One small action can light an entire sports media news cycle on fire and keep it burning for days. In this case, an arms-length handshake between Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and his former coach Hue Jackson was the tinder, and what Mayfield said about it afterwards was the match. He wasn’t thrilled about Jackson joining the coaching staff of the Bengals, one of Cleveland’s division rivals, just weeks after the Browns fired him.
“[He] left Cleveland, goes down to Cincinnati, I don’t know,” Mayfield said on Sunday. “It’s just somebody that was in our locker room, asking for us to play for him and then goes to a different team we play twice a year. Everybody can have their spin on it but that’s how I feel.”
Unsurprisingly, everybody did put their own spin on it. Namely former lineman Damien Woody on ESPN’s First Take. He said that Mayfield “needs to grow up.” He also said that Mayfield was hypocritical for taking issue with Jackson’s decision to go to Cincinnati, given that Mayfield transferred to walk on at Oklahoma after a season at Texas Tech. Mayfield, never one to stay silent, fired back on Instagram.
“Not even comparable…” Mayfield commented on a video of Woody’s statement. “I didn’t lose 30+ games be fake and then do that… I wasn’t gonna have a scholarship. Good try though buddy.”
Mayfield was asked about this blaze of drama at his press conference on Wednesday. He defended himself, saying, “People get maturity confused with me being 100% comfortable in my own skin. So that’s absolutely how I am. I’ve always been that way. It’s not immature. It’s me being exactly who I am every day, being that same guy for our team, and I think that’s very important right now.”
It is important. For a team that literally could not have been worse over the past few years, consistency in leadership and at the game’s most important position has never been more crucial. And two things can be true at once. Mayfield can be right and Jackson can be entitled to do whatever he wants. Of course Jackson is going to take another job where he can get it. In this case, it was a divisional rival. But Mayfield has never said Jackson shouldn’t have. He simply said he didn’t like it.
And you know what? I don’t blame him! First of all, it’s impressive that Jackson lasted as long as he did in Cleveland when he only won one game in two years. It wasn’t very impressive that he went on a media tour the week after he was finally fired and mostly—not totally, but mostly—blamed everyone but himself for the team’s failures. It was stupid for the Bengals to hire a man who clearly can’t motivate players, call plays effectively, or teach extremely promising rookies in meaningful ways (but then again, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis isn’t exactly a shiny example of how to be a leader). The Browns have been and are stacked with talent, and yet Jackson couldn’t get it together. It only took a man like Gregg Williams—Gregg Williams! Who paid his players to hurt other players when he worked for the Saints! Who has not been an effective coach for most of his career!—to coach the Browns to their first consecutive wins since 2014.
But I don’t blame Jackson, either. Of course he’s going to keep acting in his self-interest. Jackson was the Bengals offensive coordinator before he took the Browns job, and he’s close to Lewis, so this move isn’t out of the blue. But for people to suggest that Mayfield is somehow immature by honestly answering a question is preposterous. Mayfield is smart and calculated in how he deals with media. He gives the press far more than most players, because athletes are geniuses when it comes to saying nothing. They’ll toss out word salad that’s about as filling as a box of arugula in order to avoid exactly what Mayfield is going through now: A washing machine of a news cycle that picks apart every meaningful word and throws it back in the player’s face.
I hope Mayfield never stops speaking his mind. Wouldn’t you prefer the real answer to some half-baked platitudes that everyone knows is a lie? Don’t drag Mayfield over the coals when he gives an answer! His honesty is a welcome change in the NFL, even though it’s what led many scouts and pundits to claim he would never make it in the league, and led guys like Woody to say he needs to grow up.
But Mayfield is proving that he can make it in the pros, and I actually think he’s being mature. In every press conference, he’s as respectful as he can be while still telling the truth, and he’s careful to hedge: “People took it as me personally attacking Hue,” Mayfield said on Wednesday. “That’s not it. It's the fact that I get to have my own opinion on how [the move to Cincinnati] transpired, and he gets to do what he wants. That’s how it is.”
And Freddie Kitchens, the Browns offensive coordinator, backed him up. “I don’t have a problem with Baker saying anything like that. I don’t know when it became big news to speak the truth.”
Mayfield is being himself, which seems pretty grown up to me. The Browns locker room will readily say that he’s a born leader. He’s won over his team by speaking his mind, and on Wednesday he admitted that much of what he does and says externally is calculated to internally motivate his teammates. Whether he’s air-drumming to Phil Collins, dancing in the end zone, chirping back at guys on Instagram, grabbing his crotch on the sidelines of an Oklahoma game, trash-talking another player or debating FS1’s Colin Cowherd to defend himself after Cowherd called him “undraftable,” what you see and hear is what you get. He’s compelling, consistent and interesting, and he knows how to motivate a team. I’d rather have a guy like Mayfield leading the charge than someone like Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousin, who used a flex spot on Sunday Night Football as a way to try to fire up his squad.
Mayfield’s former coach Lincoln Riley put it best on Thursday, when he told ESPN’s Golic and Wingo: “I am proud that [Mayfield is] continuing to be himself. I’m glad that he hasn’t gone into that league or any situation and try to be somebody that he’s not.”
Earlier this week, I wrote that the Flyers’ mascot Gritty (bear with me) has become so beloved because he’s exactly who he is. The same is true for Mayfield. That is, of course, also the reason he’s contentious, but regardless of how you feel about him, you can’t argue he isn’t authentic. In 2018, authenticity is anyone’s greatest asset. And Mayfield has shown that publicly, at least, he won’t change to follow a stale and boring model of the Perfect Athlete Who Never Ruffles Feathers.
Mayfield will do and say what he thinks is right and what he believes. You can always take him at face value. And I find that refreshing. Give me a meaty statement over word salad anyday. It’s way more satisfying.