BEREA, Ohio — Earlier than realizing that the COVID-19 pandemic would sweep the nation, Kevin Stefanski knew he wanted to go meet his quarterback. The brand new Cleveland Browns head coach phoned his father, a entrance workplace govt with the Detroit Pistons, to tell him he was headed to Austin, Texas, the next morning to see Baker Mayfield.
As destiny would have it, Ed Stefanski was truly flying to Austin the identical February day on a scouting mission for the Pistons. The Stefanskis coincidentally even had booked reservations on the similar resort.
The following day, Kevin Stefanski launched himself to Mayfield’s household, together with his spouse, Emily, dad and mom and brother. Then that night time, as Stefanski and Mayfield went to dinner collectively, Ed Stefanski dropped by the restaurant to say hey, too.
“Tremendously precious,” Mayfield says now of that day. “For us to ascertain that relationship … getting to satisfy his dad … discuss issues off the sector and only for him to see what I am about and for me to see what he was about. You hear all this stuff, however till you may sit down and have a dialog with anyone, that is if you actually get to know somebody. An enormous worth that wanting again on I feel we’ll recognize.”
Weeks later, COVID-19 turned a actuality in the USA. That quickly remodeled the Browns’ offseason right into a digital one. Mayfield and Stefanski didn’t see one another in particular person once more till late final month when Mayfield reported for coaching camp. However that assembly in February set the muse for what the Browns are hoping might be a bounce-back marketing campaign for Mayfield heading into his pivotal third season within the NFL.
“From that second till now, I have been very impressed with Baker,” Stefanski mentioned. “He is all ball.”
From that second in 2018 once they picked Mayfield No. 1 total within the draft, the Browns have been all Mayfield.
Since then, house owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have fired a basic supervisor, three head coaches and two playcallers in an try to search out the suitable mixture for Mayfield, even when all of the turnover hampered his improvement alongside the best way.
This offseason, new basic supervisor Andrew Berry doubled down on the franchise’s perception in Mayfield and broke the financial institution to improve the offense round him. He dedicated a franchise-record $63 million in assured cash to signal Professional Bowl tight finish Austin Hooper, proper deal with Jack Conklin and backup quarterback Case Keenum — the latter primarily to function a sounding board for Mayfield. Berry additionally used the 10th total decide within the draft on Alabama deal with Jedrick Wills Jr., chosen to be Mayfield’s blindside protector.
Previous to that, the Haslams, with chief technique officer Paul DePodesta spearheading the search, handpicked Stefanski, who as soon as coached Mayfield’s childhood soccer hero, Brett Favre, in Minnesota. Stefanski will attempt to assist Mayfield totally understand the potential he flashed as a rookie, which then dissipated in a dismal and dysfunctional season in Cleveland final 12 months.
Now, regardless of Mayfield being simply the fourth quarterback in NFL historical past to endure 4 completely different head coaches in his first three seasons with one staff, the stress has shifted squarely on him to ship.
The supporting solid, that includes Hooper, wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and operating backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt — all Professional Bowlers — is likely to be the envy of any quarterback. The offensive line, behind Conklin and Wills, could possibly be essentially the most improved within the league. The Stefanski scheme, heavy on play-action, appears higher suited to Mayfield’s talent set.
With all of that in place, the reasons of the previous are gone. The onus is on Mayfield to show he’s certainly Cleveland’s franchise quarterback and able to turning the Browns right into a winner.
“I feel it is an unbelievable alternative, with the strikes we have made, the items we introduced in,” Mayfield mentioned. “I am extraordinarily enthusiastic about that.
“All that issues is that this 12 months. A brand new staff, a brand new employees — and we’re able to roll.”
Mayfield, recognized for his flag-planting swagger, acknowledges that he misplaced his approach final 12 months. Tossing 21 interceptions on a 6-10 staff, he even confessed to doubting himself — a uncommon admission from the previous two-time faculty walk-on so outlined by self-confidence irrespective of the doubters.
“Not having that success, not discovering out what was working, I feel I attempted alternative ways of making an attempt to have that success, and I did not discover it,” he mentioned. “I misplaced myself in that, and I wasn’t in a position to be who I [needed to be] for these guys.”
The digital offseason away, Mayfield says, supplied him with time alone to rediscover himself mentally and recommit bodily. Time he did not all the time have final summer time.
Coming off a season through which he broke an NFL rookie document with 27 landing passes, Mayfield turned a good larger star than he was at Oklahoma, the place he gained the Heisman Trophy. He frolicked socializing in California. He obtained married there, as properly. He filmed commercials and appeared on journal covers, together with ESPN The Journal’s.
This offseason, Mayfield turned down quite a few media alternatives, and agreed to just one interview — a Zoom name in late Might with Cleveland media organized by the staff. “Transferring in silence,” he known as it then. “That is how I used to do it earlier than getting on an even bigger stage.”
