Baker Mayfield's Success Should Not Surprise You
Baker Mayfield has always had it. When the quarterback arrived in Cleveland in 2018, he brought a competitive fire and swagger to the Browns that the once-proud football franchise desperately needed.
While other Cleveland teams had reached championship-level success in recent years with the Cavaliers and Indians, the Browns were a catastrophe of a franchise, culminating in 2017’s winless season. Three years later, Baker led the Browns to the playoffs with an 11-win season in 2020.
Mayfield is not your average franchise savior. He loves the game and loves to work. His electricity has reinvigorated the team, and there are plenty of good things to come for the Dawg Pound.
It’s not the most uncommon thing in college football to see a freshman starting quarterback nowadays. The biggest programs are pulling in more and more polished talent thanks to high school offenses mirroring that of college programs, and quarterback camps held by established NFL and college football talents also add to the level of maturity present among current players.
Even still, Mayfield broke new ground, starting the 2013 season at Texas Tech as the man behind center, despite walking on just a few months prior. No walk-on true freshman had started for a Power 5 team at quarterback to that point. It showed an unparalleled level of determination and drive from Mayfield to ignore his lack of big-time offers and force his way onto the field in Lubbock.
Rookie of the Year
That groundbreaking start was the first of many accomplishments for the true freshman Mayfield. He amassed 2,315 yards in just seven starts for the Red Raiders with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions, leading the team to rise into the top 10 of the AP poll after a 7-0 start to the season, until an injury derailed his freshman campaign.
His play earned him Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors. He racked up the most completions (218) and attempts (340) by a Big 12 freshman since Landry Jones led the Oklahoma Sooners in 2009. Mayfield also was named to the honorable mention Freshman All-America team by the College Football News.
Gambled on Himself
Despite his early success as a Red Raider, Mayfield butted heads with the coaching staff and left the program abruptly, citing "miscommunication" with the team’s coaches. Mayfield later elaborated that he and the school had issues with his scholarship.
All that headache resulted in a transfer to his childhood favorite school in the Oklahoma Sooners. Mayfield enrolled at OU in 2014, even prior to contacting any Sooner coaches. Despite that and losing a year of eligibility in the process of his transfer, Mayfield walked on and won the starting job for the 2015 season.
The gamble paid off, and he was now at the helm for one of the top programs in all of college football.
Every step of the way, Baker Mayfield has been doubted and forced to prove himself, and each time, he has delivered with results. As the first walk-on freshman to start for a Power 5 team, Mayfield lit it up for the Red Raiders, completing 43 of 60 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-23 win over SMU that included a 21-point fourth quarter.
In his first start as a Sooner, Mayfield again came up big. He totaled 388 passing yards, going 23 of 33 on passing attempts and three touchdowns in a 41-3 rout of the Akron Zips.
At the highest level for the Cleveland Browns, Mayfield led a dramatic comeback to end the team’s 19-game winless streak. He’s the first player to come off the bench, throw for at least 200 yards and lead his team to a win since Fran Tarkenton in 1961.
Changing the Rules
There was a bit of controversy surrounding Mayfield’s eligibility after he initially transferred to Oklahoma. Because Mayfield transferred and was a walk-on, he appealed to the NCAA to allow him to play immediately, on the basis that he was a non-scholarship athlete and standard transfer rules should not apply.
His appeal was denied, and Big 12 rules stipulate that he also would lose a year of eligibility for transferring within the conference. Oklahoma requested Texas Tech officials authorize his immediate eligibility, but they objected and denied his request.
There was a happy ending, though. In 2016, the Big 12 voted on a rule that would allow walk-on players without a scholarship offer from the previous school to transfer without losing that year of eligibility, which passed easily, and the "Baker Mayfield Rule" was born.
Rubbing Some the Wrong Way
Mayfield’s enthusiasm and love for the game have proven to be assets for his teams at every level. He has a Tim Tebow-like ability to inspire and motivate his teammate, creating a cohesive team dynamic, but Mayfield’s passion has gotten the better of him on a couple of occasions.
He famously planted the Oklahoma flag at midfield at Ohio State after the Sooners topped the Buckeyes in a 31-16 victory. In November of 2017 at Kansas, he was spotted making a vulgar gesture and mocked the fans. Both incidents resulted in public apologies.
These two incidents were barriers to his potential for some covering the draft last spring. In a shredding profile by Big 12 journalist Mac Engel, Engel wrote, "He’s also a punk who will earn a punch, kick, and a late hit or two — maybe from his own teammates — when he reaches the NFL.”
Opinions vary, but it certainly was not all roses at the collegiate level.
Perspective Through Tragedy
In 2015, Mayfield’s first year on campus at Oklahoma, his mother, Gina, and sister were involved in a fatal car crash that resulted in three deaths and serious injuries for the two Mayfields.
That summer, Mayfield spent as much of his time in Lake Travis, Texas, his hometown, as he could to look after the two and get them back healthy. During this time, he and the family learned to not judge others and to appreciate the time they have together.
"Every moment is precious," Gina said. "I hope I don't lose that perspective."
Coming From a Quarterback Factory
Despite his walk-on status at the next level and his crooked path to college great, Mayfield essentially fell in line as an outstanding high school player. He posted a 25-2 record in his starting career playing prep football at Lake Travis High School in Texas, capping it off with a 16-0 season. He’s hardly the first of his kind.
