Ghostbuster Baker Mayfield exorcising playoff demons, giving Browns confidence

BEREA, Ohio -- While on the road recruiting seven years ago, Bob Stoops kept hearing the same strange rumor -- that Baker Mayfield, then a freshman at Texas Tech, was transferring to Oklahoma.

"I'm like, well, he hadn't called me, I hadn't heard from him," Stoops recalled. "And then I asked my coaches, any of you guys heard from Baker Mayfield? I hear he's coming to OU. And no one had heard. I said, 'Well, we'll see when we get back from break if he's here.'"

Sure enough, Mayfield showed up to Norman from Lubbock, unannounced and uninvited. He then proceeded to do what he has always done -- first, he won over his teammates, then he led them to wins on the field.

"He has such a way about him," said Stoops, who was selected into the College Football Hall of Fame this week. "He's always succeeded, he's always won -- and there's a lot to do with having that feeling that's deep inside of you, 'that I win.' He's been a winner his whole life. … and that's infectious, everybody feeds off of it, everybody picks up on it, and you can't fake that stuff.

"People pick up on it and they feel it and they start to believe it."

Fresh off the team's first playoff victory in 26 years, Mayfield has the star-crossed Cleveland Browns believing now, as well.

Playing without coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and star cornerback Denzel Ward -- all of whom stayed home after testing positive for COVID-19 -- the Browns stunned the Steelers this past Sunday behind Mayfield's scintillating postseason debut.

The 2018 No. 1 pick passed for 263 yards and three touchdowns, including a scoring screen to Nick Chubb in the fourth quarter that proved to be the dagger in a 48-37 win.

Because of COVID-19 protocols, the Browns had practiced only once all week leading in, not including a walk-through the day before the game. Yet, despite such unprecedented turmoil, Cleveland came out swinging, scoring 28 unanswered points in the first quarter alone, as the Browns snapped a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh in their first playoff appearance since 2002.

Next up is Sunday's trip to top-seeded Kansas City (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS), where Cleveland will take on the defending Super Bowl champs for a chance to advance to its first AFC Championship Game since 1989.

"We're here for a reason," Mayfield says defiantly. "I wasn't here for the things that have happened in the past, some of which I was too young to even remember.

"There's a new standard, and we are going to try and keep it that way."

Before Mayfield arrived, Cleveland's standard couldn't have been any lower. The Browns were coming off the second 0-16 season in NFL history, one year after going 1-15. But at the NFL combine, Mayfield famously declared that "if anybody's gonna turn that franchise around, it would be me." He said the Browns would be getting a winner and he could guide them in the right direction. "They just need that one guy at quarterback," he said then, "to make that difference."

Three seasons later, Mayfield is delivering on that ambitious vow. And the Browns are beginning to believe in the new standard.

"He's a winner, that's his mindset," Chubb said. "It's big. … and definitely something that's been contagious."

Hank Carter walked into the Lake Travis High School indoor practice field 11 years ago to evaluate the incoming freshman class. It didn't take long for the smallest on the field to stick out.

"He was like this little-bitty field general, not only dominating the conversation, and maybe even some of the mild trash talk, but also playing at a really high level in there," said Carter, who soon would be promoted to head coach of the Austin, Texas, powerhouse program. "I'm from the country, so I compare it to a sheepdog, the way a sheepdog will just run a whole herd of massive bulls or cows, just because his bark is so ferocious. That's what Baker always reminded me of."

Though 5-foot-3 back then, Mayfield already had the gift of galvanizing those around him.

"That's his secret sauce, and why guys play so hard with him and believe in him," Carter said. "And it's been the same way everywhere he's been. … Baker has always been able to build strong bonds and relationships with teammates, whether they're offensive players, defensive players, and he's going to have their back no matter what."

To this day, Mayfield remains Carter's only quarterback to get flagged for a personal foul in summertime 7-on-7. And though it happened more than once, Carter noted that those penalties always came from Mayfield defending a teammate.

"We were playing a team that wanted to kick our butt and let us know about it," Carter recalled. "They caught a fade and they went up and 'Mossed' our cornerback, and really let him know about it. So, the very next play, Baker went right after that kid, who was also playing defense, and Baker called a fade right on him and threw a touchdown. Of course, Baker ran down there and let him know about it in defense of his teammate. He's got a little bit of that Jordan memory, right?

"He's extremely loyal to his teammates and his coaches and his friends. People that have invested in him, he's invested in them, too, and he tries to be their defender. To me, it's an admirable trait, because he's having his brother's back, which you talk about in sports so much, right? Play for one another and be there for one another, and he walks the walk and talks the talk as well on that deal."

Carter still references Mayfield's leadership qualities often when addressing his teams. But the quality Carter cites most about the brash gunslinger might seem surprising.

"I don't think people use this word in referencing Baker very much because they don't know him, but it's his humility," Carter said. "And what I mean by that is, he wasn't afraid to go walk-on, he wasn't afraid to be the scout-team quarterback. He's not a diva. He'll get in there and get his hands dirty. He's an everyman, and sometimes the quarterbacks aren't one of the guys that way."

In addition to being a two-time walk-on in college, Mayfield didn't make varsity as a high school sophomore. He didn't start to begin his junior season, either. But Mayfield could always rally those around him. And one of Carter's favorites stories to tell came off the field, the morning after Mayfield had quarterbacked the Cavaliers to a playoff victory.

