Tramel: Baker Mayfield hasn't had a cocoon like Patrick Mahomes enjoys, but give it time
Baker Mayfield is the old man of quarterbacks in the American Football Conference playoffs. He’s also the least accomplished.
Mayfield is 25 and quarterbacked the Browns to a playoff victory over the Steelers last Sunday, which probably will get Mayfield a statue in downtown Cleveland but won’t raise him a notch among the AFC’s young guns.
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes also is 25, 156 days younger than Mayfield. Mahomes was the NFL’s most valuable player in 2018.
Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson is 24. Jackson was the league MVP in 2019.
Buffalo’s Josh Allen is 24. Allen is considered an MVP candidate this season, though Old Man Packer Aaron Rodgers is the presumptive winner.
The young stash of quarterbacks, particularly in the AFC, is great for the game, said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. Particularly since he has the best one.
“This influx of new guys at that position, it’s great for viewers and fans,” Reid said. “Cities. It gives these different cities an opportunity to compete. The parity’s already great. You add in this influx of quarterbacks, I think it even takes it up another notch. It’s great competition.”
Count Cleveland among those cities with a new lease on football life. Mayfield’s Browns play Mahomes’ Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City, and Mayfield is more than just the elder statesman. He’s also the least tutored, at least by contemporary circumstances. But Mayfield is coming fast.
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In Buffalo, Allen has had the same head coach (Sean McDermott) and same offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll) all three years.
In Baltimore, Jackson has had the same head coach (John Harbaugh) all three seasons, and when the Ravens switched coordinators from Marty Mornhinweg to Greg Roman after the 2018 season, they at least kept it in house.
In Kansas City, Mahomes has had the same head coach (Reid, who runs the offense) all four seasons, and when the Chiefs lost offensive coordinator Matt Nagy after Mahomes’ rookie season of 2017, KC assistant coach Eric Bieniemy took over.
Mayfield can only dream of such stability. In three NFL seasons, Mayfield has played for four head coaches and four offensive coordinators. Welcome to the Browns.
But in first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski and coordinator Alex Van Pelt, maybe Mayfield has found continuity and can start making up ground on all those MVP candidates crowding the AFC bracket.
“He’s really fallen in love with this scheme, it looks like, and mastered it,” Reid said. “He’s doing well. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’ve been given a couple of different things as a quarterback. Couple of different schemes to try to be the best at.
“Lot of guys get lost in that. Looks like he’s really powered through it and done a nice job.”
Mayfield seems to have matured off the field, too. He took some self-deprecating pride in telling the media that his mother-in-law informed him that he was the old guy.
“I took my victory lap loud and proud at Oklahoma,” Mayfield said, referring to playing the 2017 season as a fifth-year senior. “Somebody sent me just how close everybody is in age. It’s pretty crazy. It’s fun to see these guys I’m familiar with competing at such a high level.”
Starting with Mahomes. Most familiar and highest level. They met way back in 2013, when Mahomes was a senior at Whitehouse, Texas, and was headed to Texas Tech, where Mayfield was a starting quarterback as a non-scholarship true freshman but itching to transfer to OU.
They dueled twice in college, including the 66-59 game in 2016, when the Sooners beat the Red Raiders with the quarterbacks combining for 1,279 passing yards and 12 touchdown passes.
“Obviously, it’s cool to get to play against him in such a big game in the playoffs,” Mahomes said this week. “Known him for a long time. To be able to play on this stage, it’s going to be special. He went to Oklahoma, I went to Texas Tech. He got the better of me in college. So I’ll try to do my best to win in the NFL.”
The Chiefs beat the Browns 37-21 in a 2018 shootout in Cleveland, Mayfield’s rookie year and Mahomes’ first pro year starting. Both played well.
But Mahomes, with talent beyond compare and in the Andy Reid cocoon, has jettisoned onto a Hall of Fame path, while Mayfield, until the last two weeks with victories over Pittsburgh, has had to settle for justifying his status as Cleveland’s franchise quarterback.
Maybe Stefanski will provide the swaddle that could allow Mayfield to become a professional star.
Mayfield, who in the past was willing to question Cleveland’s coaches, seems quite content with Stefanski.
“What he talks about, having the open line of communication, there’s no question, no uncertainties about what we’re going to be about, the foundation to be laid,” Mayfield said. “People don’t follow fake leaders. You can sniff out somebody out who’s fake pretty quickly.”
So Mayfield enters the AFC semifinals not just armed with the devotion of a fawning fan base, thrilled with the Browns’ first playoff victory since 1994, but with the hope that the future is bright. Even if he is the old man of the AFC’s young guns.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.