This story appears in the May 7, 2018, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Last Thursday evening the 10,000 or so Browns fans at the parking lot down the street from Cleveland’s home stadium waited beerily for the big screens to deliver the news they’d been anticipating not just for months but since 1999, when the Browns drafted Tim Couch with the No. 1 pick: Which quarterback would the moribund franchise use now with the top selection?
Minutes before commissioner Roger Goodell strode to the podium in Arlington, Texas, with the news, the Browns showed a get-the-fans-fired-up video—cinematic sleight of hand for a team that has one victory in its last 35 games. Then the new general manager, John Dorsey, was on the screen. A buzz went through the crowd. Cleveland’s fans like the 57-year-old Dorsey because he’s a traditionalist, a football guy who cut his scouting teeth under Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf and helped build the great Packers teams of the 1990s, as well as a perennial contender now in Kansas City. And here was Dorsey with the sentence the famished faithful wanted to hear: “Let’s reawaken this sleeping giant, the Cleveland Browns.”
Music to 20,000-odd ears. The crowd went wild—wilder, even, than when Goodell announced around 8:15 EDT that the Browns had selected Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the quarterback who has the chance to be the Browns’ 29th starter at the position since the team drafted Tim Couch in 1999. The reaction then was more Whoooah than Yaaayy. A guy with a GRIFFIN III jersey held his head in his hands in seeming disbelief, while another guy in a KOSAR jersey pumped his fist.
The fans don’t know if the pick was the right one. They just want the pain to stop.
This was the 20th draft for the new Browns, the franchise re-formed in 1999 after Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore in ’96, where it became the Ravens. For their first 19 drafts these Browns did nothing but massively miss on quarterbacks ... when they emphasized the position at all. Only once had they picked a passer in the top 20, and that was Couch, in their expansion year. Left unprotected by a poor line, he was out of football by 2004. Choosing Couch over Donovan McNabb—who made six Pro Bowls in a 13-year career—was the first in a series of decisions that haunt Cleveland to this day. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. over Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards over Aaron Rodgers in ’05. Johnny Manziel over Derek Carr in ’14. Trading the pick that became Carson Wentz in ’16. Trading the pick that became Deshaun Watson in ’17 (and drafting DeShone Kizer instead).
And then there’s this postscript, shared last week by former Browns GM Phil Savage: In 2007, holding the No. 3 pick, Cleveland liked LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Had the Raiders not taken Russell with the top choice, Savage says he would have drafted him. His pick instead that year: tackle Joe Thomas. Russell’s an all-time bust, Thomas an all-time great. Imagine that: Saved by Al Davis. So the team’s best draft choice of this century turned out to be part luck.
“Year after year, bad decision after bad decision,” says 49-year-old Cleveland lawyer Jim Sammon, whose family has held season tickets since the founding of the Browns in 1946. “It’s the definition of insanity, making the same mistakes over and over again.”
“I understand their frustration, totally,” says coach Hue Jackson. “They want a winner so bad that they’re afraid to really embrace us again till we win.”
Getting the quarterback right, then, was the paramount job last week for the seventh Cleveland GM in the last decade. It has been clear since the day Dorsey took the job in December that he would pick a passer. He imported two scouts he trusted to help judge QBs—assistant GM Eliot Wolf, Ron’s son, from Green Bay, and consultant Scot McCloughan, the former Washington and 49ers GM—and asked each independently to produce reports on the top QBs. (Wolf had already done his last fall as Green Bay’s director of football operations.) Dorsey filed one as well.
• What makes Baker Mayfield tick? What about his character convinced the Browns to make him the No. 1 pick and their quarterback of the future? Robert Klemko and SI go behind the scenes with Mayfield in The Big Interview. You can now watch anytime, anywhere on SI TV. Learn more at SI.TV.
When the GM compared the three reports he noted not only that all three men rated Mayfield first, but also this: Wolf’s grade was identical to Dorsey’s 8.5 on the 1.0-to-9.0 scouting scale they’d learned with the Packers. (Dorsey retained the grading system with the Chiefs and now in Cleveland.) An 8.5 is worthy of a top 10 pick in any draft. “Keep in mind,” Wolf says, “I had no horse in the race. I was in Green Bay. We weren’t taking a quarterback in the first round. But to me, Mayfield was clearly the best guy.” McCloughan graded on a different scale, where the lower the number the better, and he gave Mayfield a 1.1. That, in Packers parlance, is roughly an 8.5.
Dorsey kept those numbers quiet, but it was becoming apparent after the Browns’ pre-combine meetings in February that Mayfield would be hard to top. When it came time to break down the quarterbacks, Dorsey asked Wolf, “Let’s watch a game of his—what’s his best game?”
“Turn on any game,” Wolf said. “Seriously.”