"Our band was going to a state competition, but the football guys didn't want to go over there and give the band a send-off. They thought they were too cool for that," Carter said. "But Baker got the entire team over there, and was at the front doing chants and yells to encourage those kids as they were getting on the bus, which meant a lot to them.

"That was him being humble. He'll put himself out there and he'll go to war with you. And he's got a very infectious personality in that way."

That carried over back onto the field, with Mayfield soon leading Lake Travis to the 2011 state title.

In 2013, Mayfield became the first true freshman walk-on to start for a Power 5 program. Sonny Cumbie, then Texas Tech's co-offensive coordinator, remembers being blown away by Mayfield's self-confidence during fall camp despite his having showed up without a scholarship.

"He had that from the moment that he got here," said Cumbie, who recently returned to Tech as its offensive coordinator. "I mean, the moment he came in, the other players, they just gravitated towards that."

Mayfield summarily quarterbacked the Red Raiders to a 5-0 start before injuring his knee. When then-head coach Kliff Kingsbury didn't hand him back the starting job later in the season, Mayfield opted to transfer -- though not before hosting quarterback Patrick Mahomes on his official visit to Lubbock.

About the same time, the Sooners had just defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl behind redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who unleashed arguably the best quarterbacking performance in OU history. Mayfield still transferred to OU, the team he grew up cheering.

"Didn't faze him a bit," Stoops said. "That describes the guy's confidence right there. All you need to know.

"He comes walking up to me at our first team meeting, coming back for the second semester. We're all getting ready to eat. He comes up, says 'Coach, I'm Baker Mayfield.' And I looked at him, 'You sure as hell are, aren't you?' And I said, 'Look, I'm damn glad you're here. You will have every opportunity that every other guy has on this team to be the starting quarterback.' And shoot, just watching him in a week or two of workouts, we're like, 'We got to put this guy on scholarship -- we're not going out and recruiting anybody who can do what this guy can do.'"

As a transfer, Mayfield still had to redshirt that 2014 season. But starting with his competitiveness running scout-team quarterback, Mayfield gradually began to win over his new teammates.

"I remember Baker showing up and we're playing 7-on-7, and I was talking a bunch of crap to him and he was talking crap back. Then I remember he threw a ball at my head and we almost fought. After that day, I knew I liked him," said Los Angeles Rams linebacker Obo Okoronkwo, then a freshman at Oklahoma, whom Mayfield texted this week just to tell him he was rooting for him in the NFC playoffs. "If you've ever been his teammate, if you've ever been in the locker room with him, you love the guy to death."

While Mayfield continued to turn heads, the Sooners struggled that season, which ended with a humiliating 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Yet the next spring, Mayfield already was taking over the team, which incoming offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley recognized immediately.

"He'll put himself out there and he'll go to war with you. And he's got a very infectious personality in that way." Hank Carter, Baker Mayfield's high school coach

"You could tell the competitiveness, the swagger, I mean, he already had a pretty remarkable rapport with the team, considering he'd never played a down there when I got there," Riley told ESPN.com in an interview this season. "I thought all that was really impressive. For him to be able to do all that in such a short time -- win the team over, win the starting job -- was pretty striking."

That year, Mayfield had the Sooners in their first College Football Playoff. And he would lead them back there again in 2017 on the way to becoming the first former walk-on to win a Heisman Trophy.

"One of the more important things when it comes to being a quarterback is … elevating the guys around you. I think self-confidence does that," Mayfield said this week. "I don't have all the answers.

"But that's how I have done it -- and I'm going to continue to try to do it that way."

Having grown up in Youngstown, Ohio, Stoops knows well the plight of the Browns and their fans.

"My dad was a huge [fan]," Stoops said. "Back in the day, I'd see him throw things at the TV at the Browns."

Stoops, however, believed that when Cleveland drafted Mayfield in 2018, change might be on the way.

"I loved it," Stoops said. "If he's on your team, that motivates you and makes you want to play harder, makes you want to work for him. He's just a guy that, to go with his talent, has an infectious personality. That's incredibly positive when it's on your team."

Promise surfaced immediately during Mayfield's first season, when he broke the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. Success, however, through four different head coaches, took a little longer. Even after a 6-10 finish last season, the Browns didn't give up on Mayfield. And he didn't give up on himself.

"Baker has been that way probably since he was born," veteran Browns center JC Tretter said. "That's his personality, that's who he is, that's who he is every day. As the leader of your team, that's a really great quality to have because everybody begins to replicate that personality.

"The confidence and the swagger, it follows him and guys mimic that, and that's why Baker is such a leader for us."

It was fitting, then, that Mayfield delivered the play that finally ended the NFL's longest playoff drought.

On third-and-1 with a minute left in the regular-season finale against the Steelers, Stefanski dialed up a Mayfield quarterback sweep. Following lead blockers, Mayfield dove forward for the game-clinching first down along the sideline. He immediately popped up and pumped his entire arm before spinning the ball into the ground.

"One of the best things about Baker is he's so very much himself in all moments," Stefanski said. "He's an authentic person. That rubs off on his team, and the guys respond to it."

On the way to Cleveland's best season since before Mayfield was born. Busting curses and snapping streaks along the way.

"Baker is the leader of our football team, and we're rallying behind him," Ward said. "We believe in him.

"And he believes in us."