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Inside Baker Mayfield's Amazing Rams Debut

The former No. 1 pick couldn't hear his coach in his helmet, only called one play off his wristband and couldn't believe how the Raiders covered his game-winning TD pass.

No one will remember the play itself, amid everything that happened on Thursday night at SoFi Stadium. But the third-and-10 that Baker Mayfield faced from the Raiders 30-yard line with 3:44 left in third quarter may have best illustrated exactly what the Rams team he joined in California less than 48 hours earlier was up against, and just how they overcame all of it.

In the huddle, the Amazon cameras caught Mayfield flipping open the notecards tucked into his wristband, and reading a play off to his teammates. He then lined up in the shotgun, took the snap, hesitated a beat and snapped off to Tutu Atwell, with a tunnel screen set up for the diminutive receiver. Atwell cut back against the grain and shot through the heart of the Raiders defense for 14 yards to set up first-and-10 at the Raiders’ 16.

O.K., the first thing you need to know is the result of the play: It was called back, with a holding flag thrown on right tackle Rob Havenstein. The penalty put the Rams in in third-and-16, and then an eight-yard gain on a throw to Brycen Hopkins was wiped out by a personal foul that move the ball back, for fourth down, to the 43. Matt Gay wound up missing a 61-yard field to give the ball back to the Raiders, who were up 13–3.

So that’s indicative of how, yes, much of the night was hard for Mayfield & Co.

And the second thing you need to know? It was the only play Sean McVay called off the wristbands for Mayfield all night.

Now, for those who don’t know, quarterback wristbands are, more or less, cheatsheets for a signal-caller. They smooth out the communication of a play call, allowing the quarterback to read the call off his arm, as he’s processing everything else around and in front of him. Which is to say, in any sort of fire-drill situation, like this seemed to be, they’d be vital to get a new quarterback in a spot to function in and run an offense.

One more time—McVay only used it once on Thursday night, and it was on a play that wasn’t even among the 58 that Mayfield that played that counted on the stat sheet. So, because of Mayfield, a seemingly disastrous situation wasn’t quite as hard as it should’ve been.

“Yeah, first half, there was something wrong with the headset in my helmet, so it wasn't loud at all and I couldn’t hear,” Mayfield says, when I asked about the wristbands. “They switched it out at halftime, so that definitely helped after that. But yeah, it might've been one or two plays that he actually called on the wristband. Other than that, yeah, he’d said, ‘F--- it’ to the wristband.”

Of course, McVay’s not saying screw the wristband unless he can trust the quarterback to operate without it. And Mayfield, somehow, some way, earned that trust in about 44 hours.

The result of it was, somehow, some way, the beaten-up Rams’ first win since mid-October.

This story, for Mayfield, started on Monday morning. The Panthers were coming out of their bye and off a Week 12 over the Broncos, and Mayfield got two texts from Carolina coach Steve Wilks. The first had PJ Walker and Sam Darnold on it, and set 8:45 a.m. as the time for the weekly quarterbacks meeting with Wilks, offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and QBs coach Sean Ryan. It’s where the coaches explain the plan for the week—who’s starting, who’s backing up and who’s expected to be inactive for the next game.

The second was from Wilks directly to Mayfield.

Hey, come in and talk to me before that.

Mayfield knew the news couldn’t be good. And it wasn’t. He was informed by Wilks there that he’d be a healthy scratch for the first time all year.

“Honestly, I didn’t agree with it,” Mayfield told me. “But he presented it like, ‘Listen, I want to tell you this ahead of time in case you want to think about it and see what’s best. We want to be able to help you out in the long run.’ Which, you know, I’m not an idiot. I can translate that.”

Former Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield speaks to media after a loss.

Mayfield’s time in Carolina ended with just one win as a starter.

Mayfield called his agent, Tom Mills, ahead of the 9 a.m. team meeting. Mills then, as the meeting began with Mayfield in attendance, called Panthers GM Scott Fitterer. Fitterer told Mills, as rough as the season had been, with four just wins and a coach firing, he wanted to recognize what a great teammate Mayfield had been by leaving all options open to Mayfield. Mills touched base with Mayfield, who then went in to meet with Fitterer at 10 a.m.

What transpired from there wasn’t a conventional demand for freedom. Really, Mayfield didn’t march down to Fitterer’s office and demand anything. “I didn’t want to ask for my release,” Mayfield says, “but they’d presented it in a way where they were saying, ‘Hey, if you want to do this, we’ll let you do it.’” Likewise, Fitterer didn’t really want to cut Mayfield.

For my own career, Mayfield asked Fitterer, would you consider releasing me?

