CLEVELAND — Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield threw outside when wide receiver Jarvis Landry cut inside. There was 11:14 left in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the Falcons.
That error was note-worthy because it was Mayfield’s first incompletion of the game. The rookie hit 13 of 13 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and he put on a show that led to a rare occurrence at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Cleveland (3-6-1) enjoyed a comfortable, 28-16 victory against Atlanta; the Browns’ first double-digit win since a 24-10 victory over the 49ers on Dec. 13, 2015. Mayfield, who finished 17-of-20 for 216 yards and three TDs, had a tongue-in-cheek explanation for when he saw this coming.
“When I woke up this morning, I was feeling pretty dangerous,” Mayfield said. “I just woke up feeling real dangerous.”
[email protected] woke up feelin’ dangerous this morning 😎 pic.twitter.com/yaxVoBzu61
Real dangerous? That’s quite the turn. The Browns were a choose-your-overtime-adventure team in the first half of the season. They then bottomed out with a four-game losing streak, which led to the firing of coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Oct. 29, an emphatic message from general manager John Dorsey.
In the interim period, Mayfield is working with coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. On the surface, that looks like a disservice to the development of a franchise player in an organization plagued by the QB and coach carousels since 1999.
Mayfield does not see it that way at all. Neither does WIlliams, who marveled about the hidden key to Mayfield’s mastery Sunday.
“If you take a step back and watch how he managed the game in the huddle,” Williams said. “How he managed the clock. How he managed the check system. How he managed the overall communication on the offensive side of the ball. It’s a good step for him.”
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Atlanta (4-5) barged into Cleveland as the hot team with three straight victories, but it was Mayfield who delivered, instead. He hit nine different receivers in that perfect first half — and the Browns stopped themselves on the other two drives. On one, Cleveland was hit with a false-start penalty on third-and-1 as Mayfield pretended to walk to the sideline before a direct snap to running back Nick Chubb. On the other, Dontrell Hilliard threw an interception on a throw-back pass intended for Mayfield.
On a dysfunctional team, there might have been finger-pointing. Mayfield went the other way — another sign of that growing confidence and leadership.
“If we would have completed that ball, everyone would have said we were brilliant,” Mayfield said. “Since we had the interception they are going to throw Freddie under the bus.”
Mayfield didn’t do that. Instead, he embraced a game plan that included those trick plays and formations, including a wishbone look. Still, when Cleveland needed a big play in the passing game, the QB made it. Mayfield scrambled out of the pocket before launching a 28-yard TD pass to Rashard Higgins for a 7-0 lead. He also hit Chubb for a 13-yard TD on a swing pass with 55 seconds left in the first half, bringing Mayfield to 13 of 13 passing.
“I didn’t know that,” Chubb said when he was told of Mayfield’s stat line at that point. “That’s what you expect from Baker. He’s done such a great job for us by coming in here and being a leader; stepping up big every time we need him to.”
WATCH: Chubb’s best plays against Falcons
Chubb, who finished with 20 carries for 176 rushing yards (209 total), gave the Browns a 28-10 lead with 8:45 remaining in the third quarter with a franchise-record, 92-yard TD run. That was game over, and Cleveland knew it.
Browns fans left FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday feeling good. At a minimum, they know they have two rookie playmakers around whom they can build an offense.
That’s the Mayfield effect, and he’s growing more comfortable in his role. Look at other recent No. 1 picks and their first-year production.
For Mayfield, this year’s numbers and win-loss totals are not as important as building for the future. It’s on Cleveland to make sure he follows the right path. He showed Sunday he can help himself both on and off the field. He dealt more one-liners in his postgame media conference that drew laughs and showed the alpha personality that put him over the top as the No. 1 pick. Some examples:
On the wishbone look: “It was something, wasn’t it?”
Did Hilliard throw the ball well in practice? “Better than that, yes.”
What about Chubb’s 92-yard TD run? “Great handoff, other than that …”
Mayfield, much like he did as a Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma, continues to turn the volume up and down in the right moments. The excitement — like when Atlanta’s Brooks Reed strip-sacked Mayfield but the QB picked up his own fumble and danced ahead for six yards — is a byproduct. He also involved those nine different receivers and was quick to throw in an I-told-you-so.
“You guys have said I might need receivers, but I trusted those guys, and you saw that today,” Mayfield said. “They were able to do their job, and when they do that — when we do that — it’s something special.”
Now the challenge for Dorsey is to return the favor. The GM must coach who is compatible with Mayfield and continue to stock the roster with talent. Mayfield and Chubb are leading the charge on offense, and first-round picks Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward can lead the defense. It’s a blueprint for a winning team, and it starts with performances like that of the Browns on Sunday.
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“We have to build on it,” Mayfield said. “We have to find the positives this week. We had a lot of positives this week, so it will be about how we handle that. It’s about not realizing that we’ve made it, because we haven’t.”
Mayfield is right about that. It’s still a 3-6-1 team.
But the Browns — yes, the Browns — are a little more dangerous today than they were yesterday.
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