For some sports fans, the story of quarterback Baker Mayfield is exhilarating and exciting. Mayfield was an unwanted quarterback from nowhere who toiled in anonymity while patiently and persistently working his way to the top. He eventually walked on and earned the starting job at two different Big 12 schools. First, Mayfield was a walk-on at Texas Tech, and while he did well there, he still couldn’t get a scholarship with the Red Raiders.
So Mayfield went to Oklahoma, once again without a scholarship, and helped lead a program resurgence alongside then-head coach Lincoln Riley. By the time his college career had finished, Mayfield had won a Heisman Trophy, becoming the first walk-on player ever to do so. He also led the Sooners to multiple Big 12 titles and College Football Playoff appearances. To wrap a bow on his gifted career, Mayfield soon after went first-overall in the 2018 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns, proving to many that all his hard work was more than worth it.
If Mayfield’s story were to end right when he was drafted, it would be a perfect Disney-level feel-good sports story. Mayfield was an underdog all his career, considered too short to play the position and often overlooked for taller, more refined quarterbacks. Nevertheless, he persisted and found his way, helping resurge one of college’s most prestigious programs in Oklahoma and eventually going first overall in the NFL Draft, something no other player with his resume can claim.
Sure, in his first professional season with Cleveland, it felt like more of the same for Mayfield at first. He had to battle against another doubter in Hue Jackson, head coach of the Browns at the time, and prove that he was ready to compete now rather than later. It hit a culmination when Mayfield came in for an injured Tyrod Taylor in a Thursday Night Football tilt against the New York Jets.
Mayfield guided Cleveland to a 21-17 victory over New York and looked like the firestarter he was in college. Not only that but, the Browns defeating the Jets was the first time Cleveland had won in 635 days. The legend of Baker Mayfield had grown to unimaginable heights after that game and for the first time in forever, it felt like the Browns had found the franchise quarterback that could one day lead them to a Super Bowl Championship.
So, maybe when talking about that Hollywood ending, this is where the credits should roll for Mayfield’s story. Since, after this point, it was a gradual slide from cheery to a catastrophe for Mayfield. Sure, there were blips of success after Jackson was fired. But, when Cleveland named Freddie Kitchens as their permanent head coach the following season, the Browns began to break the star quarterback.
Kitchens would try to dial up home run throws to star wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry on nearly every play all while Mayfield would have to throw under constant pressure due to weak pass protection. Constantly being under duress caused Mayfield to see ghosts in the pocket and broke his core fundamentals as a player: rock-solid footwork and laser-sharp accuracy. It got better the following season under Kevin Stefanski, who built an offense tailored to fit their running game, Cleveland’s primary strength, all while allowing Mayfield to act as a game manager who could provide clutch, calculated risks when the situation called for it.
If you’re a fan of the Browns or Mayfield, you know the good times didn’t last between him and Stefanski. In what would be Mayfield’s final season with Cleveland, he once again regressed to his bad habits whenever he faced pressure in the pocket. Things were only compounded when Mayfield injured his non-throwing shoulder and tried to play through the injury. Mayfield’s play on the field last season, along with a locker room and coaching staff losing faith in him, caused a malignant tumor to grow on his already shaky disposition.
By the time last season ended it was clear that Mayfield couldn’t be what the Browns needed at quarterback and that it was time for all parties to move on. Sure, it doesn’t help that Cleveland publicly flirted with Deshaun Watson, a sexual predator, in the most disgusting version of the NFL’s equivalent of The Bachelor. But, in the end, all it cost was the Browns showing the world how morally bankrupt they are when they acquired Watson and gave him more than a quarter of a billion to play quarterback for them. Soon after, Cleveland shipped Mayfield off to the Carolina Panthers for a conditional draft pick and the beleaguered quarterback’s time with the Browns was over. If we’re still following the Hollywood script on Mayfield’s career, this would be his lowest point and, eventually, the hero would rise up and once again prove everyone who discredited him wrong.
Unfortunately, the Browns might’ve broken Mayfield enough that a chance for redemption could never happen for him. In his time with the Panthers, Mayfield had career-lows in completion percentage (57.8 percent), yards per game (187.6) and only six touchdowns with six interceptions. He went 1-4 as the starter before an ankle injury sidelined him for a week and lost the starting job to P.J. Walker. Mayfield didn’t see action again until Week 9 when he the second half for Walker and then returned to the starting line-up for Week 11, before being benched again for Sam Darnold.
With the numbers behind it, it makes a bit of sense why the Panthers announced on Monday morning that they had released Mayfield. Reports say that Mayfield had asked to be released so that he could latch on with a team where he has a chance to play like the San Francisco 49ers, who just lost Jimmy Garoppolo to a foot injury on Sunday. Being released is now the lowest point in Mayfield’s career, despite what happened in the lead-up to his collegiate career. He’s broken as a player, both physically and mentally, and now, two teams who hoped he could be their answer at quarterback have moved on from him in earnest.
But, when you’re already at rock bottom, how much lower can a player go? In Mayfield’s case, there’s a chance we’ll see sooner instead of later. Sure, signing with a team like San Francisco could be a golden opportunity to turn things around by leading the 49ers on a possible playoff run. Unfortunately for Mayfield, San Francisco already has their franchise quarterback of the future in Trey Lance, who is recovering from an ankle injury, waiting in the wings for next season. This could be a chance for Mayfield to rehabilitate his image across the league. But, with there also being so much tape proving why he doesn’t work, his days in the NFL could be numbered.
It’s tragic to see Mayfield’s story go from inspiration to misfortune in no time at all. Sure, plenty of his doubters as well as some Cleveland fans will probably get schadenfreude from it all. But, it’s still sad to see how Mayfield has gone from a possible face of the NFL to an afterthought in no time at all. For now, he can still ride on his name and the shreds of success he carries with him to latch on with an NFL team. But, perhaps the humility he picked up from these experiences can be the difference maker for Mayfield’s football career long-term. If things don’t turn around, Mayfield will likely be covering Oklahoma football as part of the SEC Network and serve as a footnote in Cleveland’s football history. Hopefully, it doesn’t end up that way. But, at this point, it feels like there’s nowhere lower than where Mayfield is at right now.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
Did you enjoy this edition of Right Down Euclid? You can get it in your inbox two to three times a week by subscribing here. All it takes is your email address!
Thanks for reading! If you appreciate Right Down Euclid’s coverage of the Cavs, you can help make it happen.
It takes resources to report on games and travel to watch the team in their push for the playoffs. Can you pitch in a few dollars to go towards more original, in-depth stories and analysis?