Lake Travis has been a quarterback factory over the years. The school has produced top college quarterbacks such as Todd Reesing, who led Kansas to an Orange Bowl victory; Garrett Gilbert, who is the state’s all-time leader in passing yards (12,540) and touchdowns (138); and Michael Brewer, who played for both Virginia Tech and Texas Tech and quarterbacked four straight state championship teams while at Lake Travis.
A Sooner in Longhorn Country
Despite growing up in Austin, Texas, the heart of Longhorn country, Mayfield always appeared, or perhaps more realistically, he envisioned himself destined to be the starting quarterback at Oklahoma. He’s said he would do whatever he could to get on that team, fulfilling a childhood dream.
"I had the plan to come here because I wanted to win a national championship and whether it’s driving the defense on scout team or doing whatever, just trying to make this place better," Mayfield said in a 2014 article in the Oklahoman.
Mayfield’s father James attended Houston, but was childhood friends with Rex Norris and Charlie Sadler and was converted into a Sooner fan after both ended up coaching at OU.
James passed on the fanhood to his son, who no doubt had some contentious arguments about the Red River Showdown through the years.
From Nowhere to Heisman Great
The path to Heisman winner is often a fairly straight line. Recent winners Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and Derrick Henry were all big-time prospects that tied their respective schools up in recruiting battles before exceeding even those lofty expectations at the next level.
For Mayfield to rise from walk-on at Texas Tech, to transfer walk-on at Oklahoma, and make it all the way to Heisman contender would have been unprecedented. But to win the award is a staggering accomplishment, and one for which Mayfield felt rightfully proud.
"It’s been a tough journey," Mayfield said during his speech at the ceremony. "I walked on twice. It’s been a long journey. To my coaches back at Lake Travis, you guys instilled a work-ethic mentality in me that has never left. It’s only grown."
Mayfield has given no reasons to believe his work ethic will stop in the NFL.
Mayfield spent the last four years or so setting all kinds of records. In his first start for Texas Tech, he broke a school record for completions held by Billy Joe Tolliver and fell four completions short of an NCAA freshman all-time record.
He then rewrote the record book at Oklahoma, setting and often breaking his own school records. He holds the FBS records in consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes (27) and single-season passer rating (198.9). He’s the Big 12 record holder in yards per pass attempt (9.8), consecutive games with a touchdown pass (40) and touchdowns responsible for (153).
At Oklahoma, he holds marks for the following: Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week awards (four), passing yards in a game (598), consecutive completions to start a game (16) and a slew of others.
All the Accolades
With those staggering numbers came the hardware for Mayfield. In addition to winning the 2017 Heisman Trophy, he was a unanimous First-Team All-America selection and won the Maxwell Award, Davey O'Brien Award, Manning Award, Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, AP Player of the Year and Sporting News Player of the Year.
The national recognition was clear and a fitting end to a Cinderella Story of a college career. The journey was not lost on Mayfield.
"There something’s to be said for having to earn it," Mayfield said during his Heisman speech.
The culmination of everything made the journey all the sweeter for Mayfield.
He's Got Moves
Fitting in with his enthusiasm during Oklahoma victories, as well as some of his more outspoken moments on field, Mayfield is not shy about showing off some of his dance moves to get the team hyped up.
Highlighted in articles by Sporting News and USA Today, Mayfield broke out "The Whip" in a circle of Oklahoma teammates. It’s clear how much fun he’s having, and that’s what teams in the NFL look for out of their quarterbacks — showing leadership characteristics to inspire and keep his teammates loose.
"The energy I bring, the passion I bring, it's infectious," Mayfield said. "You can ask anybody on that Oklahoma staff. That's what I bring to the table."
It’s clear he takes pride in being the guy on the team to fire the rest of the players up.
Size Is Overrated
Mayfield was listed at 6 feet, 1 inch tall at Oklahoma, which would alone be enough to be dubbed "undersized" for an NFL quarterback, but Senior Bowl measurements revealed that was a bit of an exaggeration. He measured in at a hair over 6 feet tall and 216 pounds.
Traditional thinking leads one to think that taller quarterbacks have an advantage to see over the front blockers and rushers, especially in the NFL where lineman regularly stand upward of 6 feet, 4 inches. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson are two of the notables to buck the idea that a quarterback needs to tower over his other teammates, both falling short of the six-foot mark.
Throughout the draft process, other quarterbacks flashed more desirable measurables. Both Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen have a few inches on Mayfield, but the tape does not lie, forcing the Browns to settle on Mayfield as their guy with the No. 1 pick.
Ending the Revolving Door?
Since the NFL brought back the Browns at the end of the 20th century, Cleveland has featured 30 different starting quarterbacks. Some of the notable names on that list include Super Bowl champion coach Doug Pederson, both Luke and Josh McCown, and something called Spergon Wynn, who has a career 1-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Among that group, Derek Anderson had the best one-season outburst, putting up 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2007, but his accuracy proved unsustainable. The last decade has featured a sea of mediocrity on the quarterback depth chart.
There is no guarantee Mayfield will end this revolving door of signal-callers in Cleveland, but he does represent the newest grasp of hope for the fanbase. His early returns are promising, showing more flashes than previous first-rounders Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, and Browns fans are more hopeful than ever.