by Scott Kacsmar
Start spreading the news. Cleveland ended the fourth-longest winless streak (19 games) in NFL history by coming back to beat the Jets, 21-17, on Thursday night.
Things certainly did not start well with a 14-0 deficit for the Browns, a team that for over a decade has almost never been able to come back after falling behind big in a game. From 2008 through 2017, the Browns were 1-72 when trailing by at least 14 points in a game. After three weeks of the 2018 season, that record has improved to 2-72-1. The 2018 Browns might even be 3-0 had they been able to execute a few field goals and extra points against the Steelers and Saints the last two weeks.
But this night would not have gone well if a little luck did not intervene. Despite head coach Hue Jackson profusely claiming that No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield would serve as the backup for his rookie season, Mayfield made his pro debut in Week 3. It sure helped that starter Tyrod Taylor left the game with a concussion, but with the way Cleveland's offense was struggling, Mayfield's entry into the game may have been inevitable.
Mayfield's performance and the way it ignited a team turnaround was nothing short of remarkable. In a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters, we'll look at some points of interest from the first Cleveland win since December 24, 2016.
Setting the Stage
For the first 28 minutes this really did look like a lost cause for the Browns on a night most people felt they could win a game. In fact, it was the first time since Week 12 of the 2015 season that Cleveland (-3) was favored by more than 2 points. The Browns started with six punts and some horrendous play-calling from offensive coordinator Todd Haley. We're talking about a bubble screen on third-and-14 with the ball just outside of field goal range, and a quarterback draw (inside the Cleveland 40) that still allowed a free rusher after Taylor. Even when Taylor had time to throw and an open receiver, he missed a few completions he has to make to justify his starting position.
Tyrod Taylor is the first QB to throw for under 20 yards on at least 14 attempts in a first half since Joe Flacco did so against the Jaguars in 2011.
Baker Mayfield threw for 47 yards on 4 attempts.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 21, 2018
It's hard to say any quarterback who is 4-of-14 for 19 yards with 3 sacks is pulling his weight, but the Browns as a whole looked lifeless on those six drives with Taylor. Mayfield entered the game with 1:42 left in the second quarter and immediately hit two completions for 31 yards. He was fortunate his teammates recovered a fumble on his third play, but he finished the drive with points as new kicker Greg Joseph made a 45-yard field goal to make it 14-3 at halftime.
Mayfield threw for 47 yards on his first drive, which was more yardage than Taylor (19) and Sam Darnold (45) had in the whole first half.
Baker's First Game-Winning Drive
Mayfield is used to playing in a shotgun-heavy, up-tempo offense from his college days. It wasn't too surprising to see him have early success in a two-minute offense situation, but how would he fare running a more conventional offense called by Haley on a short week where he didn't get first-team reps? As the second half showed: pretty damn good.
Unlike when Taylor was in the game, Mayfield displayed rhythmic, on-time passing while also extending the play a few times to make good throws. His 29-yard completion to Jarvis Landry was a great catch in the third quarter and Cleveland's longest play of the night. Miami quarterbacks were 2-of-9 on passes thrown at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to Landry last season. In three games with Cleveland this year, quarterbacks are 3-of-5 on such deep throws to Landry. That last one set up Carlos Hyde for a 1-yard touchdown run, which was then answered by Cleveland's version of the Philly Special for a two-point conversion to tie the game. Mayfield caught the pass from Landry to tie the game at 14.
— Arif Hasan (@ArifHasanNFL) September 21, 2018
The Jets did not show much offensively on the night, especially in the passing game. Some of Darnold's best completions were screen passes on third down to Quincy Enunwa that caught the aggressive Browns out of position a few times. One of those conversions led to a 28-yard field goal that put the Jets back on top 17-14 with 8:56 to play.
