BEREA, Ohio — Before knowing that the coronavirus pandemic would sweep the country, Kevin Stefanski knew he needed to go meet his quarterback. The new Cleveland Browns head coach phoned his father, a front-office executive with the Detroit Pistons, to inform him he was headed to Austin, Texas, the following morning to see Baker Mayfield.
As fate would have it, Ed Stefanski was actually flying to Austin the same February day on a scouting mission for the Pistons. The Stefanskis had even booked reservations at the same hotel.
The next day, Kevin Stefanski introduced himself to Mayfield’s family, including his wife, Emily, parents and brother. Then that night, as Stefanski and Mayfield went to dinner together, Ed Stefanski dropped by the restaurant to say hello.
“Tremendously valuable,” Mayfield says now of that day. “For us to establish that relationship … getting to meet his dad … talk about things off the field and just for him to see what I’m about and for me to see what he was about. You hear all these things, but until you can sit down and have a conversation with somebody, that’s when you truly get to know someone. A big value that looking back on I think we’ll appreciate.”
Weeks later, the magnitude of COVID-19 became a reality in the United States. That soon transformed the Browns’ offseason into a virtual one. Mayfield and Kevin Stefanski did not see each other in person again until late last month when Mayfield reported for training camp. But that meeting in February set the foundation for what the Browns are hoping will be a bounce-back campaign for Mayfield heading into his pivotal third season in the NFL.
“From that moment until now, I’ve been very impressed with Baker,” Stefanski said. “He’s all ball.”
From that moment in 2018 when they picked Mayfield No. 1 overall in the draft, the Browns have been all Mayfield.
Since then, Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam have fired a general manager, three head coaches and two playcallers in an attempt to find the right combination for Mayfield, even if all the turnover hampered his development along the way.
This offseason, new general manager Andrew Berry doubled down on the franchise’s belief in Mayfield and broke the bank to upgrade the offense around him. Berry committed a franchise-record $63 million in guaranteed money to sign Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, right tackle Jack Conklin and backup quarterback Case Keenum — the latter primarily to serve as a sounding board for Mayfield. Berry also used the 10th overall pick in the draft on Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., selected to be Mayfield’s blindside protector.
Prior to that, the Haslams, with chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta leading the search, handpicked Stefanski, who once coached Mayfield’s childhood football hero, Brett Favre, in Minnesota. Stefanski will try to help Mayfield fully realize the potential he flashed as a rookie, which then dissipated in a dismal and dysfunctional season in Cleveland last year.
Now, despite Mayfield being just the fourth quarterback in NFL history to endure four different head coaches in his first three seasons with one team, the pressure has shifted squarely on him to deliver.
The supporting cast, featuring Hooper, wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt — all Pro Bowl players — might be the envy of any quarterback. The offensive line, behind Conklin and Wills, could be the most improved in the league. The Stefanski scheme, heavy on play-action, seems better suited to Mayfield’s skill set.
With all of that in place, the excuses of the past are gone. The onus is on Mayfield to prove he is indeed Cleveland’s franchise quarterback and capable of turning the Browns into a winner.
“I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity, with the moves we’ve made, the pieces we brought in,” Mayfield said. “I’m extremely excited about that.
“All that matters is this year. A new team, a new staff — and we are ready to roll.”
Mayfield, known for his flag-planting swagger, acknowledges that he lost his way last year. After tossing 21 interceptions on a 6-10 team, he even confessed to doubting himself — a rare admission from the former two-time college walk-on so defined by self-confidence no matter the doubters.
“Not having that success, not finding out what was working, I think I tried different ways of trying to have that success, and I didn’t find it,” he said. “I lost myself in that, and I wasn’t able to be who I [needed to be] for these guys.”
The virtual offseason away, Mayfield says, provided him with time alone to rediscover himself mentally and recommit physically. Time he didn’t always have last summer.
Coming off a season in which he broke an NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes, Mayfield became an even bigger star than he was at Oklahoma, where he won the Heisman Trophy. He spent time socializing in California. He got married there, as well. He filmed commercials and appeared on magazine covers, including ESPN The Magazine’s.
This offseason, Mayfield turned down numerous media opportunities and agreed to only one interview — a Zoom call in late May with Cleveland media arranged by the team. “Moving in silence,” he called it then. “That’s how I used to do it before getting on a bigger stage.”
