There is a reason, if you live in Ohio, to thank the heavens that Cleveland GM John Dorsey fell in love with Baker Mayfield last fall. There is also a reason to be thankful that Freddie Kitchens was handed the reins of the Browns offense seven weeks ago today.
On Oct. 29, Gregg Williams took over as coach for the fired Hue Jackson, and Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator for the fired Todd Haley. The Browns are 4-2 since. Four wins. Four Mayfield fist-pumping, howling-at-the-moon wins. Last six weeks for Cleveland: four wins. Previous 164 weeks on the calendar for Cleveland: four wins.
Mayfield/Kitchens. Rarely does an NFL shotgun marriage work, never mind flourish. “Why has it worked so well?” I asked Kitchens on Friday.
“Because Baker is starved for knowledge,” Kitchens said in his Alabama twang, the accent Mayfield imitates almost daily. “He loves learning. I’ve told him, ‘Your work in progress is never gonna be complete, ever. There’s always gonna be things you can work on, new things.’ Why limit what he can become? He loves that. You see that every week, how much he loves it.”
We saw it in real time Saturday night in Denver, with the game clock and play clock running, 12 minutes left in the game, Cleveland down 13-10, first-and-goal at the Denver 2-yard line.
The Browns didn’t huddle at first, preferring to keep the Broncos in their sub defense with two defensive linemen and five defensive backs; Cleveland had run the ball well against that Denver defense, so Mayfield didn’t want them to be able to substitute. This was going to be a run by Duke Johnson, with a tight end next to the right tackle. But with 26 seconds left on the play clock, Kitchens called for him to huddle to call the play, to ensure everyone was on the same page. Quick; don’t let Denver have time to substitute, he told Mayfield. The QB hustled his 10 mates in and out of a quick huddle, looking at the Denver defense while he called the play. The Broncos had a sub—from TV, it looked like corner Bradley Roby—ready to come in, but … “Get to the line!” Kitchens yelled into Mayfield’s helmet before the sideline-to-quarterback communication shut off at 15 seconds. No defensive changes.
At the line, Mayfield got a hint the Broncos could be playing man coverage with four safeties and one corner (due to injury and an ejection). With 10, nine, eight seconds left on the play clock, Mayfield changed the play to a pass, turned around, and moved Johnson from his right to his left—physically moved him, with his hand on Johnson’s shoulder. Denver linebacker Todd Davis inched across the formation, trying not to give away what Mayfield saw: man coverage. To Mayfield’s left was a pure safety, Justin Simmons, with two games of some experience playing slot corner in his three-year career. Not outside corner, where the fleet fly. Simmons has average speed, and his man, Antonio Callaway, is a 4.4 wideout. Big edge, Browns. Mayfield knew.
Play clock at :02. Snap. Calloway got inside Simmons, easily, and broke inside on a quick slant to the middle of the field. No safety help. Easy. Pitch-and-catch, Mayfield and Callaway. Winning touchdown. Cleveland 17, Denver 16.
“What happened on that play was far beyond elementary thinking,” backup Browns quarterback Drew Stanton told me.
This single play represented huge next-level growth for Mayfield, and seven weeks of chemistry between Kitchens and Mayfield. Now, at the line, Mayfield has been given the freedom to change plays even very late on the play clock. That’s because he’s a sponge, and has worked to learn all pre-snap contingencies, and Kitchens trusts his judgment.
In about 28 seconds, Mayfield went from run to huddle to run to moving the back physically to spying indicators of man coverage to changing the play to a pass to the winning touchdown pass to celebrating like a uniformed Tarzan, pounding his chest.
You know what I saw in that moment of intense celebration, almost over-the-top celebration, by Mayfield? Not I just put a dagger in the Broncos on the road with a huge play. To me, it was more Mayfield thinking, I am learning some serious s— right now, and I am executing it at the highest level of my profession. And I just got here.
The Browns are factors in December. Baker is starved for knowledge.
Those two things are related.