This wasn’t goodbye. This was welcome back.
In the reborn Browns’ last home game of the season Sunday, a reawakened fan base showed what it was like around here, back when we were younger, so much younger than before, when the Browns were bullies, when Browns games meant something, when Browns games were more than just an excuse for their fans to drink beer and throw footballs around in the parking lot.
Indeed, of all of the things the Browns have achieved in 2018, the most important is this: They have moved the party from the parking lots back into the stadium.
It’s a trend that began with the wins that followed the midseason coaching change, and it has progressively grown in its intensity until finally reaching a glorious crescendo during Cleveland’s 26-18 Merry-Christmas-to-all-and-to-the-Bengals-goodnight win over Cincinnati on Sunday in The House That Baker Rebuilt.
The chanting began in the second half. If cascaded down and echoed all around the gunslinger’s new playpen:
“BAKER! BAKER! BAKER!”
Enjoy it? Mayfield reveled in it. Right to the delicious end. It’s one of the most memorable finishes to a Browns game in this century. For three consecutive plays starting at the Bengals 3-yard line, Mayfield took a knee, gestured to the crowd for more noise, took a knee, gestured to the crowd for more noise, took a knee and gestured yet again to the crowd for more noise — ad delirium.
Earlier in the quarter, following his 18-yard scramble that produced an important first down that was only confirmed after a Bengals challenge, Mayfield, on his way back to the huddle, tried to give referee Tony Corrente — get this — a fist bump! Corrente rightly passed on the offer, so Mayfield playfully fist-bumped Corrente on the shoulder.
This from a rookie making just his 12th NFL start.
Later still in the quarter, after completing a 66-yard pass to David Njoku, setting up his final take-three-knees ballet, Mayfield backpedaled down the field, glaring at the Bengals bench. At his former coach Hue Jackson? Or at the Bengals in general?
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” deadpanned Kid Galahad.
Talk about a marriage made in heaven. This is the perfect quarterback, the perfect leader, the perfect entertainer, who has come riding into Cleveland on a white horse, at exactly the right time.
He’s got the chops to beat the chumps, to one day be a champ. And he does it with the flair of matador.
Mayfield’s swag has swag.
“It brought back memories to me. This is how it was when I used to come up here (with other teams) in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Browns interim coach Gregg Williams said of the buzz Mayfield and the Browns have created at home games.
Sunday wasn’t an ending. It was a beginning. In a way it’s the first home game of 2019. The coaching change seems like ages ago. Over the last six weeks the Browns are 5-1. A win Sunday in Baltimore would give them their first winning season in 11 years and only their third winning season in the last 28 years.
This from a team fresh off consecutive seasons with records of 0-16 and 1-15 — pre-Mayfield.
“I relate to Cleveland,” he said. “The work ethic, the stuff that you have to earn it around here. That is what the Browns are all about. It’s going to be a good relationship for a long time.”
At least there will be no Browns coach jumping into the lake this year. For one, we don’t even know who the coach will be.
Williams is 5-2 since taking over for Jackson at midseason. That’s a record that’s hard to ignore for a franchise that went 4-44 over the last three years. This great toboggan ride to the finish line of the 2018 season looks great on paper, but it has complicated matters exponentially for general manager John Dorsey.
Nobody, including Dorsey, could have expected a turnaround to such an extent that he now must, at least publicly, acknowledge that Williams has earned serious consideration for the full-time job next year.
The pro-Williams public opinion swells with each victory. It also almost certainly does the same with owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who are no different than any other Browns fans except that they have way more money and own the team.
That will count for a lot. But if history has taught us anything about the Haslam ownership, it’s that their strength is not hiring head coaches. When it comes to that, they need to be good little owners and run along, until their hired help has identified Mr. Right.
With all the momentum built by the Baker Boys in 2018, the Browns cannot afford to miss on the next coach hiring, arguably the most important in franchise history.