12-for-12 for 165 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions to give Cleveland a 14-10 first-half lead, en route to a double-digit victory. There were plenty of masterful throws made against the Falcons, but none more impressive than the 28-yard touchdown pass he threw to receiver Rashard Higgins after rolling to his right and launching the ball toward the end zone.
“He got a swag about himself. And the way that he comes to work, we just know he got it,” said Higgins, one of Mayfield’s closest confidants. “We don’t look at him as a rookie. We look at him as a veteran guy that’s going to take the team all the way to victory.”
Mayfield is everything that you expect, and yet not what you might think.
And that’s why he’s here, leading this team, at this point in time.
Chaos again has come to Cleveland, this time in the form of “internal discord” within the coaching staff that became so detrimental, team owner Jimmy Haslam felt he had no choice but to dismiss their fourth head coach in six years and an offensive coordinator only nine months on the job.
No regime is ever safe for long here, an organization that seemingly breeds dysfunction in its hallways. Yet, when it comes to these rebuilding Browns, a current of optimism courses through this community. And, specifically, this locker room.
Amid questions about their four-game losing streak heading into their game against Atlanta and the stunning same-day dismissal of Hue Jackson and assistant Todd Haley, one word was offered as proof of positive things to come.
The boastful badass
The verbal barbs are delivered without warning, but veteran offensive lineman Joel Bitonio always knows they’re coming.
Mayfield’s mouth is always moving, spewing an unrelenting barrage of trash talk that is punctuated with an occasional expletive directed at his opponent. It’s designed to irritate and, perhaps, inspire.
“He’s making a statement like, ‘Hey, we’re going to kick your ass.’ And we’ve gotta be like, ‘Alright, let’s go out there and do it. We can’t turn around now,’ ” Bitonio said, shrugging his shoulders as he laughed. “It’s pretty cool. It gives you something.”
There’s a thin line between conceit and self-assurance, and Mayfield walks that tightrope daily. Depending on the audience, he comes off as a jerk. Other times, standoffish. Opposing players may hate him in between the white lines, but that only endears him more to his teammates.
He is their energy source. He is their fuel.
“It feels like defensive guys already have that edge,” Garrett, who was tied with Von Miller and J.J. Watt for third-most sacks (nine), said earlier this past week. “We do everything to break them. And a lot of offensive guys don’t have that.
“Dez Bryant has it. Steve Smith had it. It’s just like a fire to, not only beat you, but to break you down. And [Mayfield] kind of has some of that.”
Mayfield’s decorated college career, complete with gaudy numbers and Heisman Trophy honors, belie who he is at his core: A former college walk-on who defied the doubters at every turn.
He remains an underdog unable to shake off the chip he always has carried on his shoulders. And in some ways, that makes him tailor-made for the Cleveland. Mayfield was chosen for moments such as these, when the odds seem insurmountable and the Browns seem hopeless.
Throughout college, he succeeded when others doubted, was at his best when he was underestimated. He has thrived under relentless scrutiny – though much of it was brought on by his own questionable behavior (i.e., his 2017 arrest for public intoxication, disorderly conduct and fleeing and resisting arrest). The spotlight’s glare followed him to Cleveland, where HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras shadowed his every move while he served as the backup to veteran Tyrod Taylor.
Mayfield admitted the past year has been “kind of a roller coaster,” but his teammates view him as the calming force in the eye of the storm, the fiery instigator whose unbridled energy and unwavering self-confidence buoys everyone around him.
He is a 23-year-old charged with resurrecting a downtrodden franchise. And Mayfield wouldn’t want it any other way.
Asked to relay the quarterback’s message in the aftermath of Jackson and Haley’s firings, Higgins said: “He wanted us to stay together as a unit. Continue to play hard, like we do. Don’t worry about the distractions because they’re going be there, but it’s up to us to see how we’re going to handle things.”
The caring teammate
Mayfield scurried around the kitchen, ensuring everything was in order before his guests arrived.
The intimate setting — his home, located roughly 20 minutes from the Browns practice facility — was chosen by design. For once, the moment wasn’t about him. It was for them, the offensive linemen, starters and backups alike, who cover his ass each week. And although he wasn’t tasked with preparing dinner, he was determined to make the evening special. It was Mayfield’s way of taking care of his guys.
