BEREA, Ohio — Baker Mayfield struts around post-LeBron Cleveland, confident he’s next. There is something about his walk. When stationary, Mayfield looks like an average dude, short for a quarterback at 6-foot-1 and a little thick. In motion, however, he commands attention with his upright posture and a gait worthy of theme music.
He possesses a pliable charisma with his Everyman physical features belying his No. 1 draft pick talent and swagger. What do you need him to be: underdog or prodigy? He’s both. In this Rust Belt city, Mayfield is a former walk-on turned Heisman Trophy winner who now dares to achieve two impossible feats: (1) make the Cleveland Browns matter again and (2) fill the superstar void left by LeBron James, the homegrown icon who left for Los Angeles this summer.
Other than that, he can just have a chill career.
“It comes with the territory,” Mayfield said. “That is what I signed up for. I am living my dream, and I would not have it any other way. Without pressure, I do not think this would be very much fun, without all the people watching and finding joy in this game. I love this game. Without the competitive nature, I would not enjoy it.”
On Sunday, the rookie quarterback will make his first NFL start, but that’s just a formality. He became the Browns’ official savior during his Week 3 performance on “Thursday Night Football,” replacing the injured Tyrod Taylor late in the second quarter and delivering the team its first victory in 635 days.
In a 21-17 win over the New York Jets, Mayfield completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards, and by the end of the game, football didn’t feel like tragedy in northeast Ohio anymore. And while it was just one good game from a franchise that had gone 1-31 in the previous two seasons, the impact seemed greater. It was a thrilling way to introduce new hope.
Long after the game concluded, 71-year-old super fan Denny Kochever — a.k.a. Dawg Face of the famous Dawg Pound — stayed at FirstEnergy Stadium, cheering. He looked around and noticed something different. He figured about 10,000 people were screaming with him.
“Whoa, what a feeling that is,” Kochever said. “You get goose pimples. People were staying in the stadium as if saying: ‘Hell yeah, this is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for. We’re back.’ Baker Mayfield is going to pack that stadium. He’s going to electrify. He’s going to make a few mistakes, but as good as he is, you can overlook that.
“This town is starving for a good football team. Thursday night was the start of one. It’s not too soon to know that the Browns are definitely onto something with Baker Mayfield.”
Monday was media day in most NBA cities. James said hello to Lakers fans, and the Cavaliers started the difficult process of moving forward without him. But in Cleveland, there was bigger news: Browns Coach Hue Jackson made the only logical decision after Mayfield’s stunning debut and declared him the starting quarterback. His first start comes Sunday in Oakland.
“Mayfield, if you draw a line under that name, he’s the man,” Oakland Raiders Coach Jon Gruden said on a conference call with Cleveland reporters. “He’s the story that I think, right now, is going to become bigger and bigger in Cleveland this year.”
Unless he takes all his gunslinger talent and turns into the next Brett Favre, it’s unlikely Mayfield can replace James, never mind surpass him. James is one of the most phenomenal athletes in the history of sports — not just basketball — and he is an Akron native. Mayfield is an audacious Texan. There’s a distinct difference in size, athleticism and even magnetism despite how appealing Mayfield can be. Mayfield is an alpha male; James is the alpha of alphas.
Still, for all James did to lift Cleveland on and off the court, there is one factor to consider if Mayfield develops into a winning star quarterback here: The Browns are the heart of this sports town. For a long time, you only have been able to say to them, “Bless your heart!” But if the Browns have the right quarterback and they continue to acquire high-level young talent to surround the likes of defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, then Mayfield could own this town in a different way.
“I did not come here just to win one game, and I did not come here just to start the next,” said Mayfield, whose new team last made the playoffs in 2002. “We are building a franchise here, and we are turning it around.”