Fitterer agreed. Mayfield went home, and huddled back up with Mills, and the first thing the two did was go through the waiver order. Obviously, the 49ers, with Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury the day before, had crossed their minds. But the focus, at first, was on the teams at the top—and the thought was that, within the first four in the pecking order, the Texans (first) and Rams (fourth) could claim him, while the Bears (Justin Fields) and Broncos (Russell Wilson), slotted second and third, probably wouldn’t.

By Tuesday, Mills was able to establish that Houston wouldn’t put a claim in, and Los Angeles probably would. So they rolled the dice and booked Mayfield on American 1247 out of Charlotte, scheduled to take off at 4:48 p.m. ET and land at LAX at 7:10 p.m. PT.

Claims are processed after 4 p.m., which meant even if the Rams got him, there was no guarantee it would get through in time for him to get on his flight. Thankfully, he got the call from Rams GM Les Snead at his gate, just after the top of the hour. He boarded 10 minutes later.

“I’m pretty happy that phone call came in on time,” Mayfield says.

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Thanks to some extra time on the tarmac, the boarding door didn’t open at LAX until 7:31 p.m. local time. The Rams had a car pick him up, and it got him to the team’s Thousand Oaks facility at around 9 p.m., where offensive coordinator Liam Coen and QBs coach Zac Robinson were waiting for him.

Los Angeles had in the neighborhood of 80 plays in the offensive game plan. But with less than 48 hours to get Mayfield ready for a late-afternoon kickoff on Thursday, Coen and Robinson gave him a list with a fraction of those plays, in the interest of making his workload digestible. The three took an hour-and-a-half to go through it.

“Sat in there and talked ball with Liam, [Robinson], and Sean [McVay] would pop in,” Mayfield says. “Really, it was just trying to do a short synopsis of what they wanted to accomplish and what the game plan was.”

At 10:30 p.m., he checked into his hotel—the same one that he and his wife stayed at for their wedding—and was back at the facility early in the morning for his physical, which was ahead of a 9:45 a.m. walkthrough. And what quickly became clear to the Rams staff, in letting Mayfield get the work in the walkthrough and in meeting with him right after, was that Mayfield had the shorter list of plays the coaches gave him Tuesday night down.

They gave him more, and he kept taking it, and digesting it, and showing he could apply it.

There were some shortcuts involved. Mayfield’s coach in Cleveland, Kevin Stefanski, learned the Browns offense the quarterback ran from Gary Kubiak, who worked with the Shanahans forever as a player and coach, and the Shanahans taught McVay that offense. So language on formations were familiar to Mayfield. The pass concepts, too, had similarities, even if they had different names. And maybe most important of all, McVay and Mayfield shared background with OL coach Bill Callahan, so the protections were mostly the same.

“Playing quarterback, the first and most important thing is your protection stuff,” Mayfield says. “And it's all Bill Callahan stuff here, since Sean was with him in Washington. So that being the same terminology and the same philosophy was maybe the only reason I felt confident enough to say that I was able to go play. That helped a lot.”

And to be sure, as all the adding onto Mayfield’s plate happened through the day Wednesday and into Thursday, McVay, Coen and Robinson did flat out ask Mayfield if he was sure he was good to go out there and actually play.

“All three of those guys said, ‘Listen, we’d love for you to play. This would be a hell of a story,’” Mayfield says. “‘But we’re not gonna put you out there in a position to where it looks bad on you, to where if you don’t feel confident, then we’re not gonna do that. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We have four more games after this. It’s a short week. This is unprecedented. So no pressure on that, but we know you’re gonna handle your business regardless and we’ll see how it goes.’

“And that’s such a freeing feeling, knowing obviously they know I’m a competitor,” Mayfield says. “I wanted to get back out there.”

To make sure he was ready, the coaches did what they could to get him physical reps. John Wolford, who’d start the game, was still working through injury on Wednesday, so during that practice that followed the walkthrough, Mayfield got a dozen live reps. And on Thursday, the team did a walkthrough on two-minute stuff, during which he got another 20 snaps.

Little did anyone know how important that would wind up being.

Wolford went three-and-out on his first series, and the Rams fell behind 10–0 by the time the offense went out there a second time. The coaches put Mayfield on the field, looking for a spark. They didn’t know exactly what to expect. 

On his first snap, Mayfield decisively got the ball to Van Jefferson, in a dead spot in a zone, for 21 yards. He scrambled for six yards on his second snap. Two plays after that, he took a shot downfield to Atwell, which fell a little short. And while the team had to settle for a field goal, he’d shown enough. The decision was made there to let Mayfield ride the rest out.

It wasn’t perfect after that. The Rams didn’t score in the second or third quarters, with four possessions adding up to two punts, a lost fumble and the aforementioned missed field goal. But even in-game, Mayfield and the coaches were making progress.

