CLEVELAND — Baker Mayfield’s time arrived Thursday night, and there’s no going back.
Not after the No. 1 overall pick from Oklahoma electrified the crowd Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium in a relief appearance and recorded the Browns’ first victory since Dec. 24, 2016. Mayfield rallied the Browns from a 14-point, second-quarter deficit for a 21-17 victory over the New York Jets, automatically opening the Bud Light Victory fridges for a crowd that couldn’t wait to guzzle.
The Browns had gone winless for 634 days before the breakthrough.
General Manager John Dorsey may have thought the cautious route was prudent. Yes, Tim Couch and Colt McCoy bore scars when they left Cleveland.
There are perils of rushing a Browns rookie quarterback into the starting role too soon.
Couch, the best the Browns have installed under center since 1999, might have had a 10-year career instead of five had he not been subjected to 117 sacks in his first three seasons, 56 as a rookie.
In the first half, the Browns' offensive line seemed so overwhelmed that fans on Twitter were calling for the head of position coach Bob Wylie as much as they were for the firing of coach Hue Jackson.
Two weeks ago, it seemed foolhardy to play Mayfield behind this line, with undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison the surprising choice to start at left tackle for the opener. The Browns’ failure to find a replacement for 10-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas after his retirement in March was the deadliest offseason sin of a franchise in a constant state of atonement.
But Mayfield made his Browns debut with 1:42 remaining in the second quarter when starter Tyrod Taylor left the game to be evaluated for a concussion. Mayfield completed his first two passes, to wide receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end David Njoku, and led the Browns on a six-play, 39-yard, field-goal drive that cut the halftime deficit to 14-3.
During the break Taylor’s concussion was confirmed, leaving the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner in charge, and he came through.
No matter how quickly Taylor recovers, this is now Mayfield’s team. There is no better time to make Mayfield the starter.
The Browns have 10 days before they play again, a Sept. 30 game at Oakland. After that, the schedule becomes more daunting, with home games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Chargers and road games at Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.
The Browns’ bye is not until Nov. 18. That’s too long to wait to go back to Mayfield unless the Browns are infatuated with mediocrity.
In the first three games, Taylor made what looked like rookie mistakes, even though he’s an eight-year veteran. He held the ball longer than this line would allow. He was ineffective throwing downfield, save for his miraculous 47-yard touchdown pass to rookie Antonio Callaway Sunday in New Orleans.
Against the Jets, Taylor went 4-for-14 for 19 yards with three sacks and a passer rating of 39.6. He started off 1-of-7 for 2 yards. In the first quarter, the Browns had minus-5 yards passing. Early in the second quarter, he underthrew an open Callaway and tossed a ball high to Landry. Later Taylor was called for intentional grounding.
These are the same kind of mistakes Mayfield could be making, and growing from.
The plan to go with Taylor, 29, over Mayfield, 23, was to maximize the Browns’ win total. Save for the throw to Callaway against the Saints, Taylor has done nothing to show he’s capable of lifting the Browns out of the depths of despair. For the season, Taylor has passed for 462 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions, 13 sacks and a 63.7 rating, while rushing 16 times for 125 yards.
Mayfield, meanwhile, with little practice time since training camp, carried what had been a mutinous home crowd to a euphoric celebration. The line held its blocks a tick longer. Njoku didn’t drop passes. The Browns got Duke Johnson involved.
The ball seemed to sizzle through the air, especially on Mayfield’s 29-yard strike to Landry late in the third quarter that set up Carlos Hyde’s 1-yard TD run. After a penalty erased the first two-point conversion try, Landry took a pitch from Johnson and threw to Mayfield to tie the game with 42 seconds left in the third quarter. It was virtually all Browns the rest of the way.
Believeland rejoiced as the Browns’ plan for Mayfield to sit as a rookie was blown to smithereens. Bud Light never tasted so good.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.