- The Hue Jackson era ended, and Gregg Williams’s tenure as interim head coach is underway. But, more significantly, the past week has featured the emergence of Baker Mayfield as the franchise’s leader
Baker Mayfield earned the respect of the locker room long ago, but this was icing on the cake. Two weeks ago in Tampa Bay, the rookie quarterback sprinted out of the pocket on second-and-26 for a 35-yard gain, with Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead delivering a helmet-to-helmet blow as Mayfield slid late into contact. The Browns QB immediately bounced up and confronted Whitehead.
Whitehead, who seemed stunned, rocked back on his heels after the confrontation. Mayfield’s teammates, reviewing the film on tablets back home that night and in position meeting rooms the next morning, were thrilled with their quarterback.
“Baker’s a dog,” says Browns defensive lineman Devaroe Lawrence, issuing one of highest compliments you can earn in an NFL locker room. “There are certain things you can’t teach dogs. There’s a whole bunch of savages in here, but we got one in a quarterback. He looked at him and told him, Yeah motherf-----. Everyone could read those lips.”
“When you see a quarterback go into battle like that and ready to chirp, you want to get in there and help him out,” says offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, one of the longest-tenured Browns, drafted in 2014. “Having that guy lead your team is something special.”
Mayfield’s resiliency in moments large and small is one of the biggest reasons he’s in Cleveland. According to people familiar with general manager John Dorsey’s thinking during the scouting process, it was Mayfield’s handling of adversity—specifically, walking on at Oklahoma and fighting long odds to win the starting job, and eventually, the Heisman—that most attracted the GM to the 6'1" quarterback. Dorsey was searching for the young man who could not only satisfy the on-field requirements of the modern NFL quarterback, but also weather a situation like the one the Browns find themselves in now: head coach and offensive coordinator dismissed at the halfway point of the regular season. Said a league source close to Dorsey: “He wanted someone who could put up with the dysfunction.”
Mayfield’s rookie season has already had plenty of it. The internal rift among the Browns staff went public on October 29, a day after a 33-18 loss to the Steelers, with Dorsey and team owner Jimmy Haslam announcing the firing of both head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the assistant coach brought in to take play-calling duties and offensive responsibilities away from Jackson. The head coach ceded autonomy over the offense after calling plays for two seasons, during which Cleveland went 1–31 overall, a benchmark for modern NFL futility.
Gregg Williams, promoted from his defensive coordinator post to interim head coach, has been deliberately pushing a forward-looking message, both in public and private, declining to answer questions about Jackson or Haley. Jackson, meanwhile, has done two interviews—one with Cleveland.com and another with ESPN’s First Take—parceling out blame for his failed run in Cleveland among current and former Browns employees, and expressing regret that he ever gave up his offensive responsibilities.
He’s been met with silence from former colleagues, but here’s what Browns leadership won’t publicly acknowledge as they push on through what appears to be another lost season:
• Jackson, who had a leaguewide reputation as a relentless self-promoter when he took the Browns’ head coaching job in 2016, removed himself entirely from offensive install sessions last spring and summer. Then, in the weeks leading up to his firing, he inserted himself back into offensive meetings. The disconnect created by Jackson's inferior knowledge of Haley’s offense, and the players’ unfamiliarity with Jackson’s scheme, frustrated players and coaches alike, according to five sources within the organization. Jackson was unreachable by phone and did not respond to a request for comment made through his agent. The Browns, likewise, declined to comment on the sourced material in this story.
• Jackson, wary of his own slipping stature, paid close attention to Haley’s press conferences in the final weeks of his two-and-a-half year run, sequestering himself in his office to watch the Q&As live, then verbally needling the coach if the message was not in lockstep with his own. Haley believed Jackson was in search of a greater degree of credit for his contributions to the team’s (relative) success throughout a 2-4-1 start to this season, according to four team sources.
