Matured Mayfield leading Browns amid ‘Super’ expectations

CLEVELAND (AP) — Baker Mayfield has grown up. There was no other option.

“I had to hit rock bottom for a little bit,” he said.

He’s rising, and judging by last season, so are the Browns.

As he picked at lunch during a break last month while shooting commercials at FirstEnergy Stadium, Mayfield exuded some of that chip-on-his-shoulder confidence that transported him from college walk-on to NFL starting quarterback.

That will always be on display, defining him, driving him. The brashness, though, has been muted.

While discussing the stuttering start to his pro career, his future in Cleveland and expectations for this season during a sit-down interview with The Associated Press, there was something noticeably different about Mayfield.

He’s changed.

It’s not a 180-degree turn by any means, but Mayfield is more measured with his actions and words: business Baker. More of a leader, a role model, franchise quarterback.

“Experience,” he said, “definitely teaches you.”

Mayfield crashed after a record-setting rookie year, only to bounce back in 2020 under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. On the eve of his fourth training camp, he was relaxed and reflective as he prepared for a season Browns fans have awaited for a generation.

Mayfield helped Cleveland end the playoff drought. Next challenge: the Super Bowl, which the Browns never have reached.

He’s physically fit, having dropped “bad weight,” and in a good place mentally. He’s found inner peace, and the 25-year-old feels a strong connection with this football-crazed city and its fans. Cleveland is where he wants to play his entire career.

“We’ve talked about it, Emily and I,” Mayfield said, referring to his wife, who co-stars with him in those TV ads for Progressive Insurance. “It wouldn’t be the same if we lived in a city where they didn’t live, breathe and die football. That’s the atmosphere we want — and it’s here.”

There’s an unmistakable bond between this Ohio city and this Oklahoma quarterback. Both underdogs, they’ve been through good years and bad ones. Knocked down and counted out, they’ve fought back.

“When I say that my work ethic and mentality fits right in here,” he said. “I genuinely mean that.”

Even before being drafted first in 2018, Mayfield sensed Cleveland was where he belonged.

“If anybody’s going to turn that franchise around it would be me,” he boasted at the combine that year.

He was right.

The Browns went 1-31 in two seasons before he arrived and spent two decades discarding quarterbacks and coaches at dizzying speed. In Mayfield, they have seemingly found the leader missing since Bernie Kosar led Cleveland to three AFC title games from 1986-89.

He’s eligible for a contract extension, but to this point his agents and the Browns have not had formal talks.

It’s possible the team wants Mayfield to replicate his strong 2020 — or the Browns are spooked by the massive deal Buffalo gave Josh Allen, who signed a six-year, $258 million package.

Mayfield is under contract for two more years and insists his focus is solely on winning, another sign of development.

For a while, though, it looked as if he might be another bust.

After breaking Peyton Manning’s rookie record for TD passes and going 7-8-1, Mayfield took things for granted. He didn’t spend nearly enough time working on his craft, got heavy and threw nearly as many interceptions (21) as TDs (22) in 2019.

Picked to contend for the AFC North title, the Browns disintegrated. They went 6-10, fired coach Freddie Kitchens and Mayfield’s critics circled with sharpened knives.

“For the first time in my life, I was kind of listening to the outside noise and I let that affect me too much,” he said. “I was so worried about what type of picture I needed to portray as a franchise QB because everybody was telling me I had to be a certain way, instead of just doing how I’ve always done it — which is how I’m here.”

Mayfield quickly interjects he doesn’t want to “sound cocky or conceited.” It’s just that others wanted him to be someone he’s not.

“Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady aren’t the same people,” he said. “I listened to too much of that for too long, had a few losing seasons and then realized, OK, I’ve got to find a peace on the inner side before I can lead this team to where it needs to go.”

While it would have been easy to blame Cleveland’s ceaseless dysfunction, Mayfield held himself accountable.

“The whole 2019 season was just kind of a miserable year,” he said, glancing at a ”Believe In Yourself” tattoo on his left forearm. “I expect a lot of things out of myself and I just didn’t play well. That was a humbling experience.”

Then came 2020’s strangeness. But in the midst of masks and mandates, Mayfield found stability and kinship with Stefanski, his third coach in three years. Shortly after being hired, Stefanski visited Mayfield in Texas, not imagining he wouldn’t see him again in person for five months.

Although most of their interactions came over Zoom, coach and QB bonded.

“He’s a sports junkie and not the biggest guy ever,” Mayfield said, smiling when asked about their connection. “We agree on the work-ethic mentality. You can’t just show up. He loves the grind and so do I. When you put two people together with the same inner values and drive, that’s pretty special.”

Expectations for the 2021 Browns are enormous, even excessive. Mayfield says he isn’t fazed by them.

“It would bring the great tradition back,” he said. “It’s a football town because of what it’s been in the past, and what it deserves to be. It would mean a ton to me, but I wouldn’t be satisfied at just stopping at one.”

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