By Ed Meyer
I had no problem with Baker Mayfield’s stare down of ex-Browns coach Hue Jackson in the final seconds of Sunday’s 26-18 win over the Bengals.
In fact, I liked it.
It wasn’t taunting. In my view, it was Mayfield conveying the message to Jackson, who had the rookie wobbling back to his corner like an injured fighter in the Oct. 28 blowout in Pittsburgh: “Take that.”
There was no finger-pointing or other digital gestures, no spewing of profanities that I could see, and no taunting penalty called by the league’s flag-crazed officials.
Mayfield wasn’t dressed for the day in top hat, satin gloves and tails to bow at the waist before meeting The Queen. He was there leading what we’re now seeing as the complete transformation of a football team in a bitter rivalry that goes back to the Paul Brown era.
The NFL analysts who blasted Mayfield for The Stare– retired Pro Bowl wide receiver Sterling Sharpe and radio gabber Colin Cowherd of “The Herd” on Fox Sports leading the way – must not have paid close attention to what happened in the game.
With 2:56 to play, the Bengals blocked a punt deep in Browns territory and converted it into a touchdown and a 2-point conversion, making it an 8-point game with plenty of time left for a comeback.
Mayfield responded the way winners do, immediately, by hitting his big tight end, 6-foot-4 David Njoku, over the middle on a pass play that went 66 yards to the Cincinnati 3.
The Browns moved to 5-2 since Jackson’s ouster.
Take that – strike one.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, with about 9 minutes left, Mayfield scrambled toward the sideline as a pass play broke down, and was hit late and out of bounds by 6-foot-6, 280-pound defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
That should have been a penalty. Dunlap was already well past the wide, white sideline zone when he hit Mayfield.
Unfazed, Mayfield sprang up, got in Dunlap’s face in the ensuing ruckus, and player after player came rushing to the rookie’s defense.
It is another good sign that Mayfield’s leadership is respected on a team that, as the season was unfolding under Jackson, was devoid of leadership.
Take that – strike two.
And whatever happened behind closed doors two months ago in the aftermath of the 33-18 loss to the Steelers, I’ve strongly felt, has never been fully explained.
I do know this. As the great Chargers quarterback, CBS-TV analyst Dan Fouts pointed out, Mayfield was under relentless pressure from the Steelers’ front seven, to the point that Fouts said it had to give the rookie a good idea of what it was like facing the Steel Curtain.
On the play that changed the entire season, Mayfield got taken down to his knees by two Steelers pass rushers – one hitting him from behind, the other hitting him from the front.
I winced when I saw it.
If you don’t think that had a sea-change effect on the Browns’ brain trust, I don’t know what else would. Mayfield looked like a staggered boxer as he got back up and headed toward what was, fortunately, his own sideline.
That was The Future almost getting taken out at the halfway point of the season.
Jackson and his 3-36-1 fiasco of a record were ousted the next day.
And the Browns have been a totally different team, since that day, under the results-producing direction of interim coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, who now are both being mentioned prominently as strong candidates to coach the team next year and beyond.
The win against the Bengals took place at sold-out FirstEnergy Stadium, the first sellout for a team that had been playing in front of vast expanses of vacant orange seats in December for years.
It gave the Browns:
- A third consecutive victory and fifth in the last six games for a shot at a winning record – 8-7-1 – by beating the Ravens in Baltimore on Sunday.
- A winning record assured in the AFC North, now at 3-1-1, for the first time since the division was created in 2002.
- A winning record at home, 5-2-1, their best at the lakeside stadium since 2007.
- A series sweep of the Bengals for the first time in 16 years.
Maybe the best message was delivered on Wednesday morning when Mayfield, who was 27-of-37 for 284 yards and three touchdowns against the Bengals, was chosen by the NFL as the AFC Offensive Player of the Week – not just among rookies, but the entire league.
Would any of this have been possible if Hue Jackson was still mishandling things?
Seeing him standing there on the Bengals’ sideline in the moments leading up to The Stare, who would blameMayfield for thinking: Take that – strike three.