As a substitute of gallivanting on the coast, he and Emily stayed with Mayfield’s dad and mom whereas the home the couple purchased on Lake Travis on the sting of Austin, Texas, was being renovated.
Following their assembly, Mayfield poured his vitality into consuming Stefanski’s playbook. With offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who tutored Aaron Rodgers in Inexperienced Bay, Mayfield revamped his footwork, which cratered at occasions final 12 months.
Mayfield led a players-only Zoom assembly each Thursday to foster locker room chemistry. He always crashed different place group Zoom conferences to check what they have been doing. He invited a number of of his offensive teammates to Austin in mid-Might so they might lastly work out collectively.
Earlier than that, he helped recruit Hooper to affix Cleveland, and in two cellphone calls over a 24-hour span, satisfied No. three vast receiver Rashard Higgins to re-sign with the Browns, though Higgins was being supplied more cash to play elsewhere.
Maybe most impressively, although, Mayfield reshaped his physique.
With a lot taking place final summer time, together with his wedding ceremony, Mayfield wasn’t in a position to put as a lot time into his conditioning. By design, he additionally added weight, to assist him face up to the punishment of an NFL season, and to his credit score, Mayfield has now began extra consecutive video games than any Browns quarterback since 1999.
However that additional weight additionally sapped his quickness and his skill to evade tacklers and scramble outdoors the pocket final season. Mayfield was sacked extra usually per passing try than any quarterback within the AFC. On high of that, Mayfield was always preventing nagging accidents, which prevented him from understanding as a lot he hoped.
“I used to be heavier than I used to be ever taking part in earlier than,” he mentioned. “I wanted to have the ability to have the scrambling skill and to have the ability to transfer within the pocket.” Mobility is a requisite in Stefanski’s offense, which depends on a quarterback’s skill to roll out off play-action.
“Because the quarterback of this staff, you’re the customary and you’re what folks observe, and I feel he understands that now. We’re prepared to assist him push that customary.”
Joel Bitonio on Mayfield
After the season, Mayfield altered his weight loss program to depend on his spouse’s wholesome dwelling cooking, dishes they usually put up on Instagram. He dedicated to working with a nutritionist and a coach. And when he arrived to camp, he had added 4 kilos of lean mass and lower his physique fats. Beckham proclaimed this week that Mayfield even “has like four-pack” abs now.
“Bodily, he did a hell of a job within the offseason of preparing,” Van Pelt mentioned. “Quite a lot of that’s leaning down, shedding a bit of little bit of weight, and that’s going to assist him so far as his motion abilities go. All of the work that he has put within the offseason is unquestionably exhibiting up on the sector now in coaching camp.”
The expertise surrounding Mayfield offensively is simple. ESPN lately ranked Cleveland’s operating again unit No. 1 within the league, its vast receivers fifth, its offensive line sixth and its tight ends seventh.
The largest looming query is whether or not Mayfield could make all of it work in Stefanski’s system. Which figures to start with making it work with Beckham.
After then-general supervisor John Dorsey traded for Beckham final spring, the Browns turned one of many heaviest bet-on groups to win the Tremendous Bowl in Las Vegas. However collectively, the pairing failed to smell its personal expectations. And whereas Mayfield and Beckham all the time had one another’s again within the media, the 2 struggled to discover a rapport on the sector, with Beckham’s sports activities hernia damage suffered in coaching camp stopping them from creating their chemistry in follow.
Enjoying via the damage, Beckham ranked 15th within the NFL with 132 targets, however simply 131st in receptions per goal, with a catch price of solely 56%. The duo’s failure to get on the identical web page culminated in a loss at Denver in November. On a game-deciding fourth-and-Four, Mayfield was criticized for not throwing to Beckham, who had dashed open alongside the sidelines. Though neither Mayfield nor Beckham has commented on it, Mayfield had been anticipating Beckham to run a mesh route throughout the center of the sector and cross paths with Landry, in accordance with a number of sources from final 12 months’s staff. Mayfield nonetheless tried to squeeze the ball to Landry, however the cross fell incomplete, dropping the Browns to 2-6 whereas turning their playoff aspirations into an extended shot.
This week, Mayfield advised NFL Community that his chemistry with Beckham is “positive as hell going to be so much higher than final 12 months.” Beckham, wholesome once more and thriving in coaching camp after present process surgical procedure in January, agreed, then praised Mayfield’s bodily and psychological state this camp.
Have a look again at standout moments from Baker Mayfield that make him a quarterback value watching.
“In fact, I will say it may be higher than final 12 months,” Beckham mentioned. “So far as him, he appears nice — mentally, bodily. He is doing nice. He is simply in place. As a teammate and as a man who has all the time been a fan of Baker and as a brother, it is nice to see him on this place.”
Including Hooper ought to solely assist in creating extra favorable matchups for Beckham out vast. And extra crucially, Hooper ought to enhance Mayfield’s effectivity, by giving him a dependable goal over the center and beneath the protection that he desperately lacked in 2019.
