Cleveland is where quarterbacking careers go to perish and NFL opponents go to win. Or at least it was.
The Cleveland Browns were reborn Thursday night. Their long wait for a victory ended. And their even longer wait for a franchise quarterback quite possibly came to a simultaneous conclusion. Baker Mayfield had a dazzling NFL debut, and the Browns rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat the New York Jets, 21-17, for their first win since Dec. 24, 2016.
“I feel good,” Mayfield said during a postgame appearance on NFL Network. “We finally put the pieces together a little bit. . . . That’s the thing I’m most proud of: We put it together for the fans at home.”
The Browns are winners again. They have taken huge strides toward respectability after going 1-31 over the previous two seasons, including 0-16 last season. They are, in short, no longer the Browns, at least not the Browns as everyone has come to know them in recent years.
Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma taken by the Browns with the top selection in April’s draft, was superb after taking over late in the first half for Tyrod Taylor, who struggled mightily and then exited with a head injury. Mayfield completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and thoroughly outplayed fellow prized rookie quarterback Sam Darnold of the Jets.
“That’s never the way you want to get out on the field, not when you see one of your captains go down,” Mayfield said. “That’s a guy I have tremendous respect for. He’s helped me out tremendously throughout this process. That’s never the way I want to go out there. But at the same time, I was never thinking about all the quarterbacks we’ve had play in the past here. I’ve always told myself I’m different. And the past is the past. You’ve got to hit the reset button. You’ve got to take the next step forward.”
It was a night that brought the hope of better times ahead for a franchise that has been as downtrodden as they come.
“I think the kid’s just a winner,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said on the NFL Network broadcast.
Aikman’s former Dallas Cowboys teammate, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, said on the postgame show: “They picked the right guy when they picked Baker Mayfield.”
It was not an obvious choice by John Dorsey, the new general manager who has overseen reconstruction of the roster. Many talent evaluators believed Darnold would be the first quarterback selected, but Dorsey went with Mayfield, who was expected to spend much or all of this season waiting for his turn because Dorsey previously had traded for Taylor to be the place-holding starter.
Mayfield is an accurate passer and a commanding leader. He was a dominant college player, but he had to spend the pre-draft process convincing teams that he could be trusted and that he wasn’t too brash. He had to convince the Browns that he wouldn’t be the next coming of Johnny Manziel, the would-be franchise savior who became just another name on the lengthy list of failed Browns quarterbacks.
Mayfield is no Manziel, if his debut was any indication. He delivered passes on time and on target. He energized the fans and his team. He inherited a 14-0 deficit and immediately threw a pair of darts for completions. The Browns, that rapidly, had been transformed.
Two field goals by new kicker Greg Joseph, sandwiched around halftime, narrowed the deficit to 14-6, then the Browns got even in the final minute of the third quarter. Mayfield delivered a laser of a pass to wide receiver Jarvis Landry, running up the seam on the right side of the field, for a 29-yard gain to set up tailback Carlos Hyde’s one-yard touchdown run. The Browns managed a successful two-point conversion when Mayfield caught a trick-play pass by Landry, a reprise of “Philly Special” pulled off by the Eagles in last season’s Super Bowl.
The Jets retook the lead with a field goal, but Mayfield led the Browns to a go-ahead one-yard touchdown run by Hyde with just over two minutes remaining, and the Browns held on with two late interceptions of Darnold.
The Browns went 635 days between wins. They had gone 0-18-1 since their previous victory. They’d opened the season by tying the Pittsburgh Steelers, then suffered a narrow loss at New Orleans.
They needed a breakthrough. They released kicker Zane Gonzalez after his misadventures in the season’s first two games. They traded talented but troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon to New England on Monday.
On Thursday, Mayfield gave the organization, and the city, a new start. The Mayfield era has begun. Coach Hue Jackson did not immediately name Mayfield the starter moving forward, but there is no going back to Taylor now. There is no turning back.
“I didn’t do this by myself, and I’m not going to handle it that way,” Mayfield said. “I had a lot of guys play well around me. . . . We put the pieces together. . . . Now we’ve just got to build on it.”