Mayfield started his first ever game-winning drive opportunity with a perfect deep pass that rookie Antonio Callaway was unable to secure down the left sideline. Landry later dropped an easy completion on the drive, so Mayfield actually had three drops on his way to a night of 17-of-23 for 201 passing yards. Landry also had an illegal block penalty that negated a touchdown and a shovel pass for no gain on the drive, but those actually ended up helping the Browns run more clock. Instead of scoring a touchdown with 4:47 left, the need to run five more plays ended up leaving the Jets with just 2:04 to answer, trailing 21-17.
The Darnold Denouement
With the Cleveland faithful sensing a victory, Darnold had a chance to lead a soul-crushing 75-yard drive for a winning touchdown that would always make us remember the first meeting between the top two quarterbacks taken in the 2018 draft. But after seeing the struggles Darnold had in getting any chunk plays for 58 minutes, I felt pretty confident that this one was headed for disappointment.
Darnold INT seems like a fitting ending.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 21, 2018
He almost started the drive with an interception on a deflection from a poorly thrown screen pass. When the Jets quickly faced fourth-and-10 with 1:48 left, FOX's Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were surprised the Jets weren't punting the ball. In 2018, it seems crazy that we're still hearing this. Had the Jets been down 24-17, then I could see an argument for punting from the 25 with three timeouts left rather than put the game on Darnold to convert a fourth-and-10. However, it was 21-17 and the Jets needed a touchdown no matter what. They absolutely should not have punted, and Darnold made the call look good by converting with a fine throw. Unfortunately, he may have rushed the next play to avoid a review and made a pretty brutal rookie mistake (under pressure) by throwing right into coverage for an interception. Joe Schobert made the pick, but T.J. Carrie was right there as well.
JOE SCHOBERT WITH THE TAKEAWAY‼️ pic.twitter.com/tDO6d7R4Aa
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 21, 2018
The game wasn't over since the Jets still had all three timeouts with 1:21 left. I did not mind Cleveland staying conservative with three runs to make the Jets burn those timeouts, but may have considered going for it on fourth-and-2 at the 35 to end the game with a sure win. Darnold was going to be up against a long field either way, but for as much as things go wrong for Cleveland, it would have been nice to end the game on their own terms offensively. At least the punt was good, pinning Darnold at his own 6 with 56 seconds left.
Darnold finally hit a 25-yard gain out of desperation, but he also took a sack by Myles Garrett while trying to throw the ball away. He didn't get rid of the ball in time and the Jets were really up against it with 15 seconds left. Another desperation throw from Darnold was intercepted by Terrance Mitchell to finally seal the long-awaited Cleveland victory. Mayfield finished with a 95.4 QBR, the highest game by a Cleveland quarterback with at least 20 passes since Derek Anderson in 2007 according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Mayfield technically doesn't get the win in the NFL record books since Taylor started the game, but it's his first fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive. He's the first quarterback to make a 14-point comeback in his NFL debut since Harvard alumnus Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2005. That's a good flashback, but I think this one could be more like when Brett Favre replaced an injured Don Majkowski for the 1992 Packers and led a 14-point comeback win against the Bengals in his first memorable game.
Favre started the following week and the rest was history. Cleveland fans hope this can be the first chapter of a new era, but Jackson says he has to watch the tape before he makes that type of decision.
Cut the Crap: Draft Him, Start Him
Obviously the first question after last night's game is would the Browns be 3-0 had Mayfield started the season? We can't say for sure how those games would have played out, but the defense certainly stopped the Steelers and Saints enough to make those contests winnable despite ineffective quarterback play.
The bigger question is why would the Browns purposely delay Mayfield's debut that may not have even happened last night if Taylor didn't have a concussion? If a team is so confident to make a player the first overall pick, how do they not get him on the field as soon as possible? This same team started second-round quarterback DeShone Kizer last year in Week 1 against a Pittsburgh team coming off an AFC Championship Game loss. That actually ended up being one of Kizer's best games in a putrid rookie year that led to the team drafting Mayfield.
