When Baker Mayfield talks, people don’t just listen, they act.
Before the draft then-coach Hue Jackson called Mayfield a pied piper for the way he’d yell “hee-hee” at Oklahoma and everyone would follow.
He’s using actual words with the Browns but having the same effect. The home finale Sunday against the Bengals could serve as a pair of prime examples.
Mayfield’s latest attempt to cultivate the correct culture in Cleveland came Wednesday when asked about a possible letdown with any realistic chance at reaching the playoffs gone. A win by Tennessee on Saturday officially eliminated the Browns.
“We want to win our last two games. If the guys on this team don’t want to do that, then you can get out,” Mayfield said. “That is quite frankly how I feel.”
Whether his teammates play with the commitment and urgency he demanded will be known Sunday afternoon. But the message appeared to be received loud and clear, as he continues to set the tone in the locker room.
“I love it. I love it. I will back that up,” interim coach Gregg Williams said. “You do not want to be around guys that want to be in a club or want to be a part of something unless it is winning. That is why he has the locker room. In practice, there could be a bad play or two and then all of a sudden, bam, he circles the wagons. That is what you need inside of the white lines.”
Mayfield’s impact as a vocal leader isn’t limited to his teammates. A packed and jumping FirstEnergy Stadium will drive home the point.
Less than two weeks after calling out fans for leaving too many seats empty during the win over the Panthers, Mayfield announced this week in a video that Sunday was a sellout. He thanked fans for listening, then urged them to be loud.
The two straight wins, four out of five and the holidays contributed to the bustling ticket sales, but Mayfield’s influence can’t be ignored.
“I’m excited to have a meaningful December game for the fans before Christmas,” left guard Joel Bitonio said. “It should be fun, man. Baker has that power. Baker’s a popular dude, and it’s cool to see what he can do with the fans and that interaction.”
“Baker, he’s just a guy who everyone just gravitates to and when you’re playing well, you can say things like that,” strong safety Jabrill Peppers said. “They believe in him, that’s why they’re coming out, so we’ll go out there and give the fans what they want to see.”
Mayfield notices the fans feeding off his brash, charismatic personality … and wearing the “feeling dangerous” T-shirts based on his famous slogan.
“It makes it fun,” he said. “When you have that support, when you have people that have those shirts, those sayings, it makes it fun and it makes it feel like this is a whole team effort, which it is.”
The Browns (6-7-1) believe they have plenty left to play for despite being on the outside of the playoffs for the 16th straight year, the longest drought in the league.
They can sweep the Bengals for the first time since 2002 and get the second win over Jackson in less than a month, after he quickly took a job on the Bengals staff after being fired Oct. 29.
“He’s on the other side now, and that’s how I look at it,” said receiver Jarvis Landry, adding some Browns are still motivated by facing Jackson. “Either you’re with us or against us, and I’ll leave it at that.”
A win over the Bengals (6-8) would also guarantee finishing out of the basement in the AFC North for the first time since 2010, a winning record in the division for the first time since it was formed in 2002 and a 5-2-1 home record, the best since 7-1 in 2007.
The No. 1 goal is winning the final two to go 8-7-1, which would be Cleveland’s first winning record since 10-6 in 2007.
“That’s definitely a motivating factor,” Peppers said. “Let’s win out.”
“You can definitely feel the emotions and the swagger in the locker room are just totally different than it has been,” middle linebacker Joe Schobert said. “It is just exciting. It is going to be awesome. I think we are building something really special.”
The Browns have proved a lot in this turnaround season, especially on the recent roll led by Williams and Mayfield. The remarkable improvement from 1-15 and 0-16 seasons means the focus next year will be reaching the playoffs. The final two games this year are about stringing wins and handling success and expectations.
The lessons will be valuable next year and beyond if they’re going to become the consistent contender that seems possible with general manager John Dorsey, Mayfield and a coach to be named later.
The Browns are nine-point favorites vs. the Bengals following their 35-20 victory in Cincinnati last month. Cleveland hasn’t been favored by this much since the 2007 finale when it was 11½-point favorites over the 49ers, according to OddsShark.com.
“We’ve been the underdog for the last three or four years,” Bitonio said.
Mayfield struggled last week against Denver, throwing an interception, losing a fumble and completing only 18 of 31 passes (58 percent). But he went 4-for-4 on the winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
The struggles appear to be a blip, as Mayfield has put together one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history.
With 21 touchdown passes, including one in each of his 11 starts, he needs six to pass Peyton Manning in 1998 and Russell Wilson in 2012 for the most by a rookie. He has thrown for 3,065 yards and needs 321 to pass Brandon Weeden in 2012 for the most by a Browns rookie.
Mayfield has been a different player since Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens took over for Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley. Since Week 9, Mayfield’s third in the NFL with a 70.7 completion percentage, second with 8.66 yards per attempt, seventh with 13 touchdowns and fourth with a 109.3 rating.
He said he didn’t know about the chance to set the rookie touchdown record.
“If we win and that happens, it would be great,” he said. “But if we win and that does not happen, that would be great.”
This week he’s all about beating the Bengals in a stadium filled with screaming fans.
Just like he commanded.