Baker Mayfield's approach fosters trust, builds swagger

BEREA, Ohio -- Hue Jackson once famously called Baker Mayfield "the pied piper of Oklahoma football."

Jackson got a fair amount of ridicule for the phrase, but the statement was not out of bounds. The Cleveland Browns said that one of the reasons they drafted Mayfield was because of the way he drew people to him.

Jackson described Mayfield walking into the indoor facility for his private workout last March in Norman and making a chirping sound, a "hee hee" was the way Jackson mimicked it. When he made the sound, all the players there to take part or watch flocked to him.

Mayfield hasn't made that chirp in Cleveland, but he has had the same impact on the Browns that he had in college.

"When you see a guy like that, you got to back him up man," offensive tackle Chris Hubbard said.

"The energy that he brings to the game is unbelievable," receiver Rashard Higgins said. "Baker ... man he has that confidence."

There are many physical elements to Mayfield's success in his rookie season. His arm strength is eye-opening. He is accurate. He has an uncanny knack for avoiding the rush and creating space to make a throw. He is fearless. He has great vision. And he is very athletic in the way he moves in the pocket and handles the ball; Jarvis Landry's two runs against Carolina would not have been successful without Mayfield's sleight of hand.

That has led to production that is among the best rookie seasons in NFL history. Mayfield is one of only 11 rookies ever to have 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. He's within five of tying Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson for the rookie record of 26 touchdown passes. And he's 321 yards from setting the Browns' team record for passing yards.

Most important, he has led the Browns to four wins in the past five games; he has a team that didn't win a game a year ago playing as well as any in the league. He is the main reason the Browns are finally escaping the losing culture -- and the negativity that goes with it.

"The young man has it," interim coach Gregg Williams said.

To the point that Drew Brees predicted that Mayfield "can be a lot better than me." Brees will be in the Hall of Fame when his career ends.

"I believe he's one of a kind," receiver Breshad Perriman said. "We all just go as Bake goes."

The ways that Mayfield affects his team seem infectious. He has a distinct ability to be himself while bringing a swagger to the huddle and the field. As Landry quipped after his big game against Carolina, "I guess this feeling dangerous stuff is contagious." The statement was a take on Mayfield's "feeling dangerous" mantra at Oklahoma, something he first uttered in Cleveland on Nov. 11 after the win over Atlanta.

"It's real," tight end David Njoku said. "What you see or what you hear from him is real emotion."

It leads to belief and support. Bengals running back Joe Mixon, a former college teammate, returned to Oklahoma for Mayfield's workout. Mayfield talked in his series of pre-draft videos of throwing his first pass and hearing Mixon behind him say: "Shot, Bake." Mayfield said that helped him relax.

Guard Joel Bitonio recalled the first game Mayfield played against the Jets. He led the Browns to a field goal before taking a knee with five seconds left in the first half.

"One of their linebackers, I don't remember which one, was talking some mess to him," Bitonio said. "And he just came right back at him. He was like, 'I don't even know who you are; what are you doing out here?' I was thinking, 'Bake, you have like seven plays in your career right now.'"

Against Tampa Bay, Mayfield took a vicious shot to the head at the end of a 35-yard run. He immediately got to his feet and got in the face of the guy who had hit him, safety Jordan Whitehead.

"I told the guy he'd have to hit me a lot harder than that to affect me," Mayfield said.

His chatter about Jackson's decision to go to the Bengals after he was fired by the Browns brought new spice to the rivalry. His chatter during practice is nonstop, and usually it's between him and Jabrill Peppers.

Against Carolina, the Browns opened with a 61-yard pass and touchdown on the opening drive. Defensive lineman Chris Smith watched what happened next.

"He runs over there to G-Dub (Gregg Williams) and he's like," – and at this point Smith raises his voice and starts pointing his finger – "'Hey, you better get your stuff together. You see? I came to play today.'" Smith said. "And G-Dub looks over at me like, he's ridiculous."

Ridiculous in a good way. To a man, Browns players said that Mayfield’s energy and attitude is energizing.

"I love a guy like that," Hubbard said.

"You want to back that up," Bitonio said. "You want to fight for that guy. You want to be a part of it. That's who Baker is and that's what we're following right now."

It would not seem as if a 23-year-old rookie would be the one to pull the Browns out of the morass of losing that has plagued them for years. But Mayfield is doing that. When Jackson was fired, the theory was put to him that he might have to drag the Browns forward.

"Bring it on," Mayfield said.

He then went out and backed it up. Which is key.

"Leadership comes from example first and voice second," Williams said.

Mayfield had his worst half in Houston, when he threw three first-half interceptions. He followed by throwing for more yards in a half than any Browns quarterback since 1970, the year of the AFL-NFL merger. Questions about his ability to bounce back were totally defused.

To Mayfield it's more than producing, though.

"Once you establish the type of person you are, you have the respect of those people and they know how hard you work, they're going to trust you," he said. "They’re going to follow your lead. It's not always about production but yeah that helps. It's very easy to follow people who produce.

"But genuine people and people who earn your respect, I think that goes a long way, too."

Mayfield acknowledged Wednesday that the Browns playoff hopes have dimmed to be nearly invisible. But he wasn't hesitating about playing the Bengals and Ravens.

"We want to win our last two games," he said. "Any guys on this team that don't want to do that, they need to get out."

Said Bitonio: "You have to rally behind him. He's our leader out there and we have to defend him. It's just something that when the leader of the team is so outspoken and outgoing, it brings an energy to the team that, 'Hey we can't be stopped right now.'"