Earlier this week after Cleveland's second game of the season, Hue Jackson said that "It's time" in regards to fourth-round rookie receiver Antonio Callaway replacing Josh Gordon, who the Browns just traded to New England. Why is it fine to go with a fourth-round pick in a big role, but continue to keep the No. 1 pick in the draft on the bench? How would putting Mayfield out there 11 days ago ruin his future?
No position gets coddled like quarterback despite the fact that this era has featured the most successful stretch of rookie quarterback play in NFL history. Ever since Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in 2008, 21 rookie quarterbacks have started in Week 1. From the 1970 merger through 2007, 21 true rookie quarterbacks started in Week 1. That's the same amount, but in 38 seasons compared to 11 years. This season, only Sam Darnold started in Week 1 after a first round that featured five quarterbacks.
Jackson is just the latest coach to prove he doesn't really know what his team is doing with the most important position. Let's look at some recent examples of coaches saying one thing and doing the opposite with their first-round quarterback.
Sean McDermott and Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Remember when those flashy preseason stats by Nathan Peterman caught Sean McDermott's eye?
“Nate has earned the right,” coach Sean McDermott said. “I thought his total body of work, all the way back from the spring through the summer and fall camp to this point, he has certainly earned the right.”
Six days later: Peterman was benched at halftime in the season opener for Josh Allen, who made his first start in Week 2.
Bill O'Brien and Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
It seems preposterous now to think that Tom Savage beat out Deshaun Watson for the 2017 Texans, but that happened.
"Deshaun is a very, very good young player who has a bright future in this league," O'Brien said. "Let's put the cards on the table, but Tom has been here for four years. The way we want to play, the style relative to getting guys lined up, protection points, route reads, putting guys in the right spots, Tom's ahead of Deshaun."
Nineteen days later: Savage was benched at halftime in the season opener for Watson, who made his first start in Week 2. The Texans averaged 21 fewer points per game without Watson last season.
John Fox/GM Ryan Pace and Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears
When the Bears traded up to No. 2 to take Mitchell Trubisky in 2017, the plan was that he would be a red-shirt rookie after the team signed Mike Glennon to a deal that would pay him $18.5 million for the first season. General manager Ryan Pace reportedly overruled former head coach John Fox on starting Trubisky sooner because of the Glennon contract he thought would work out.
"(Glennon is) a very smart, intelligent player," Pace said. "There's a lot that went into that evaluation. He has a lot of experience that we're leaning on. He was voted a captain for a reason by that locker room. We're ready to watch it unfold."
One month later: They watched it unfold for four miserable weeks before Trubisky took over for good in Week 5.
Gus Bradley and Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
"We do feel good about where Blake's at, but we feel like this time that he has under Chad, a year to develop, will be really good for him in the end result. So our plan is to stay really strong with this."
September: With the Jaguars down 30-0 and on their way to 0-3, Bortles replaced Henne and made his first start in Week 4.
Notable Quarterbacks' First Start
Jackson will hopefully stop being coy and make Mayfield the Week 4 starter, his first official NFL start. How does that stack up historically? Brett Favre had to wait until his 20th regular-season game to make his first start, the longest wait for any of the 26 modern-era quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. No, I'm not putting Mayfield in Canton after one night, but greatness is the goal, is it not?
The next-longest wait for a future Hall of Famer will eventually belong to Aaron Rodgers (49), who of course had to sit behind Favre in Green Bay for three full seasons. Those really are some of the outliers when you look at how quickly quarterbacks made their first start from the groups listed below that went on to win a Super Bowl, win an Associated Press Most Valuable Player Award, or make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We also added 33 more notable quarterbacks, including many 2018 starters.
