We are, without a doubt, prone to hyperbole when it comes to something like the Cleveland Browns’ long-awaited emergence. With so many romantic factors at play, the most significant of which being a No. 1 overall pick at quarterback perforating defenses with well-placed fastballs, it is easy to see things that aren’t there. It’s human nature to be caught in the rising tide.
And yes, it has only been against the Jets for a half, and against Jon Gruden’s 1–3 Raiders. And one of those games—this Sunday—was a loss in overtime. But Baker Mayfield is making the Browns a professional football team again.
Imagine any other itineration of the post-1999 Browns going for a fourth-and-six with complete and total confidence. This used to cause so many weaponless playcallers to pack in their offense and call on the punt team. Imagine a rookie bouncing back after a troika of bad drops to start the game—one which resulted in a pick-six—only to keep firing with pinpoint accuracy.
For those who didn’t give up on Cleveland after Palmer and Davis and Robiskie and Crennel and Mangini and Shurmur and Chudzinski and Pettine and Jackson—who won just one out of his first 32 games in the NFL—Sunday’s game against the Raiders was like watching football in high definition for the first time. It will take time for Cleveland to sand out the roughness, but when was the last time an opposing defense had this much respect for the passing game? When have the running lanes been this ripe for a talented back like Nick Chubb to rip through?
The Browns did a lot of things well on Sunday. Mayfield’s performance—21-of-41 for 295 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions—went well above the stat line, even if his aggression and arm confidence cost him a little bit. Out of all the rookie quarterbacks in this class, Mayfield so far has best found the balance between extending plays with functional mobility and quick, decisive passing. The team has happily traded in concerns about height, which may have impacted just a few plays in Mayfield’s tenure so far, for his ability to see a play develop and fire with confidence.
Cleveland’s next game, against a far more formidable Ravens defense, should give us the first glimpse of whether this is an early-season mirage, or whether the Browns have an offensive foundation for the first time in this millennia.
This Sunday, four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft started a game. We know how we felt about Mayfield, but how did the rest fare?
Josh Allen (16-of-33, 151 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 INT; 22–0 loss to Packers): The most encouraging part of Josh Allen’s afternoon was his ability to find Kelvin Benjamin deep toward the end of the first half after a god-awful start. It showed that while the game is still a long way from slowing down, he can still reset and utilize his greatest strength—a deep ball with good velocity. However, Allen doesn’t look 100% ready. Before the season, I noted that the Bills would be much better off trotting out a replacement-level journeyman like A.J. McCarron instead of forcing Allen to play in games where he’s under constant pressure with little in the way of playmakers to help him out—and that looks to still be true. Allen is holding on to the ball longer than ideal and handed the Packers a few points based on sloppy decision-making. Is it fixable? Yes. Do the Bills have the structure in place offensively to bring him along this season? Doubtful.
Josh Rosen (15-of-27, 180 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 INT; 20–17 loss to Seahawks): This is a Cardinals offense suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, though Rosen’s play won’t keep the lid on whatever else Arizona has in the playbook for long. Rosen stood in the pocket and made tough throws against a well-schemed defense on Sunday. He did this despite the inability to establish David Johnson as much of an every down threat on the ground. The fourth-quarter touchdown drive offered a lot to like, including a beautiful touch pass between two defenders to Chad Williams. These four rookie offenses will start trending in different directions once teams can establish some firm opposition research, but don’t be surprised to see Rosen get a little better each week.
Sam Darnold (17-of-34, 144 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 INT; 31-12 loss to Jaguars): This Jaguars defense has swallowed up much better quarterbacks. That being said, the Jets’ offense needs some serious help. Without the establishment of a running game (the Jets carried the ball 12 times with running backs for a total of 26 yards), Darnold will continue to be forced into disadvantageous passing downs. A common sight on Sunday was Darnold deep in a drop, attempting to see some type of separation from his receivers, who were thoroughly blanketed by a Jaguars defense that had a human wall out front of the first-down marker. The Jets look like they’re playing a far more compact version of the modern game—relying on the safe, medium range throws that could potentially develop into bigger gains thanks to their athletic wideouts. The problem is that, without a power element to their offense, Darnold doesn’t have the defensive looks to safely test opposing teams with the deep ball. When he does, he is either missing throws or his receivers aren’t winning their one-on-one matchups. Against Jacksonville, Darnold continued the troubling trend of not getting rid of the football quickly, which resulted in a familiar tuck, scramble and throw. He has superior arm talent, which allows him to still squeeze tight passes into small windows (see: the throw to Jermaine Kearse late in the third quarter, which was ruled a completion following replay), but isn’t getting some of the same easy reads that some of his fellow rookies and second-year quarterbacks are getting around the league.