Instead of gallivanting on the coast, he and Emily stayed with Mayfield’s parents while the house the couple bought on Lake Travis on the edge of Austin, Texas, was being renovated.
Following their meeting, Mayfield poured his energy into consuming Stefanski’s playbook. With offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who tutored Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Mayfield revamped his footwork, which cratered at times last year.
Mayfield led a players-only Zoom meeting every Thursday to foster locker room chemistry. He crashed other position group Zoom meetings to study what they were doing. He invited several of his offensive teammates to Austin in mid-May so they could finally work out together.
Before that, he helped recruit Hooper to join Cleveland, and in two phone calls over a 24-hour span, convinced No. 3 wide receiver Rashard Higgins to re-sign with the Browns, even though Higgins was being offered more money to play elsewhere.
Perhaps most impressively, though, Mayfield reshaped his body.
With so much happening last summer, including his wedding, Mayfield wasn’t able to put as much time into his conditioning. By design, he also added weight to help him withstand the punishment of an NFL season, and to his credit, Mayfield has now started more consecutive games than any Browns quarterback since 1999.
But that extra weight also sapped his quickness and his ability to evade tacklers and scramble outside the pocket last season. Mayfield was sacked more often per passing attempt than any quarterback in the AFC. On top of that, Mayfield was fighting nagging injuries, which prevented him from working out as much he hoped.
“I was heavier than I was ever playing before,” he said. “I needed to be able to have the scrambling ability and to be able to move in the pocket.” Mobility is a requisite in Stefanski’s offense, which relies on a quarterback’s ability to roll out off play-action.
“As the quarterback of this team, you are the standard and you are what people follow, and I think he understands that now. We are ready to help him push that standard.” Joel Bitonio on Mayfield
After the season, Mayfield altered his diet to rely on his wife’s healthy home cooking, dishes they often post on Instagram. He committed to working with a nutritionist and a trainer. And when he arrived to camp, he had added four pounds of lean mass and cut his body fat. Beckham proclaimed this week that Mayfield even “has like four-pack” abs now.
“Physically, he did a hell of a job in the offseason of getting ready,” Van Pelt said. “A lot of that is leaning down, losing a little bit of weight, and that is going to help him as far as his movement skills go. All the work that he has put in the offseason is definitely showing up on the field now in training camp.”
The talent surrounding Mayfield on offense is undeniable. ESPN recently ranked Cleveland’s running back unit No. 1 in the league, its wide receivers fifth, its offensive line sixth and its tight ends seventh.
The biggest looming question is whether Mayfield can make it all work in Stefanski’s system, which figures to begin with making it work with Beckham.
After then-general manager John Dorsey traded for Beckham last spring, the Browns became one of the heaviest bet-on teams to win the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. But together, the pairing failed to sniff its own expectations. And while Mayfield and Beckham always had each other’s back in the media, the two struggled to find a rapport on the field. Beckham’s sports hernia injury, suffered in training camp, prevented them from developing their chemistry in practice.
Playing through the injury, Beckham ranked 15th in the NFL with 132 targets, but just 131st in receptions per target, with a catch rate of only 56%. The duo’s failure to get on the same page culminated in a loss at Denver in November. On a game-deciding fourth-and-4, Mayfield was criticized for not throwing to Beckham, who had dashed open along the sidelines. Although neither Mayfield nor Beckham has commented on it, Mayfield had been expecting Beckham to run a mesh route across the middle of the field and cross paths with Landry, according to multiple sources from last year’s team. Mayfield still tried to squeeze the ball to Landry, but the pass fell incomplete, dropping the Browns to 2-6 while turning their playoff aspirations into a long shot.
This week, Mayfield told NFL Network that his chemistry with Beckham is “sure as hell going to be a lot better than last year.” Beckham, healthy again and thriving in training camp after undergoing surgery in January, agreed, then praised Mayfield’s physical and mental state this camp.
“Of course, I’m going to say it’s going to be better than last year,” Beckham said. “As far as him, he looks great — mentally, physically. He’s doing great. He’s just in a good place. As a teammate and as a guy who has always been a fan of Baker and as a brother, it’s great to see him in this place.”
Adding Hooper should only help in creating more favorable matchups for Beckham out wide. And more crucially, Hooper should improve Mayfield’s efficiency, by giving him a reliable target over the middle and underneath the coverage that he desperately lacked in 2019.
