It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
It was Baker’s time.
And there was never a dull moment.
Love him or hate him, and you were one or the other, because nobody ever, most especially he himself, was neutral about No. 6.
Only Baker Mayfield would tauntingly plant the Oklahoma flag at midfield in Ohio Stadium after leading his college team to a victory over Ohio State — and then, a few months later, get drafted first overall by an NFL team in Ohio, and instantly ignite the fan base with Mayfieldmania.
Some athletes just have a knack for being theatrically inclined. Few athletes court controversy so comfortably.
But no Cleveland athlete ever left Cleveland, against his will, as part of collateral damage resulting from an unprecedented front office decision. A decision that was so explosive that the team’s owners left the country rather than answer for and explain, in person, at the introductory press conference, the decision to trade for he who, along with his baggage, was introduced that historically clumsy day: Baker Mayfield’s successor.
By taking the low road, the owners ceded the high road, along with, as lovely parting gifts, the twin titles of both victim and martyr, to Mayfield.
What? You expected Baker Mayfield’s exit from Cleveland to be the result of anything else BUT a three-ring circus?
Ironically, and admirably, it was Mayfield who conducted himself more professionally than any of the other parties in this extended, high-stakes, low-brow, threepenny opera, the penultimate act of which was reached Wednesday.
The Browns on Wednesday traded the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the quarterback-needy Carolina Panthers, in exchange for a conditional draft pick, either fourth or fifth round, in the 2024 draft.
That sounds like a decent, and logical, landing spot for the new-team needy Mayfield, who’s legacy in Cleveland was highlighted by one really good season, 2020, when he led the Browns to the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years, plus some really well-done Progressive Insurance commercials.
His time in Cleveland was hampered by the usual Browns’ cluelessness on how to put together a team. Mayfield played for four head coaches in his first three years in the league. The arrival of general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski helped settle things down, and in 2020 Mayfield had his best year in Cleveland, leading the team to a record of 11-5, or, counting the playoffs, 12-6.
But the eagerly anticipated 2021 season was a disaster for the quarterback and the team. The ultra-competitive Mayfield was frequently his own worst enemy, and he and his team’s season took a U-turn when Mayfield tore up his left shoulder trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception early in the season.
Attempts to continue to play while hurt only compounded the injury, and derailed the Browns’ attempt to return to the playoffs.
The team’s roster seemed to fracture at midseason, with the inability of Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. to productively coexist as the vaunted pitch-and-catch tandem everyone envisioned. Perhaps unavoidably, the flare-up led to severe team chemistry issues. When it progressed to a point beyond repair, the Browns simply waived Beckham at midseason.
Following the release of Beckham, the Browns lost five of their last eight games and missed the playoffs. Mayfield, however, continued to play, and continued to play poorly.
That led to the inevitable “who’s fault was it?” postseason debates between Baker backers and Baker whackers. In hindsight, it seems Mayfield’s injury-riddled season, plus his unsettled contract situation probably led him to continue to try to play, when he should have been shut down either voluntarily, or by the team.
Neither happened, and Mayfield’s gruesome four-interception implosion in Green Bay on Christmas Day pretty much pulled the plug on the season.
It also likely started Berry and company on a series of “what other quarterbacks are available?” brainstorming sessions, a search that eventually became so desperate that ownership threw caution to the wind and $230 million to Deshaun Watson.
Predictably, the end of the Mayfield era in Cleveland wasn’t going to go quietly. The combination of his loyally rabid fans, and the Browns replacing him with a quarterback with an unimaginable off-the-field resume, made for talk radio heaven.
Exit strategy? The Browns apparently had none. There was that feisty $18 million still owed Mayfield that the Browns obviously wanted teams interested in him to agree to pony up for — until the Browns realized they had no leverage at all.
Mayfield became a quarterback without a huddle.
Through most of it he was fairly quiet, saying all the right things about his lame-duck status on the Browns’ roster, a reality that, the longer it went, the more all-kinds-of-awkward it became.
On Wednesday, however, the Browns finally found a Baker taker.
So we all know what that means.
Next man up: Jacoby Brissett!