Though the Browns did not have a single tight finish end with greater than 15 receptions final season, Mayfield was nonetheless simpler when two or extra have been on the sector. In line with ESPN Stats & Data analysis, Mayfield averaged eight.three yards per passing try with 9 touchdowns to simply three interceptions and a QBR of 62 with a number of tight ends. With one or none, these numbers plummeted to six.9 yards per try and a QBR of 49; Mayfield additionally threw 18 interceptions with simply 13 touchdowns with one or no tight ends (Stefanski utilized a number of tight ends on the sector 57% of the time as offensive coordinator in Minnesota final season, the very best price within the NFL).
Earlier than he signed with them, the Browns pitched Hooper on being the kind of tight finish that Baltimore Ravens Professional Bowler Mark Andrews was for Mayfield at Oklahoma, in accordance with a league supply. In 2017, the 12 months Mayfield gained the Heisman and the Sooners topped the nation in offense, Andrews truly led the staff with 62 receptions, whilst OU boasted a pair of future first-round vast receivers in Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb.
Up to now in camp, Mayfield and Hooper have been connecting as if they’ve performed collectively for years.
“I obtained in touch with him early on within the course of so once I did signal, I already had an concept of the place am I going, who’s my quarterback and what’s he all about,” mentioned Hooper, who had 75 catches, 787 yards and 6 touchdowns — all profession highs — taking part in with quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta final 12 months. “Baker, clearly proficient, a powerful arm. He has an actual aggressive fireplace. That basically made me need to signal right here.”
Hooper instantly went to work out with Mayfield in Austin after signing, then returned in Might with the opposite Browns gamers.
“Banked a couple of hundred reps with him, had fun with him on and off the sector and simply sort of obtained a really feel for him, his character, his spouse, his household and his buddies and simply sort of actually see Baker the particular person,” Hooper mentioned. “I undoubtedly assume that was the preliminary spark that actually helped our chemistry.”
Mayfield addressed his teammates the primary week of coaching camp. He advised them that he did not do sufficient final 12 months to assist them. He requested them to carry him accountable. And he vowed to be higher in 2020.
“He tell us it was not sufficient final 12 months, and he felt dangerous about it,” Professional Bowl guard Joel Bitonio mentioned. “From a management perspective this 12 months, he has completed every little thing proper. He’s making an attempt to steer by instance.
“Simply him when he confirmed up, he seemed so much higher. His physique seemed higher. He seemed like he was shifting very well. He seemed sturdy. All of the stuff you need to see in a quarterback. Because the quarterback of this staff, you’re the customary and you’re what folks observe, and I feel he understands that now. We’re prepared to assist him push that customary.”
That has translated to the follow area.
A flashpoint manifested final coaching camp when Mayfield cursed and screamed at his receivers, together with Beckham, for not operating again to him on a scramble drill. This 12 months, Mayfield has remained vocal, however proven a softer contact. This week, he pulled Donovan Peoples-Jones apart and put his hand on the rookie vast receiver’s helmet as he spoke to him.
“Baker is a extremely good teammate,” Stefanski mentioned. “I feel he actually understands his teammates. I feel his teammates play arduous for him. That simply goes again to that factor he has that no one can put a finger on and that the quarterback place has to have. It’s a must to have ‘it.’ It’s a must to ensure you deliver your guys alongside.”
Then, channeling his father, Stefanski utilized a hoops analogy.
“The No. 1 job of a quarterback is to make the fellows round you play higher. There are a bunch of how to do this. It’s like the purpose guard on a basketball staff.”
Stefanski wasn’t the one candidate for Cleveland’s head-coaching job to fly to Austin to go to Mayfield. The week of the 2018 draft, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made the journey to Texas to inform Mayfield in person who the Patriots could be occupied with drafting him, ought to he slide in any respect.
Earlier than hiring Stefanski in January, the Browns interviewed McDaniels at their follow facility for eight hours. Given the earlier relationship, Mayfield was intrigued by the opportunity of taking part in for McDaniels this time. However to this point, Mayfield could not be extra impressed with Stefanski, courting again to their time collectively in February.
“That is an important relationship on a staff, between the pinnacle coach and the quarterback,” mentioned Browns backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who grew up with Mayfield in Austin. “And I feel you may see the beginnings there of a really stable relationship. And I would say you’d most likely must take that again to Coach Stefanski flying all the way down to Austin. That reveals so much about him, but additionally, if you realize Baker and perceive Baker, a pair issues which might be most essential to him are loyalty and, clearly, his household.”
As one of many NFL’s youngest head coaches, Stefanski, 37, is all ball, too. And collectively, he and Mayfield will try to realize the NFL model of mission not possible: Finish the second-longest playoff drought in all of professional sports activities, now as much as 18 years.
“I see a really dedicated soccer participant who is able to lead and who is happy to play,” Stefanski mentioned. “Baker has embraced all of that — for the reason that second he and I obtained to know one another.”