BEREA — Baker Mayfield still believes he’s the right man to turn around the Browns. But after a sophomore season filled with personal and team struggles, he realizes the job is more difficult than he anticipated.
“I never thought it was going to be easy, but it is definitely a very big process,” he said Thursday. “Down the road looking back on it through the struggles and everything that we endured and it is going to continue to have bumps in the road, I think that is going to be the beauty of it — me wishing that I was going to be here and having that come true and just seeing where it is going to go from here on out.”
Mayfield endeared himself to Browns fans at the 2018 scouting combine when he declared himself the person to stop the losing in Cleveland. The Browns had set an NFL record by going 1-31 over the previous two seasons.
“I think if anybody’s going to turn that franchise around it would be me,” Mayfield said then. “They’re very close. They have the right pieces. I think they just need one guy, a quarterback to make that difference.”
General manager John Dorsey agreed, went out on a limb and selected Mayfield with the No. 1 pick in the draft despite his 6-foot-0 5/8 height. The pick looked genius last year as Mayfield led the team to seven wins in 14 games, including 5-2 down the stretch, and set an NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. He finished runner-up to Giants running back Saquon Barkley for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
A year later, the pick doesn’t seem as perfect.
Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, taken with the No. 32 pick in 2018, is expected to be the MVP and has the Ravens 13-2 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Buffalo’s Josh Allen, the seventh pick, is 10-5 and headed toward the playoffs as a wild card.
Meanwhile, Mayfield heads into the finale Sunday in Cincinnati needing a win to match last year’s total — the Browns are 6-9 after going 7-8-1 in 2018. And he’s thrown only 19 touchdown passes despite starting every game.
“It comes down to all the little things,” he said of what he’s learned about playing quarterback in the NFL. “First and foremost, I have to do my job to the best I can. I have to communicate and make sure everybody is on the same page. Being myself, being the leader that I know I can be and making sure everybody is on the same page because if it is one unified message, a lot of good things can come from that.”
Mayfield’s pocket presence slipped early in the season, as he bailed to the right too early too often. He fixed that as the year progressed, gaining more trust in the line and looking more comfortable.
His lack of accuracy has been a persistent problem throughout the season. The high and wide throws were on display again Sunday in the loss to the Ravens, and he’s turned what should be simple completions on slants and in routes into incompletions and sometimes interceptions.
Mayfield’s pinpoint placement was supposed to be a strength, but his completion percentage his dipped from 63.8 percent as a rookie to 60.2 percent, 29th in the league. It fits with the rest of the numbers that have dropped. He’s tied for 19th in touchdowns, tied for 30th with 18 interceptions and 31st with a 79.1 passer rating.
Accuracy starts with footwork, something Mayfield discusses often.
“It has definitely improved as the year has gone on,” he said. “There is a lot of room for improvement for me, just being critical of myself and how I have always been. Yeah, I have improved but still I need to take that next step.”
Coordinator Todd Monken said Mayfield’s footwork is connected to the operation of the offense, which ranks 22nd with 20.8 points a game.
“There are times you really see improvement there where he is able to go through his reads, his progressions,” Monken said. “We have protected better the last few weeks, which I think has helped. We just have to continue in terms of route discipline and protection, and I think then the confidence will continue to grow.”
Mayfield didn’t get into specifics but said footwork is just one of the areas he’ll work on improving in the offseason. He also plans to gather the receivers and tight ends to increase the chemistry.
“The priority is this week against the Bengals, but I already know what exactly I need to work on and improve going forward,” he said. “That is the exciting thing about it is it’s always a continual process of getting better and improving. Just being able to take care of business this week, finish out the right way like we know we should and then improve and start things off right.”
The difficulties of Year 2 haven’t softened Mayfield’s stance against working with a private quarterback coach.
“I do not need somebody to teach me how to do a three-step drop,” he said. “I can look at film and be critical of myself. Throughout this process, I have had people help me out along the way and try and take things from different people and anytime I am around somebody, I ask questions. Don’t act like I have it all figured out.
“There is always room to improve and take things from there and there, but I would not say that I will go on the beach and swim through the ocean and try and learn how to play quarterback by doing that.”
Coach Freddie Kitchens wanted to keep the focus on the finale but discussed Mayfield’s development as a leader.
“Being a quarterback on and off the field is ever evolving,” Kitchens said. “You are never going to be the same. You are always getting better at things and situations.
“The whole aspect of playing quarterback in the National Football League is more than just showing up on Sundays and playing. Everybody knows that. I think you can continue to get better in each area, and he knows that and he is committed to doing that. Everybody here is. Everybody is committed to getting better. I think that is the way it starts. It is not an overnight deal. Baker understands that he needs to continue to get better in all of the areas.”
Mayfield was voted a captain by teammates but said he had to adjust to leading the big personalities in the huddle.
“Maybe not as vocal in the beginning as I look back,” he said. “When it comes down to it, taking care of my job first and then expressing myself throughout that.”
He learned he must be consistent with his leadership.
“Like I keep saying, the same message throughout every day and throughout this building being that same person every day,” he said. “Letting people know what they can expect from me, and if I am not doing that, they can call me out for that.
“If you just base it strictly off results, you can’t be a continuous leader in this league. There are a lot of ups and downs so you have to be the same guy no matter if you are playing well or not. I think that is a very important lesson I learned this year.”