Whether you like it or not – Baker Mayfield signals a new era in Cleveland

Something big happened on Thursday night. If you missed it, I don’t know what to tell you. If you were watching football, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When Tyrod Taylor went down with a head injury and needed to be evaluated, everyone knew what time it was: Baker. Mayfield. Time. Albeit under unfortunate circumstances (no one ever wants to see an NFL player get hurt), Mayfield made his NFL debut a bit earlier than expected: in the second quarter of his team’s third regular season game. Before we dive into what happened from that point on, let’s backtrack to how we got here.

On March 10, the Browns shocked the NFL by trading a third-round pick for Taylor, who had just finished up his third season with the Buffalo Bills, and seventh year overall in the league. Cleveland know what it was getting – a meat-and-potatoes QB in the middle of his prime. Taylor wasn’t (and still isn’t) known for making big plays, but he was dynamic with his legs and able to make a difference by taking very good care of the ball. A 22-20 record across three seasons may not sound like much to the casual fan but to a Browns fan, it’s music to their ears. At the absolute worst, the 210-pounder was an upgrade over anyone the organization had thrown under center in as long as anyone can remember. Dubbed more of a temporary fix than a saving grace, optimism still managed to spread throughout Ohio. That was until…

Sort of. In a move that originally wasn’t thought much of the week of the draft but quickly gained immense amounts of steam, newly-appointed general manager John Dorsey called Baker Mayfield on the evening of April 28 and informed him that he’d be the first pick of the NFL Draft. The pick was met with mixed reactions, to say the least. Some scratched their heads at Cleveland selecting a QB with the number one overall pick, just to sit him on the bench. Others praised the move and asked if there was any room left on the Browns bandwagon. Head coach Hue Jackson had already established that Taylor was entrenched as his starter but nonetheless, it would be an interesting dynamic to see how he played with a hungry rookie (Mayfield) breathing down his neck.

Nothing would change throughout training camp. Although Mayfield led the NFL in passing yards this preseason, it was evident that Cleveland simply wanted to get their #1 pick lots of reps before he’d have to sit on the bench for the next few months. Taylor was sharp in limited action (Mayfield attempted 61 passes compared to Taylor’s 28), gearing up for his first season in the Dawg Pound.

Cleveland’s season opener left a lot to be desired in terms of quarterback play from Taylor. Completing just 15 of 40 passes (37.5 %) for 197 yards, a touchdown and an INT, the Browns’ defense worked in conjunction with a sound rushing attack to keep the team in the game. An opening week tie wasn’t the desired result but for a team that lost every single game of the 2017 campaign, you could call it a change of scenery.

Taylor played a lot better the following week against the Saints. Raising his completion percentage and yards to 73 and 246, respectively, he still only found the end zone once through the air. Even though the 29-year-old wasn’t putting huge numbers on the board, he put his team in a position to win. If it weren’t for kicker Zane Gonzalez missing two PATs and field goal attempts, the Browns would’ve been sitting at 1-0-1 after two weeks of football. Gonzalez was subsequently cut after his performance/injury/being-run-out-of-town. The morale of the story is that the Browns had an opportunity to be 2-0, something they hadn’t been able to say in seemingly forever.

In perhaps the most winnable game of the young season for Cleveland on Thursday, Taylor fell victim to a head injury amidst a 4/14, 19-yard performance. I have absolutely no clue how long Jackson would have let his QB continue struggling to move the chains before making a switch – your guess is as good as mine. Needless to say… our flashback is over, and you know what’s coming.

Entering the game with a little less than two minutes left in the first half, it was Baker Mayfield time. Naturally, the Oklahoma product completed three of his first four NFL passes for 47 yards, setting Cleveland up for a field goal. Heading into the half down 14-3, it was then announced that Taylor would not be returning to action for at least the remainder of the game. Jackson must have given one heck of a halftime speech to his team, because it played nearly lights-out for the next 30 minutes.

The defense played some great football against Jets rookie Sam Darnold, but the star of the night was their own first-year QB. Mayfield orchestrated three scoring drives in the second half, two capped off by Carlos Hyde touchdown runs and one by a Greg Joseph field goal. Completing 14/19 passes for 154 yards after halftime, the 23-year-old made a mixed bag of off-schedule, chain-moving throws and downright bullets out of the pocket:

The Browns ended up winning 21-17, their first victory in 635 days. The differences between a cautious, reluctant Taylor and a make-it-happen, guns blazing Mayfield were obvious. Despite Jackson saying he’ll have to “watch the tape” before deciding on a starting QB for Week 4, it’s hard to see a scenario in which he goes with a less-electric, less-than 100% healthy Taylor – especially after Mayfield brought home a W in front of the home crowd. Weirder things have happened but at the very least, a QB controversy is officially brewing in Cleveland.

Baker Mayfield is not polished or refined in many senses of the word. He has an unorthodox, almost backyard style of play that will sometimes get him into heaps of trouble. He’s young. Maybe he isn’t ready. Asking a young kid to take over after the season is already underway is extremely risky. These are all legitimate concerns. Tyrod Taylor is a proven veteran (for the most part) and more often than not, he will put your team in a position to be competitive. He’s been around the league and knows how things work. These are pros of playing Taylor over Mayfield.

On the other hand, there are some things Mayfield can do that Taylor not only can’t, but wouldn’t even consider doing for a split second. Mayfield knows how to fire up not only a crowd, but every last one of his teammates. He was a proven winner at the college level and knows what it takes to succeed at the next level, once he gets the hang of it. He’s the exciting pick. He’s the popular pick. Only time (and Hue Jackson) will tell what direction the organization takes. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Mayfield did one thing no QB in Cleveland has been able to do in nearly two calendar years, though: win a game.

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