The Cleveland Browns’ showdown against the Tennessee Titans was correctly billed as a battle of run-game behemoths, two offenses that would just as soon hand it off five times straight than pass on consecutive plays.
Yet, while people have begrudgingly come around to admitting that Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill is a good quarterback, there was still a general lack of respect — a curious fog, of sorts — surrounding the long-term potential of Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield.
Despite being the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 — ahead of two studs at the same position in Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen — this doubt was well-earned. Though the Browns have consistently won this season, Mayfield has admittedly not been the primary reason why.
Yet, there were signs Mayfield was maturing as a player, as he was making better decisions and taking care of the football, a necessity in first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski’s ball-control offense.
Entering Sunday’s game, Mayfield had not turned the ball over once in the Browns’ previous four contests, a streak that ultimately came to an end during the Browns’ 41-35 win over the Titans, courtesy of a fourth-quarter fumble that Mayfield later kicked himself about.
“I would be sitting here saying five games in a row with no turnovers, but I fumbled,” Mayfield said. “Just taking care of the ball is the most important thing to me. It puts us in the best position to win.”
Baker Mayfield notches NFL-season first for quarterbacks
As the 25-year-old quarterback showed Sunday, that’s not the only thing he can do to put his team in the best position to win. While Mayfield’s turnover streak ended, so did another, more frustrating one for his supporters: his “40 starts without a statement win” streak. Mayfield became the first quarterback all season to throw four touchdown passes in the first half of a game, and the first Browns quarterback to do it since the great Otto Graham in 1951.
“He was hot, he continued to stay hot,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. “Everything has been coming off of opportunities. He had the opportunity to drop back and make the plays that we all knew he could make. He trusts in us on the outside and in the backfield to make those catches, as well.
“That is a testament to a lot of hard work and to the things that he has been doing in his approach to make those throws and be as accurate as he was today.”
Mayfield completed 25 of 33 passes for 334 yards, four touchdowns and zero picks for a pristine statline, an encouraging sign for a quarterback whose seven interceptions in his first seven games this season was the continuation of a disturbing trend from 2019, when he posted a ghastly, Vinny Testaverde-like 22-21 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
“Whenever I am about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’” Mayfield said, when asked what’s different about him vs. a month ago. “And if they would, then I don’t do that.”
Mayfield was being cheeky, but the juxtaposition between New Baker and, well, the Baker We Saw Before, remains strong all the same, especially considering that the Titans’ early defensive game plan was predicated upon making Mayfield throw, something more defensive coordinators will continue to do.
“We base our game plan and our style of play off the run game, but we are going to do whatever it takes to win week in and week out,” Mayfield said. “In the first half, that was spreading them out and doing some things to take care of some empty space.”
Mayfield’s ceiling higher than Jared Goff’s
The fact that Mayfield delivered, finally, against a good team wasn’t the only positive sign for his development. All season long, for instance, the 6-foot Mayfield — whose height remains a point of contention among the analysts who question his ceiling — has done most of his damage outside the pocket. In fact, only the great Patrick Mahomes has thrown for more yards outside the pocket this season.
Yet on Sunday, all four of Mayfield’s touchdown passes, and many of his big throws, came inside the pocket. Sure, he was helped by the fact many of them also came off play-action, Stefanski’s pet concept. But you don’t knock what works, especially in this league, and play-action is what helped Jared Goff quarterback the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl a few years ago in a very similar offense, no less.
With his athleticism, improvisational ability, overall moxie and rocket right arm, you can make a very real case that Mayfield already has a higher ceiling than Goff, who has failed to take the next step as a quarterback since his Super Bowl trip in 2018.
And really, that’s the larger point from Sunday’s contest, as Cleveland — yes, Cleveland! — improved to 9-3, clinching its first winning season since 2007. The loss isn’t the end of the world for the Titans (8-4) who will still be a tough out for whoever they face in January, but it meant a ton to a habitually losing Cleveland team still itching to prove itself, one that will ultimately go as far as their cocksure young quarterback can take them.
“We won the game, we need to be proud of that,” Mayfield said. “But we have to continue to improve because some of these plays that we can overcome may be the ones that cost us later down the road.”
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