CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield’s NFL career began on a Thursday night. It might have just been revitalized on a Thursday night, as well.
Coming off a rough 2019 season and even rougher season opener on Sunday, Mayfield roared back with perhaps the sharpest performance since his rookie year, as he propelled the Cleveland Browns to a 35-30 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mayfield came out hot, completing his first five passes, including a 43-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr.
Mayfield was far from flawless. He threw an ill-advised interception on Cincinnati’s half of the field in the fourth quarter — his NFL-leading eighth consecutive game with a pick — which allowed the Bengals to hang around late. But in lighting up Cincinnati up to that point, Mayfield also seemed to rediscover the same touch, poise and accuracy that allowed him to break the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes in 2018.
“That’s gonna build confidence for us, and us playing complementary football with the defense,” Mayfield said. “That’s the scary part — if we start clicking and (get) better, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”
After struggling in the opener, a 38-6 loss in Baltimore, Mayfield said this week that the potential of a talented offense built around him was “not just false hopes.” That was on full display against Cincinnati, as Mayfield coolly spread the ball around to his array of dynamic weapons.
After Mayfield found running back Kareem Hunt on third-and-goal in the second quarter for his second touchdown throw, he turned to the Browns’ sideline and aggressively pumped his fist. A moment of swagger reminiscent of a Thursday night two seasons ago, when Mayfield came off the bench to help snap Cleveland’s 635-day winless streak in a scintillating league debut.
Promising trend: After the quiet showing in Baltimore, Beckham said this week that it was important for him to get touches to begin a game: “It’s like a shooter putting up a couple of threes early — you hit one, two of them, like, you might drop 60. Just how I feel. I would love to get involved early.” That’s exactly what happened Thursday, as Beckham got rolling in the first half, leading to chants of “O-B-J” from the FirstEnergy Stadium crowd of 6,000 fans following the 43-yard touchdown grab. A lack of chemistry with Mayfield has seemingly plagued Beckham’s production since he was traded to Cleveland last spring. Against the Bengals, the two might have finally unearthed the foundation of what could become the dangerous rapport the Browns initially envisioned.
QB breakdown: Mayfield thrived off numerous rollout opportunities out of coach Kevin Stefanski’s play-action-heavy attack. In fact, he completed his first three play-action throws outside the pocket for 78 yards and the touchdown to Beckham. Before Thursday, Mayfield had gone just 4-of-12 for 37 yards on such passes in his previous six games combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information. After the play-action bootleg was conspicuously absent in the opener, the Browns flashed the blueprint to success for Mayfield — underscoring one big reason why Cleveland brought in Stefanski and his scheme in the offseason.
Pivotal play: Five plays after the Bengals stuffed Nick Chubb on fourth-and-goal from the 2, defensive end Myles Garrett euro-stepped past Cincinnati’s right guard and clobbered Joe Burrow, forcing a fumble the Browns recovered back near the goal line. This time, Chubb punched the ball in, giving Cleveland a comfortable 28-13 lead in the third quarter.
Eye-popping NextGen Stat: Mayfield’s completion percentage (69.5%) was +13.1% over expected Thursday night. That’s the highest completion percentage over expected of his career.
Describe the game in two words: Tension reliever. The pressure in Cleveland would have reached an almost unmanageable level had the Browns flopped against Cincinnati to open 0-2. Instead, this impressive performance, especially offensively, should help the Browns finally play more freely and with more confidence moving forward as they seek to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.