Baker Mayfield is cut from a different cloth than most NFL quarterbacks. For one, he’s willing to make any throw at just about any time. It hurt him a little bit in Houston and Baltimore this year, but decision-making is a part of who he is—it’s an unrelenting, unwavering confidence in his own ability, and the idea that he can make anything happen with his smarts and arm.
And you know what? It’s got him where he is today. He’s undersized, he’s not particularly mobile, and he was the first overall pick in last season’s draft. He led a team that literally could not win to seven of them while throwing the most touchdown passes by a rookie in the history of the sport. That confidence, and the personality that went with it, is integral to who he is. And it’s integral to why John Dorsey selected him first overall.
With that in mind, there’s justifiable faith that Dorsey knows what he’s dealing with as he looks for the next head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He’s seen Mayfield’s personality from afar at Oklahoma. He pored over it during the draft process. He’s seen it up close over the course of a full NFL season. He watched Mayfield’s relationship sour with Hue Jackson, and then watched the aftermath play out in national media. Dorsey knows more than any of us could pretend to about the slights and criticisms Mayfield has faced over the years—real and imagined—and is more wedded to his success than ever before.
There’s a point I’m getting to here, and it’s simple: we’ve seen what it looks like when Mayfield does not have confidence in his coaching staff. It’s fine. It’s better than what we’re accustomed to seeing on Sundays from the Browns quarterback. But we’ve also seen what Mayfield looks like when he does have confidence in his coaching staff. It looks like it might be transcendent. It looks like there isn’t much of a ceiling on what he, and the Browns, can accomplish.
Cross-sport comparisons are tough, and the NBA is very different from the NFL. But Cleveland is not a stranger to rookies putting up historic numbers after being selected first overall. The obvious name that you think of is LeBron James. Would that Baker’s career in Cleveland end up as successful as James’. Even with James leaving twice he’s had many years of taking the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, winning one. Many are already wondering if Mayfield can reach his stature on and off the field for Northeast Ohio. But another rookie with a mercurial personality put together a ridiculously good first season in Cleveland for a team recovering from an epic free-fall. Kyrie Irving.
Now look, let’s be as clear as possible, Mayfield is not Kyrie Irving. It’s more difficult for NFL players to force their way out of town than it is in the NBA. There’s no indication Mayfield is anything other than all-in on Cleveland. No one is suggesting anything else. The reason I’m bringing up Irving has nothing to do with the players themselves, but in how the organizations that they are playing for handled, and should handle employing them.
In Irving’s case, a rookie season in which it was established that the Cavs had drafted one of the premier scoring guards in the league was followed by the team drafting a scoring guard who thought he was better than him. His pick-and-roll partner, Antawn Jamison, left and was replaced by, well, okay, he wasn’t replaced, but Tristan Thompson took his place, and this was before he determined that he would need to start shooting with a different hand. The team’s first foray into free agency involved signing another ball dominant guard that had an inflated sense of how good he was. In the meantime, Byron Scott was replaced by Mike Brown, a defensive-minded coach that Irving never clicked with (Kyrie later took some responsibility for this, even apologizing). Irving took abuse from the national media who wondered why he couldn’t drag a dysfunctional Cavs team running an outdated offensive system to the playoffs. When the Cavs were asked how they were building around Irving, the team said that they weren’t; they were building with him.
No one, not even Irving, probably, would say that he handled these times well. The team was losing, and he was young, and he still says weird stuff on nearly a daily basis. But the Browns can’t repeat the mistakes that led to Irving’s alienation, and the Cavs’ stagnation, in the years before LeBron James came back.
Which means it’s time for another simple point: the Browns better make damn sure their next choice of a head coach is someone who’s both aware of Mayfield’s larger-than-life personality and confidence, and someone who embraces it like Dorsey and the fanbase already have. They better make sure that it’s someone that will both challenge and respect Mayfield. It should be someone creative. It’ll need to be someone willing to have Mayfield’s back when the extra-curricular stuff comes up. There might, at some point, need to be some tough truth-telling when adversity hits.
The Browns seem to have that in Freddie Kitchens, the team’s offensive coordinator.
hire Freddie Kitchens right this instant pic.twitter.com/6Dby8OP2FA— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) December 28, 2018
Perhaps they can get it elsewhere. I’d caution, though, against taking it for granted. Mayfield’s ceiling looks higher than someone like Matt Stafford, but we’ve seen how his game has fluctuated depending on the coaching staff his team put around him. Stafford’s generally a go-with-the-flow guy; Baker, generally to his credit, doesn’t do that. Perhaps Dorsey has a plan in mind that will keep Kitchens in Cleveland as a head coach or offensive coordinator. Maybe Bruce Arians is the plan. If he doesn’t have that plan in place, he’ll have to feel very good about what the alternative to Kitchens is—not just on his terms, but on Mayfield’s.
I’m not here because I can break down x’s and o’s. The last time I wrote here I ended up being wildly wrong about some things. I’m not predicting Mayfield’s time in Cleveland will end up like Irving’s (although, hey, Irving’s time wasn’t really that bad). But I do think that Mayfield should be catered to. His personality demands it. His play on the field has earned it. The Browns ability to win could very well rely upon it.