Baker Mayfield, Knoxville, and what's next
If he's still the quarterback who announced himself against the Vols in 2015, Baker Mayfield's future ought to shine bright wherever he plays
My friend Joe Buettner, who also left the day-to-day newspaper business, but continues to cover and write about Sooner football, came up with a headline for the cover page of his site that he’s never changed because it’s perfect:
“As clutch as Baker in Knoxville.”
His site, “Eyes on Oklahoma,” offers, as the sub-head to that headline explains, “Your cheat code to staying informed on your favorite team.”
It’s good stuff and always will be as long as it comes anywhere close to the awesomeness of the headline welcoming you into the site.
Say it again.
“As clutch as Baker in Knoxville.”
You must know the reference.
It was Sept. 12, 2015, at Tennessee, following a who-cares hardly-matters season-opening 41-3 home-field rout of Akron, making it the first game of any consequence Baker Mayfield played quarterback at Oklahoma, as well as the first game of any consequence Lincoln Riley coordinated the Sooner offense and for most of it OU went nowhere.
After three quarters, the Vols led 17-3.
Then something crazy happened. Mayfield began making plays.
He directed a 14-play 80-yard drive that included 5 of 6 passing, the last one a 2-yard score to Samaje Perine with 8:30 remaining.
Then he directed a 13-play, 60-yard drive that included 5 of 6 passing, the last one for 5 yards to Sterling Shepard, tying the game with 40 seconds remaining.
Tennessee needed five overtime snaps to go up 24-17. Mayfield tied it, scrambling for 4 yards facing third-and-goal from the 5 before running it in for the final yard,
“What a gutsy quarterback he’s been in the fourth quarter and overtime,” exclaimed play-by-play man Brad Nessler, the same voice that called the Sooners’ 2000 national championship.
It took three plays for OU to score again, when Mayfield hit Shepard for 18, what became the game-winning score after a Zack Sanchez interception sealed it.
To review, the Sooner offense, Mayfield leading it, scored three points in three quarters and by game’s end, even tacking on 50 overtime yards, OU still gained just 348 and Mayfield only passed for 187, completing 19 of 39, twice throwing it to the other team.
Statistically, it was his worst game at OU, his 104.1 passer rating a Sooner career low.
Still, afterward, all of Sooner Nation knew they’d found their next great quarterback.
It was an announcement.
The rest is amazing Sooner history, only a national championship missing, the failure to win one having little to do with Mayfield.
That’s the way we experienced Mayfield around here.
His last two years included the two most passing-efficient seasons in the history of the college game (at the time), a Heisman Trophy and probably the collective belief we’d never see another like him.
The thing about that?
Not seeing another like him had nothing to do with the numbers and the efficiency ratings and the Heisman and everything to do with the way it felt watching him in the fourth quarter in Knoxville and thereafter.
It was a feeling of inevitability, that whatever it took, somehow, some way, he would deliver and he always did.
It’s a good place to return to as it all appears to be falling apart around him in Cleveland, all in less than 72 hours.
• Tuesday evening, the Browns met with Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is exploring trade destinations, who also recently learned he would not face criminal charges in Harris County, Texas, though he still faces lawsuits filed by 22 women accusing him of inappropriate behavior and sexual assault.
• Wednesday, Mayfield addressed the Browns’ pursuit of Watson in a tweet, thanking “the city of Cleveland for embracing my family and me,” saying “I have no clue what happens next,” asserting “I have given this franchise everything that I have … And that will not change wherever I take my next snap,” finally adding “I just want to say thank you to the fans who truly embraced who I am and the mentality that aligned so well with this city’s hard working people.”
• Thursday, via ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Mayfield requested the Browns trade him, saying “The relationship is too far gone to mend. It’s in the best interests of both sides to move on.” Just as quickly, ESPN’s Jake Trotter reported the Browns have no plans to trade Mayfield.
• Also Thursday, Watson, who missed all of last season in the wake of so many sexual misconduct allegations, despite not being injured or suspended, took the Browns off his list of possible destinations.
If you’re inclined to take sides, Mayfield’s clearly in the right, while the Browns are reaffirming their inability to behave like a proper NFL franchise.
They picked Mayfield No. 1, he has a year remaining on his original contract, yes he struggled horribly last season, but he was also playing through significant injury the vast majority of it and should be back to full strength in time for next season.
Had the Browns actually landed Watson, it would still have been bad form, yet having landed him, they could claim they did what they had to do to improve the team, end of story.
But that was never going to happen with Watson, who the Texans are shopping, while he goes about deciding to which destination he might waive his no-trade clause.
Even had the Browns won Watson over, they’d still have to come up with a deal to get him and there’s no guarantee they could have done it, which means there was no way on earth this was ever going to happen quickly, meaning they were always going to put Mayfield in exactly the position he’s now in, under contract to a franchise that has given him a very public vote of no confidence.
It would be one thing if Mayfield is clearly damaged goods, but he’s not clearly anything, having played very well in 2020, leading the Browns to their first playoff victory in forever, with the possibility he could play that well again or better upon coming back healthy.
It’s all been so unnecessary unless there’s something we don’t know between Mayfield and the team or Mayfield and his teammates that makes his remaining in Cleveland untenable, but if that were the case the Browns should want to move Mayfield as much as he wants them to move him and they don’t.
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So where are we?
Seems to me, and who knows, maybe for Mayfield, too, it’s the same place my friend Joe has memorialized on the cover page of his website, where he continues to cover Sooner football.
It’s where Baker Mayfield became Baker Mayfield and maybe it’s still who he is and who he can still be, even in the NFL, wherever he might play next season, Cleveland included.
It’s easy to forget how he came off the bench as an NFL rookie and set the world on fire, but he did and it was fabulous, succeeding on the same terms he succeeded here: brash, full of confidence, making plays.
The next season, Freddie Kitchens didn’t know what he was doing as head coach. The next season, the Browns were back in the playoffs. The next season, last season, Mayfield was injured and not the same.
He’ll be healthy when takes the field again and if it’s in Cleveland, so pissed off, he may play wonderfully as a middle finger to the organization before bolting next offseason and if it’s somewhere else, he may play just as wonderfully, having something to prove.
It’s not fun right now.
Not for him or for a Sooner Nation still with him that wants him to succeed so badly, but the good part is he ought to wind up just where he’s supposed to.
If he’s still the quarterback that brought OU back in Knoxville, if the confidence is still there, the belief, the leadership, the playmaking, the whole package he offered for three Sooner seasons, he’ll succeed.
I think he might still be that guy.
He should have every chance to show us.