So, in between forkfuls of food and waves of laughter, the rookie quarterback opened bottles of wine and made sure their bellies were full.
“He does take care of us,” Bitonio said of their dinner party a few Thursdays ago. Every offensive lineman was invited, he noted, and seven were able to join Mayfield and his fiancee, Emily Wilkinson.
“I’ve had quarterbacks take us out before,” added the left guard, now in his fifth season in Cleveland. “But I’ve never actually had them invite us to their house and make food.”
An invitation for a home-cooked meal may not seem like much, but Mayfield’s gesture was noted within the locker room. “He loves his guys,” Garrett said. “Especially the o-line. Those are his boys. He shows respect and that’s how it should be.”
This locker room hasn’t seen anyone like Mayfield before — on or off the field. And the bond between him and his teammates is paramount. Especially now.
The hopes of an entire city rest on the shoulders of his 6-foot-1 frame, and the events of the past few weeks haven’t changed the expectations for him. Nor have they rattled the rookie’s resolve.
“If I was down about it, I don’t think I’d be the man for the job,” said Mayfield, who entered Sunday’s 28-16 win over Atlanta leading all rookie quarterbacks with 252.6 passing yards per game.
The ‘Factory of sadness’ savior
After every game, regardless of the outcome, Higgins and his quarterback can be found together.
The pair either link up at Mayfield’s house or at a local eatery, oftentimes surrounded by their loved ones. It’s their chance to “get our mind away from the game,” Higgins said. But some days, especially these days, it’s difficult for Mayfield to detach himself from the final scores.
“There’s been times he’s come to me and been like, ‘Man, I’m tired of this losing. I’ve never lost this much in college,’ ” Higgins said. “He’s told me things like that. But he’s never shown it.”
Exorcising a losing culture is easier said than done. Jackson was shown the door on Oct. 29, along with Haley, after going 3-36-1. There were signs as early as training camp that Jackson’s way of doing things rankled those around him. Aside from the obvious tension between Jackson and Haley was Jarvis Landry’s memorable, and expletive-laced, speech in which he chided teammates for not practicing.
“It was at the point where guys were getting days off that didn’t deserve them or nothing was wrong with them,” Landry said of his epic rant. “But it was the culture around here. It was normal.
“If you practice for two days, you get a third day off. And I thought it was bull—- — sorry,” he said, quickly apologizing for the curse word, “and that’s why I said what I said, like I said it.”
He then smiled.
“My mama’s not proud of it. She’s mad at me,” Landry said. “But it’s the only way. I’m a passionate person.”
That innate love for the game connects him and Mayfield. Their refusal to back down from a challenge is what unites them in their quest to build the Browns into a legitimate playoff contender.
Cleveland, now 3-6-1, is far from being considered a functional, well-run organization. A few decent games from Mayfield won’t offset years of disastrous drafts and poor hires. But there’s plenty to be optimistic about in Berea.
With Mayfield, the play is never dead. With Mayfield at the helm, the Browns always believe they have a chance.
Bitonio empathized with fans who have watched as division-rival quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco, have invaded their stadium and walked away with victories for years. But, finally, the Browns have a counterpunch at quarterback, he said: “For him to come in and be this guy, that people can rally around and just know that this is a guy that has the potential to be our quarterback, our consistent factor, the face of the Browns, the face of the city — it’s pretty cool to see.”
Even though the season began with Taylor under center, everyone in the locker room knew that Baker was the immediate future. “You know he’s going to be the face of the franchise for, hopefully, the next 10, 15 years. And to have that kind of swagger with him, was cool to be a part of. You know this guy is going to take the next step.”
Like Garrett, Higgins pinpointed the moment he knew Mayfield was NFL-ready: That Thursday night win over the Jets when the rookie replaced an injured Taylor to lead the Browns to a comeback win. “Tyrod got hurt. Baker came in. Crowd went wild,” Higgins said.
The receiver paused. His lips spread wide in a cheesy grin.
“I’m telling you, it’s something about him,” the 2016 fifth-round pick said, unaware that days later Mayfield would lead the Browns to a convincing victory over Matt Ryan’s Falcons. “He’s a playmaker. That’s it. He’s a baller. And we respect ballers around him. If he makes plays, he can play.”
Before he exited the near-empty locker room, Higgins heaped praise on his new general manager.
“John Dorsey did a good job,” he said. “I can tell you that.”
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