By Pro Football Focus’s metrics, Mayfield was the top-rated college quarterback in both 2016 and ’17, and the website showed him to be a 60.3% passer on balls thrown 20 yards or more past the line of scrimmage in ’17. UCLA’s Josh Rosen, at 42.9%, was next among this year’s five first-round hopefuls.
But every QB in this draft was flawed. Mayfield’s height (6' 5/8") scared scouts. It concerned the Browns too. Dorsey goes by his eyes more than the numbers, but he did note that Mayfield had just two passes batted down in 406 attempts last year; the average number of batted balls in 2017 for Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson: 6.8. Then there was Mayfield’s public-intoxication arrest in February ’17 (he pleaded guilty to three misdeameanor charges) and his on-field cockiness—planting an Oklahoma flag on the field after a win at Ohio State, grabbing his crotch and taunting the Kansas sideline after the Jayhawks’ captains wouldn’t shake his hand before the game. He has a little Manziel in him, it seems, which is not a popular look in northeast Ohio these days.
Dorsey arranged for a team of Browns officials—including Wolf, Jackson and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley—to accompany him in meeting the top four passers during the week of March 19. They started in Los Angeles: dinner with Rosen on Monday night, a workout and classroom session on Tuesday. Then dinner with Darnold on Tuesday, a workout and classroom session on Wednesday. They followed the same schedule with Mayfield in Norman, Okla., on Wednesday night and Thursday, then with Allen in Laramie, Wyo., on Thursday night and Friday.
Talent evaluators often have a confirmation bias: They hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. “Normally I’m a guy who likes the bigger quarterbacks, with a physical presence and a big arm,” Jackson says. “Baker was the outlier for me.”
The coach quizzed each passer over dinner, asking Mayfield, “What’s the most important thing about being a quarterback?”
“Getting the whole team better,” Mayfield said. “The quarterback’s job is elevating the play of everyone around him.”
Then something happened the next morning—something that showed the kind of respect Mayfield’s teammates had for him. When he walked into the Sooners’ indoor practice facility for his workout, seven teammates were there, stretching on the other end of the field, ready to catch his passes. Mayfield cupped his hands and called out a signal: “Hee-hee!”
“Hee-hee!” they called back and came jogging over to Mayfield.
“Damndest thing I’ve seen,” Jackson says. “Like Baker was the Pied Piper.’’
Dorsey, meanwhile, was probing the sources he has developed over years of scouting in Norman. “One of the best leaders I’ve ever had on any team,” former OU coach Bob Stoops told him. Dorsey knows an agent in Norman, an alum named Kelli Masters; she’s familiar with Mayfield, and Dorsey says she tried to recruit the QB as a client. “John came to me,” Masters says, “and wanted to know, Is he Manziel? I told him, ‘No, Baker is not Manziel.’ There are definitely not the grave concerns, the red flags, about Baker that there were about Johnny.”
The workout went great, Jackson says. “I told him, ‘I want you to hit all your receivers in the face.’ He said O.K. And he did—through the whole workout. The arm talent is what I’ll always remember from that day. It’s NFL arm talent.”
Afterward, the Cleveland contingent boarded owner Jimmy Haslam’s plane in Norman and went to scout Allen. “I didn’t say anything to anyone,” Dorsey says. “But when I got on the plane, I knew: That’s our dude.”
The Browns desperately needed a dude. It’s tough in a die-hard place like northeast Ohio for the fan base to lose hope, but winning one game in two years is a way to do it.
“The thing I liked about Browns fans,” says the first coach in the franchise’s renaissance, Chris Palmer, “is that the tradition there is so strong. Obviously they haven’t won for a long time, but there’s a core of fans who know what winning looks like. They know what great football looks like, going back to Paul Brown and Jim Brown.’’
True. But a Browns fan who was a junior in high school when the team won its last championship, in 1964, would be about 70 today. A young Cleveland fan in the middle of the Paul Brown-Otto Graham glory years of the early ’50s would be close to 80. How many of them are still left? And are their heirs still diehards?
Maybe. Maybe not. The Browns reportedly sell about 50,000 season tickets for 67,895-seat FirstEnergy Stadium, and the renewal rate this year is better than last, according to one club official. But based on the comments of a few fans last week, it doesn’t sound as if the Browns should get too comfortable.
Take Sammon, whose family owns eight season tickets. Sitting in his downtown law office on the morning of the first day of this potentially franchise-resuscitating draft, he was not optimistic about his football team. “I look out my window, here on the 29th floor, and I can see right into the stadium,” he said, with disgust in his voice. “Damn it.” (That night Sammon went to the Indians-Mariners game and stayed away from draft coverage.)
