- Criticism has constantly served as fuel for the reigning Heisman winner. But some—including two NFL superstars and a famous draft bust—believe that’s not the way to go about it in the NFL
Part 10 of our draft season series on Baker Mayfield, the 2018 draft’s most fascinating prospect on and off the field
LOS ANGELES — It’s been a common theme during his five years in the spotlight: One of Baker Mayfield’s chief motivators—if not the biggest of them all—is criticism. Ask him now, though, at the precipice of his NFL career, and he’ll say he’s only selectively listening to the voices on social media telling him he’s too short, or that his offense at the University of Oklahoma won’t translate, or that his best NFL comparison is a certain first-round burnout from his part of the country.
“I can ignore it,” Mayfield says. “Although some things really tick me off and I want to prove them wrong.” His coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, once said the chip on Mayfield’s shoulder was as big as the 1,800-square-foot office the coach was sitting in. His former teammate and close friend Mark Andrews says Mayfield takes high-profile criticisms very seriously: “It could be the smallest thing in the world, but in his head it’s the world ending.”
All of which made Mayfield’s day on the campus of UCLA all the more fascinating. Before Mayfield embarks on a cross-country tour of visits—which will include Cleveland, Buffalo, both the Giants and Jets in New Jersey, Miami, Denver and Arizona—he spent a day on an ESPN set in UCLA’s football building with Russell Wilson. The Seahawks quarterback is debuting a four-part television feature this month, QB2QB, in which he interviews four different NFL draft prospects and shares his perspective into the mental side of the game.
Wilson is the picture of poise on and off the field, his squeaky-clean image and self-imposed insulation from the noise doing much to partition him from a core of outspoken stars in Seattle’s locker room (a handful of whom were jettisoned this offseason). It stands in stark contrast with Mayfield, who has made almost as many headlines with snappy Twitter clapbacks and blunt commentary as he has with an arm and a brain that won him the Heisman in 2017.
At one point during the Wednesday filming attended by The MMQB, Wilson delved into his theory on the media. “I don’t turn the TV on during the season,” Wilson told Mayfield. “I watch my shows and that’s about it. I just try to stay focused and clearheaded, because I know who I am, and I know who I’m destined to be.”
Wilson referenced Oklahoma’s November game vs. Kansas, in which the Jayhawks’ team captains refused to shake hands with OU’s captains in pregame, and Mayfield responded by grabbing his crotch in the direction of the Kansas sideline while OU cruised to victory. Wilson warned Mayfield that NFL defenses would try to goad him, knowing he has a short fuse. “There are certain things like the Kansas game,” Mayfield admitted, “I have to polish that up.”
Trevor Moawad, a mental coach who has worked with the Universities of Alabama, Georgia and numerous other clients including Wilson, described a component of Wilson’s mental edge to Mayfield: “The outside influence is one tenth as powerful as the inside influence,” Moab said during the taping. “What you say to yourself is ten times more powerful than what other people say about you. We’re motivated by fear, incentive, or the desire to be great. But the most powerful one is, I want to do it to prove myself right.
“With Russell, all the talk around the draft was what he wasn’t, who he wasn’t. It never bothered him. I remember him saying at 22 years old, ‘I have enough, and I’m going to use what I have to the best of my ability.’”
To date, Mayfield’s personal philosophy has been something different. He led OU to a 34-6 record in his three years as a leader who latched onto any portrayal of him or his program as something less than. Andrews, the Mackey-award winning OU tight end, remembers Mayfield walking around the football facility with a large sign reading “Pretenders”—a reference to ESPN analyst Lee Corso’s take on the Sooners’ national title prospects. Today, Mayfield is keeping a list of the media members who have crossed a line, he says, and he stores screenshots of offending tweets in his phone. All of it serves as motivation when he’s working out alone, he told Wilson.
“At the same time it really doesn’t bother me that much,” Mayfield said of the criticism, “because I know the people that say some of these things have never actually taken a snap behind center, never had a 300-pound lineman about to hit them while they have to read the defense downfield.
“If I was worried too much about it, I’d be worried about the wrong things. But I do use some of it as motivation. I can listen to all the people patting me on the back, or I can listen to the people saying I need to get better. I know I need to get better, or else there would be nobody saying that.”
The problem, says one well-informed member of the media, is that the criticism never stops. Former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, newly-retired and now a co-host on the popular ThomaHawk Show podcast with former NFL wide receiver Andrew Hawkins as well as an occasional columnist for The MMQB, had Mayfield on the show during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis, before Thomas had decided to retire after 11 seasons (10 of them losing seasons). Cleveland, in its annual search for a franchise quarterback, is considered a possible landing spot for Mayfield.
“Even if you do have success, people are going to say negative things about you, and you have to handle that,” Thomas says. “Look how much negativity is around Tom Brady. I think in college you get sort of insulated, because most of the beat writers are kinda homers, and if you’re a really successful player like Baker, you probably haven’t been exposed to a lot of critics, but in the NFL that changes no matter who you are.”
In his time in Cleveland, Thomas says, he saw dozens of successful and productive teammates who were motivated in different ways, be it wealth, fear of failure, a desire to prove people wrong, or love of the game.
“The thing that scares me about someone who is motivated by criticism,” Thomas says, “is that he could become overwhelmed with the amount of negative. You wonder with Baker, is there a critical mass where there’s so much criticism, and there are so many people saying he can’t do it, he just gives up? When your confidence has been shattered, you lose love for the game, because what people were saying about me was so important.
“I think I’ve seen that in Cleveland and also with a lot of young quarterbacks all over the league, because most of them have a lot of success their whole lives, and all of a sudden the NFL is a different game, and everything they thought they knew about themselves—that they were great leaders, and they could throw the ball and read defenses, and that their will would always overcome—they start to question those things and lose their confidence, and some never regain it.”
Thomas’s concern echoed that of one former quarterback who attributes his own fall from grace to that very scenario. Of the many NFL player comparisons to Mayfield, one of the most noteworthy came from the mouth of one of the biggest busts in NFL history, who compared Mayfield to himself.
“The highly competitive, borderline arrogant, angry individual,” says Ryan Leaf, the No. 2 overall pick of the 1998 NFL draft (who has not met Mayfield). “The biggest thing for me will be how he deals with failure. That’s where my downfall was, when things began to fall apart, how I was able to deal with that. When the media is on you, you play a bad game, your whole city is on you, that’s where we’ll see where Baker Mayfield is at. Right now there’s no evidence to back up that when things get tough, he won’t break.”
Mayfield points to his transfer year at OU as a defining experience and evidence of his resolve. Upon leaving Texas Tech, he sat for a year waiting for a chance to prove himself to a coaching staff that hadn’t recruited him and had no intention of seeing him start over the incumbent Trevor Knight. He told Wilson that year was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
And the worst thing that’s happened in his career? It’s his arrest in 2017 for public intoxication and fleeing police, who were questioning him about an altercation near a food truck. The GIF of Mayfield turning tail has become Twitter ammo for his detractors; not a day goes by he doesn’t see it on his timeline. At least one general manager is using his visits with Mayfield this spring to turn his critics’ ammunition into something less potent, something like a running joke.
Sitting at the Red Rock restaurant in Norman, Okla., during a meal with Mayfield earlier this month, Browns general manager John Dorsey looked upon the landscape outside and quipped, “Here’s what we’re gonna do: Open up restaurants right here, all lined up, and they’re all gonna be food trucks.”
Mayfield had to laugh at that one.
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