• Jackson’s performance on the HBO/NFL Films documentary series Hard Knocks was seen by some in the building as just that—performance—with Jackson’s internal critics among coaches and players noting his abrasive, hard-charging behavior in press conferences and team settings when cameras were present, in contrast with his delicate handling of players in private. “Sometimes it was like Jekyll and Hyde,” says one player.
That’s not to say Jackson lacked allies. A number of players this week expressed appreciation for his run in Cleveland and admiration for his coaching and leadership. “We knew with the way everything was going, something crazy was going to happen,” says fifth-year linebacker Christian Kirksey. “It’s tricky because I have a deep respect and a good relationship with Hue, but I can’t think about that right now. We’ve got to keep it moving.”
One former player, who was with the team in 2016 and ’17, echoed the sentiments of several current players who believe Jackson was a good coach who didn’t do enough to change the culture in Cleveland. “I liked Hue as a guy,” the player says. “He came into a sh---y situation from the jump, and he didn’t rattle things enough to switch the program around.”
In a team meeting with players the day Jackson and Haley were dismissed, Dorsey and Haslam stressed that there would be no discussion about the merits of the moves, and only a renewed dedication to the present and the opponent at hand, the 7-1 Kansas City Chiefs. Williams was characteristically blunt in his assessment of the team in his introductory press conference as head coach. “When it is more important to them than it is to me and you,” Williams said of the players, “look out.”
Players quietly disagreed that passion or commitment were at issue: “Not anymore, if it was,” says defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi. “Now, people are starting to see the difference if we do care. When we do have attention to detail.”
“Attention to detail” would take on new meaning under Williams in his first week as interim head coach. In advance of the Chiefs visit, he stressed small improvements in practice, from the critical to the seemingly mundane.
“Right off the bat he told us he was going to big on discipline,” says wide receiver Breshad Perriman. “You could tell there were about to be some changes. I feel like he was really intentional about certain things. No drops. Executing your assignments. Even things like where you stand on the practice field when you’re not in a play.”
Says Ogunjobi: “The little problems eventually become big problems. He’s big on that. Little things are the things that get you beat, and we’ve had enough of that. Everybody’s got to be accountable. We’re not kids.”
Across the organization this week, there was little wonder how Mayfield would respond to the coaching change. He gave no rousing speeches, and did nothing outside of the ordinary. He followed the script demonstrated by Tyrod Taylor, the former Bills and Ravens quarterback who started the first three games of the season and has been a willing mentor to Mayfield since suffering a concussion and watching the rookie take his spot atop the depth chart. “In times like this, the focus goes to the quarterback,” Taylor says. “He can influence a whole locker room just by being that steady presence.”
In the eyes of many fans looking in from outside the walls of the Browns’ complex in Berea, the week took on an all-too-familiar feel. Williams is the sixth Browns head coach since 2010, and barring a dramatic turnaround this season he’s unlikely to survive in that role. Yet he can expect to enjoy a longer honeymoon than most interim Browns coaches, considering Jackson’s extreme unpopularity among the radio call-in crowd, says longtime Browns reporter Tony Grossi. The ESPN radio host and columnist considers Jackson the least popular coach in his 61 years. “Even among people who felt this was inevitable, nobody expected it to blow up this fast,” Grossi says. “We thought Baker would change that, because he’s not Cody Kessler. And then Jackson gets fired, and to a lot of people it felt like same old Browns.”
Still, it’s Mayfield that gives many—including Grossi—hope for the cycle coming to an end. Grossi was an early Mayfield detractor before the Browns drafted him, comparing him to former Browns first-rounder-turned-NFL-burnout Johnny Manziel. (While I was reporting a pre-draft profile series on Mayfield, Grossi and I sparred on his radio show over the comparison.) He has since admitted his judgment was made in haste. “If he can convince me,” Grossi says with a smile, “he can convince anybody.
“There was skepticism about size and the Johnny thing, but he had such an impact so quickly. Being around training camp I saw that he was doing and saying the right things. I thought the support system they put around him was brilliant, with Tyrod and Drew Stanton. Then he went in and lit it up. This city is so hungry for that kind of transcendent quarterback, we’re easy pickins.”