Sammon tells the story of his grandfather Marty Sammon Sr., the original buyer of the tickets. Jim says Marty Sr. died after walking up the ramp at the old Cleveland Stadium during a Browns-Giants game on Oct. 27, 1963. “At least my grandfather died watching good football back in the great days of this franchise—not like whatever the hell we’ve been watching here,” he says. “The old Browns followed Otto Graham with Jim Brown. They knew players. They knew how to win. We’re going to follow Johnny Manziel with Baker Mayfield? Come on! Enough!”
A friend of Sammon’s, 49-year-old Dan Adams, went to his first Browns game in 1976. Since the expansion year he has had two season tickets in the northwest corner at the rear of the lower bowl (total cost: $1,200). But feeling hopeless after a 1–31 stretch over the last two seasons, he walked out of the stadium in December and didn’t think he’d be back. “I’d had enough,” says Adams, an operations manager for a company that sells hydraulic hoses and fittings. “I felt like I was in football hell, rooting for a team that would never win. When I got my invoice for the tickets this year, I photocopied my hand with my middle finger up, folded that up and sent it back. I wrote: 1–31 and I’m done. This one’s for you.”
But as the ticket deadline approached, Adams felt more and more torn. “I was super sad about it,” he says. “It was almost like a death, giving up the tickets. On that last day—I still don’t know why, exactly—I did renew. This is the only thing I do for myself, and I just decided: One more year.”
Adams has spent the past two seasons getting excited about the college quarterback he wanted: Darnold. He even scrawled the QB’s name across his work calendar—a daily reminder. “This is the Browns’ franchise quarterback,” he said, hours before the draft. “Finally.”
Then the Browns picked Mayfield. Reaction from the experts: lukewarm. Mike Mayock said on NFL Network that Mayfield was his fourth-rated quarterback. Longtime Browns beat writer Tony Grossi, now with ESPN, wrote, “Are you kidding me? This is the reason the Browns passed on Carson Wentz in 2016, passed on Deshaun Watson in 2017, and failed to aggressively trade for Jimmy Garoppolo? To crown six-foot Baker Mayfield the next franchise quarterback hopeful with the No. 1 pick of the John Dorsey era?”
Cleveland is in prove-it mode. Dorsey has imported optimism, and there’s a belief that he gives the franchise a real chance to turn things around. But years of bad football have led to a lot of mistrust.
“That’s O.K.,” Dorsey says. “We should be about action, not words.”
Draft grades are funny things. Most football media do them in some form or another—and then, a few days after the draft, they’re forgotten. Maybe that’s because no one can really judge a draft for three or four years. In 2014, after the Browns took cornerback Justin Gilbert at No. 8 and Manziel at 22, Bleacher Report graded Gilbert an A-minus and Manziel an A-plus. Both had crashed out of football by 2017.
What’s important here is that Mayfield and his fellow newcomers—quarterback Tyrod Taylor in free agency from the Bills and receiver Jarvis Landry through a trade with the Dolphins—understand what it will take to turn the tide. “You have to get enough like-minded people who stand up and rebel against losing,” Jackson says. “That’s when losing stops.”
On Friday, Mayfield flew to Cleveland to begin his new life. He met the press, then had sessions with Dorsey, Haslam (and his wife, Dee), Jackson and the support staff. He and the fourth pick, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, threw out dual first pitches at Friday’s Indians game. (For the record, Mayfield’s was a fastball, high and inside—he was a standout infielder at Lake Travis High in Austin.) During all that, he considered what it was like to join a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2007.
“The past, to me, doesn’t really matter,” Mayfield says. “It’s all about what we’re doing right now. I’m really happy to be here. I’m a routine guy. I do my best when the routine is laid out and I can work hard at football.”
Life is going to be all football, if Dorsey and Jackson have anything to do with it. So what did the Browns’ GM do on his first day off, Sunday, after five months of grinding through the draft? He drove 40 minutes south, to Canton, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To unwind. Dorsey thought of going to the Indians game but knew he’d be more comfortable among the bronze busts and the history.
The night before, bushed from the scouting whirlwind—and from keeping a secret the football world was dying to know—Dorsey had popped open a beer (from Cleveland’s own Great Lakes Brewing) and considered his weekend, his job and his aim.
“This is unreal,” he said, in his orange-block-lettered CLEVELAND BROWNS sweatshirt. “I love football history so much, and here I am, the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. I’m a part of the history of this great franchise now. I will do everything in my power, every day, with every bit of my God-given ability, to build this team back up to what the people who love the Browns deserve. You know what was cool about sitting with Baker Mayfield for 40 minutes [on Friday]? He is so genuinely excited to be here. He is all about, ‘What can I do today to make us better?’ And that’s how I am.”
Dorsey paused. Doomers be darned, he loved this draft, starting with the fans in the draft party whooping it up before the pick. Now, after a few seconds of silence, he couldn’t resist coming back to the line that got it all going. “We will awaken the sleeping giant,” Dorsey said. “I have no doubt.”
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