Before Mayfield took the field Sept. 20, the Browns had won one game in two-plus seasons. That victory came Dec. 24, 2016, which was the penultimate week of that season. Jackson had a 1-32-1 record as head coach coming into last week’s triumph. This was the worst team in American professional sports. And now, with a 1-1-1 record this season that could easily be 3-0, there’s new life. Mayfield’s development is about to dominate local interest, even though the Indians soon will be making their fourth playoff appearance in the past six seasons.
When James left Cleveland for Miami eight years ago, it enraged most fans, some of whom infamously burned replica No. 23 jerseys. Then he returned in 2014 for four seasons, ended the city’s 52-year pro title drought in 2016 and strengthened his bond with the region through philanthropic efforts. The resentment turned to appreciation. When James announced his decision to play for the Lakers in July, the reaction was disappointment, but most people understood.
James didn’t save the city by bringing home a championship. His rise to greatness coincided with Cleveland’s revival, which has included a more vibrant downtown and an influx of young professionals moving into the city. It was a perfectly timed partnership for the city and the superstar.
“I do think this city is a much different place physically and emotionally and mentally than when he left the first time,” said David Gilbert, the president and CEO of Destination Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. “It is amazing what eight years can do. The hopes and dreams of Cleveland are not pinned to LeBron. His bringing a championship was more like a megaphone that helped tell the story of all the tremendous changes going on here.”
In that sense, the Browns have been lagging behind. The city has been waiting for them to catch up.
“It’s hard for me to imagine any other city celebrating one victory early in the season like we did,” Gilbert said. “Maybe people from the outside would be cynical, but I think it speaks to how resilient the fans are. After years of being knocked down by losing, that’s how much passion they still have.”
Cleveland wide receiver Jarvis Landry uses the diction of a Migos rap song to praise Mayfield.
“One thing I know about him: He walk it like he talk it,” Landry said. “That’s something that I appreciate and respect about him, and he’s continued to do that.”
There seems to be an impressive amount of substance behind Mayfield’s swagger. At Oklahoma, you saw him dancing and planting flags and making obscene gestures at opponents. He doesn’t always manage his competitive fire properly. But he’s already winning over the Browns’ locker room with his work ethic, communication skills and natural feel for leadership.
As much as Cleveland evolves, it remains a blue-collar, Midwestern town. It will respect Mayfield’s style as long as he respects its sensibility.
“Football is just ingrained in Ohio,” guard Kevin Zeitler said. “Everyone here loves the sport. The better we do, that just elevates the love. Baker is a great fit because he’s confident, can get things done and wants to be great. He is a unique character, and he can play. No matter where he came from, if he leads the team and does what he’s capable of, anyone here would accept him as one of their own.”
One half of football, and Bakermania is a thing. His No. 6 jersey cracked the top 10 in sales over the past week, according to Dick’s Sporting Goods. Washington Nationals all-star Bryce Harper, who is also quite brash, rocked a Mayfield jersey. Mayfield needs to string together a lot of consistent performances before he is anointed a legit NFL player, and if he does, you already see the potential. He has an undeniable star quality. He’s fascinating. He makes people dream.
“I’d love for him to shut the blankety blank a------ up that have always downed the Cleveland Browns,” Kochever said. “It’s been so damn long. I’m not a fickle fan. I know what it is to have a bad day. I know what it feels like when football rips your heart out and steps on it. But I’m telling you, the stadium hasn’t been that electrified since maybe our last playoff game or maybe our first game back in Cleveland. I finally can see excitement for many, many years.
“Baker Mayfield gave me the chills, and I’m the guy who wears shorts to the games regardless of the weather.”
In post-LeBron Cleveland, the city doesn’t assume the worst anymore. The Cavaliers ended the curse. The Indians, who went to the World Series in 2016, are a perennial playoff team. It’s okay again to let the imagination roam.
So Bakermania it is.
“I know a lot of people are carving the bust for Canton already,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley joked.
Well, for a young quarterback who specializes in throwing with anticipation, perhaps it’s prudent to prepare.