Well before Mayfield arrived, for as long as anyone can remember, stadium-adjacent bars have enjoyed standing-room only crowds on Sundays when the Browns are home. A football city’s passion, handed down by witnesses of those NFL championship teams of a bygone era, has shown no signs of fading.
“They’ve been hearing about how special it is when they win,” Grossi says, “and they’re just hoping to see that. But there’s absolutely a risk of that good will running out. People are dying. The Browns are on the clock.”
If the turnaround is nigh, it didn’t begin Sunday afternoon. While the Browns offense looked competent against a middling Chiefs defense, Williams—in his dual-role as defensive play-caller and head coach—had no answer for a Chiefs offense threatening to set a regular-season record for points scored. Kansas City cruised to a 37-21 victory behind a season-high 8.6 yards per play.
Assembled on the opposite sideline was as clear a vision for what the Browns could one day become. After all, Dorsey was the architect who assembled most of the Chiefs’ core of offensive stars, drafting Mahomes, running back Kareem Hunt, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce during his four-year run as general manager in K.C. Cleveland brass believes they have the beginnings of something similar, with Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Nick Chubb and a handful of young contributors on both sides of the ball.
“When you talk to guys like [retired offensive lineman] Joe Thomas and hear about all the times this has happened, I think what’s different from past years, is that there is a very good core here,” says Kevin Zeitler, the former Bengals guard in his second season with the Browns. “There’s a lot of talent. Our record is what it is, but there’s a lot more hope here this year and a lot more fight.”
Over the next several weeks, attention will turn to likely candidates for the Browns head job, though it is unclear to what degree Dorsey will influence the decision. According to two sources with knowledge of former GM Sashi Brown’s tenure, the choice of Jackson was not unanimous. Jackson was Haslam’s man, while Sean McDermott and Matt Patricia had support from those running football operations. Several members of that staff, including an analytics department led by Paul DePodesta, remain in Berea, reporting directly to Haslam—notably, not Dorsey. Haslam, who directed both the Jackson hire and the drafting of Manziel, has given Dorsey no assurances he’ll go with the new GM’s recommendation, according to the two league sources.
Regardless, the eventual head coach will have demonstrated to both Dorsey and Haslam an in-depth plan for Mayfield, who was developed in the same Air Raid offensive coaching tree as Mahomes. The Chiefs QB is thriving in an offense employing many of the spread concepts both Mayfield and Mahomes found success with in college. One of Jackson’s criticisms of Haley’s offense, revealed in interviews this week, was that it did not include enough elements of Mayfield’s offense at Oklahoma, unlike Andy Reid's offense in Kansas City—a charge that riled some in Berea. Two team sources believe part of Jackson’s motivation for absolving himself of offensive responsibilities and removing himself from the install during the offseason was to gather ammunition against Haley if the scheme failed, to be used in preservation of his job or in media interviews after his firing.
It's a safe bet that whoever replaces Williams as head coach, or perhaps Freddie Kitchens as offensive coordinator, will be well-versed in either the Chiefs offense or the college spread game.
But that’s a discussion for another week. Here and now, in this locker room, one thing matters most. It’s what sets this Browns team apart from all the others that saw head coaches fired in midseason. Bitonio, now in his fifth season, guesses he’s watched 10 to 15 quarterbacks take starter’s snaps during his time here—he can’t pinpoint exactly how many (it’s 11). He’s had nice things to say about all of them with a recorder in his face. But this time around is different.
“We talk about all the time—this is the year—but you really feel that with a guy like Baker we have something special we can build around,” Bitonio says. “In this division our fans had to watch Ben [Roethlisberger] and Andy [Dalton] and Joe [Flacco] come in here every year. Good, consistent quarterbacks. Well, now we’ve got our guy. Time to protect him and let him lead.”
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