|Super Bowl Winning QBs||AP MVP QBs (Since 1966)||Modern Era HOF QBs||33 Other Notable QBs|
|Player||First Start||Player||First Start||Player||First Start||Player||First Start|
|Doug Williams||1||Bert Jones||1||Jim Kelly||1||Andrew Luck||1|
|Jim Plunkett||1||Cam Newton||1||John Elway||1||Andy Dalton||1|
|Joe Flacco||1||John Elway||1||Otto Graham||1||Carson Wentz||1|
|John Elway||1||Matt Ryan||1||Roger Staubach||1||Dak Prescott||1|
|Peyton Manning||1||Peyton Manning||1||Terry Bradshaw||1||Derek Carr||1|
|Roger Staubach||1||Terry Bradshaw||1||Troy Aikman||1||Drew Bledsoe||1|
|Russell Wilson||1||Fran Tarkenton||2||Warren Moon||1||Jameis Winston||1|
|Terry Bradshaw||1||Joe Namath||3||Bob Griese||2||Marcus Mariota||1|
|Troy Aikman||1||Ken Anderson||4||Fran Tarkenton||2||Matthew Stafford||1|
|Bob Griese||2||Earl Morrall||5||Y.A. Tittle||2||Ryan Tannehill||1|
|Ben Roethlisberger||3||Johnny Unitas||5||Joe Namath||3||Sam Bradford||1|
|Jim McMahon||3||Boomer Esiason||6||Sonny Jurgensen||3||Deshaun Watson||2|
|Joe Namath||3||Dan Marino||6||Dan Fouts||5||Randall Cunningham||2|
|Johnny Unitas||5||Bart Starr||8||Johnny Unitas||5||John Hadl||3|
|Phil Simms||6||Brian Sipe||8||Dan Marino||6||Jeff Garcia||4|
|Player||First Start||Player||First Start||Player||First Start||Player||First Start|
|Trent Dilfer||7||Roman Gabriel||11||Bob Waterfield||N/A (1-7)||Alex Smith||5|
|Bart Starr||8||John Brodie||12||Bart Starr||8||Bernie Kosar||6|
|Len Dawson||9||Steve Young||12||Len Dawson||9||Don Meredith||7|
|Eli Manning||10||Daryle Lamonica||13||Bobby Layne||N/A (<12)||Michael Vick||8|
|Nick Foles||10||Joe Montana||14||George Blanda||N/A (<12)||Donovan McNabb||10|
|Steve Young||12||Steve McNair||15||Steve Young||12||Jared Goff||10|
|Joe Montana||14||Kurt Warner||17||Norm Van Brocklin||13||Vinny Testaverde||12|
|Drew Brees||17||Ken Stabler||19||Joe Montana||14||Frank Ryan||14|
|Kurt Warner||17||Tom Brady||19||Kurt Warner||17||Kirk Cousins||14|
|Ken Stabler||19||Brett Favre||20||Ken Stabler||19||Carson Palmer||17|
|Mark Rypien||19||Joe Theismann||33||Brett Favre||20||Daunte Culpepper||17|
|Tom Brady||19||Aaron Rodgers||49||Average (26 QB)||~6.9||Ron Jaworski||28|
|Brett Favre||20||Rich Gannon||51||Dave Krieg||30|
|Joe Theismann||33||Average (28 QB)||12.1||Jimmy Garoppolo||33|
|Aaron Rodgers||49||Matt Hasselbeck||33|
|Brad Johnson||66||Philip Rivers||33|
|Jeff Hostetler||76||Mark Brunell||35|
|Average (32 QB)||13.6||Tony Romo||55|
Note: not all of these quarterbacks held onto the job after their first start. For example, Roger Staubach started his first game in 1969, but notoriously had to battle Craig Morton for a few years to win the job for head coach Tom Landry. In the case of some pre-1950 quarterbacks, start data is not reliable so estimates were used. For any quarterback active in 1987, 15 games was used even though he likely would have sat out the three replacement games during the strike that year.
For the most part, once that seal is broken and the quarterback is taken out of the plastic wrap, there is no turning back. You either play with him or discard him, and much like a little kid with his toys, it doesn't take that long to figure out if you have a good one you like or not.