Even though the Browns didn’t have a single tight end finish with more than 15 receptions last season, Mayfield was still more effective when two or more were on the field. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Mayfield averaged 8.3 yards per passing attempt with nine touchdowns to just three interceptions and a QBR of 62 with multiple tight ends. With one or none, those numbers plummeted to 6.9 yards per attempt and a QBR of 49; Mayfield also threw 18 interceptions with just 13 touchdowns with one or no tight ends (Stefanski utilized multiple tight ends on the field 57% of the time as offensive coordinator in Minnesota last season, the highest rate in the NFL).
Before he signed with them, the Browns pitched Hooper on being the type of tight end that Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowler Mark Andrews was for Mayfield at Oklahoma, according to a league source. In 2017, the year Mayfield won the Heisman and the Sooners topped the nation in offense, Andrews actually led the team with 62 receptions, even as OU boasted a pair of future first-round wide receivers in Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb.
So far in camp, Mayfield and Hooper have been connecting as though they’ve played together for years.
“I got in contact with him early on in the process so when I did sign, I already had an idea of where am I going, who is my quarterback and what is he all about,” said Hooper, who had 75 catches, 787 yards and six touchdowns — all career highs — playing with quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta last year. “Baker, obviously talented, a strong arm. He has a real competitive fire. That really made me want to sign here.”
Hooper immediately went to work out with Mayfield in Austin after signing, then returned in May with the other Browns players.
“Banked a few hundred reps with him, had a good time with him on and off the field and just kind of got a feel for him, his personality, his wife, his family and his friends and just kind of really see Baker the person,” Hooper said. “I definitely think that was the initial spark that really helped our chemistry.”
Mayfield addressed his teammates the first week of training camp. He told them that he didn’t do enough last year to help them. He asked them to hold him accountable. And he vowed to be better in 2020.
“He let us know it was not enough last year, and he felt bad about it,” Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio said. “From a leadership perspective this year, he has done everything right. He is trying to lead by example.
“Just looking at him when he showed up, he looked a lot better. His body looked better. He looked like he was moving really well. He looked strong. All the things you want to see in a quarterback. As the quarterback of this team, you are the standard and you are what people follow, and I think he understands that now. We are ready to help him push that standard.”
That has translated to the practice field.
A flashpoint manifested last training camp when Mayfield cursed and screamed at his receivers, including Beckham, for not running back to him on a scramble drill. This year, Mayfield has remained vocal, but shown a softer touch. This week, he pulled Donovan Peoples-Jones aside and put his hand on the rookie wide receiver’s helmet as he spoke to him.
“Baker is a really good teammate,” Stefanski said. “I think he really understands his teammates. I think his teammates play hard for him. That just goes back to that thing he has that nobody can put a finger on and that the quarterback position has to have. You have to have ‘it.’ You have to make sure you bring your guys along.”
Then, channeling his father, Stefanski utilized a hoops analogy.
“The No. 1 job of a quarterback is to make the guys around you play better. There are a bunch of ways to do that. It is like the point guard on a basketball team.”
Stefanski wasn’t the only candidate for Cleveland’s head-coaching job to fly to Austin to visit Mayfield. The week of the 2018 draft, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made the trip to Texas to tell Mayfield in person that the Patriots would be interested in drafting him, should he slide at all.
Before hiring Stefanski in January, the Browns interviewed McDaniels at their practice facility for eight hours. Given the previous relationship, Mayfield was intrigued by the possibility of playing for McDaniels this time. But so far, Mayfield couldn’t be more impressed with Stefanski, dating back to their time together in February.
“That’s the most important relationship on a team, between the head coach and the quarterback,” said Browns backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who grew up with Mayfield in Austin. “And I think you can see the beginnings there of a very solid relationship. And I’d say you’d probably have to take that back to Coach Stefanski flying down to Austin. That shows a lot about him, but also, if you know Baker and understand Baker, a couple things that are most important to him are loyalty and, obviously, his family.”
As one of the NFL’s youngest head coaches, Stefanski, 37, is all ball, too. And together, he and Mayfield will attempt to achieve the NFL version of mission impossible: End the second-longest playoff drought in all of professional sports, now up to 18 years.
“I see a very committed football player who is ready to lead and who is excited to play,” Stefanski said. “Baker has embraced all of that — since the moment he and I got to know each other.”