McVay, Coen and Robinson gave him a list of plays off the call sheet prior to each series that they expected to call, and didn’t veer much from what they told him they’d do. Meanwhile, in between series, Mayfield was studying that play sheet, and building off an impressive set of notes he’d built up for the game—Coen and Robinson were both wowed by the level of detail and depth they saw in his notebook, with scribbled passages highlighted, color-coded and underlined—by adding mental notes as he adjusted things to what he was seeing in-game.

Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield rolls out vs. the Raiders.

Mayfield had to think on the fly in his debut, still diving into the play sheet on the sideline.

“I’m a big note-taker,” Mayfield says. “At first, I kinda just try and write as much as I can down. I like to say I can multi-task and listen and also write at the same time, but then I'll go back and organize it. I highlight. I color-coordinate. I started doing that in Cleveland in 2020, and it’s helped me tremendously, just to organize [and] categorize things. … I could go back and look at it and say, ‘O.K, this is exactly this formation, just different name.’

“And I would just relate it to kind of eliminate things.”

Add to that the work that Wolford and Matthew Stafford did for him—Stafford was wearing a headset for the game to help out—and, as the game wore on, Mayfield’s confidence grew.

Which set the stage for the final two possessions.

The first one was a nine-minute slog, covering 74 yards in 17 plays, on which Mayfield converted a key third down and fourth down, and the Rams got a third down and fourth down converted for them via penalty. That 3:19 on the clock, and a key third-and-1 stop got the Rams the ball back on their own 2-yard line with 1:45 left and no timeouts.

That’s where Los Angeles got the help it needed. A pass interference call negated what would’ve been a game-ending interception by Las Vegas safety Duron Harmon on third-and-2 from the Rams 10. And on the next play, a nine-yard sack was canceled out by Jerry Tillery drawing an unsportsmanlike flag on a knuckleheaded move to slap the ball from Mayfield’s hands after he got up from the sack.

“Yeah, honestly, the penalties were not going our way up until the drive before that, with the offsides and the punt,” he says. “That helps out when you’re like, ‘O,K., we still have a chance.’ You have time and you have a few downs to go, we can still win. That gives you a little spark, little confidence that there’s always still a chance.”

That confidence certainly showed. With new life, a first down at the 28, Mayfield went right up top to Ben Skowronek, who reached over the top of corner Nate Hobbs for a 32-yard catch—“We needed a chunk play, he's a big guy, and it was just giving him an opportunity, putting the ball up for him to go get, and that was an incredible catch.” 

After that he hit Malcolm Brown underneath for nine yards, Skowronek for eight, and clocked it with 15 seconds left.

And that’s where the work he’d done coincided with a matchup he liked, with undrafted rookie Sam Webb lined up over Van Jefferson.

“We were in 3x1 formation, and we really hadn't thrown it to the single receiver at all during that game,” Mayfield says. “I had missed two throws that I was beating myself up about. I had overthrown and left it inside to Tutu Atwell. He was in the slot on this 3x1 and kinda running an inside fade, and I didn't put the ball in a good spot on either throw. And I think they thought that same play was coming, so the safeties ran over there.

“One, there’s 15 seconds left, no timeouts and they’re pressed up. So I wasn’t expecting that, because the ball’s gotta go to the end zone. I’m just looking at the defensive layout, and I see press coverage and Van wins at the line of scrimmage and just honestly trying to give him an opportunity to make a play. Don’t want to overthrow that. Ball doesn’t have to be perfect. Because if he’s in the end zone, it can be PI. I’m trying to give him an opportunity.”

You, of course, know the rest.

“This is impossible,” Al Michaels said on the broadcast. “They go 98 yards.”

With a quarterback who’d first walked into the team facility about 47 hours earlier.

When Mayfield got back to his locker, there was a text waiting from Fitterer.

Hey, proud of you. Happy for you. Seriously. Good luck the rest of the way.

“I love Fitt,” Mayfield says. “[The text was] awesome. There’s no other way to say it. That’s awesome.”

And now, we all get to see where this goes.

Remember, Mayfield’s college career was born of moments like this—when Mayfield made, to steal Michaels’s word, the impossible possible, from being the first true freshman walk-on quarterback ever to start a season opener at a power-conference school, to showing up at Oklahoma without a scholarship months later and growing into a Heisman Trophy winner.

“Yeah, it’s great to have situations where if you can say you’re ‘proving people wrong,’” Mayfield says. “But when I’m confident, that’s when I’m playing my best, and those guys got me back to that point.”

Now, with those guys, McVay, Coen, Robinson & Co., alongside him, we’ll get another month to see where Mayfield can take his career next. And if last night, and that wristband the coaches worked up for him, are any indication? For better or worse, things probably won’t go according to script.