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Eagles’ Wentz says stress fracture is still healing



PHILADELPHIA — Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is not yet fully recovered from the stress fracture in his back that cut short his 2018 season.

“It’s still getting there. It’s still getting there,” Wentz said Monday at the start of the team’s offseason training program, when asked if the bone is fully healed. “Some of this stuff just takes time, but that’s not really the main concern. It’s just kind of how I feel, and I feel pretty good with where I’m at.”

Wentz first appeared on the team’s injury report in October. The stress fracture was discovered in December through a scan. At the time, coach Doug Pederson said it was an injury that could take about three months to heal. It’s been four months since those comments.

Wentz, though, said he has been cleared for some football activity and hasn’t moved off his goal of taking part in OTAs when they begin in May.

“That’s the goal, but there really is no timetable, no rush, but I feel good with the progression I’ve been on,” he said. “Right now we’re kind of taking it week by week. I’m throwing some, I’m running some, and just kind of taking it week by week, and I feel good.”

Wentz missed the final three games of the 2018 season once the fracture was discovered. Coming off a torn ACL and LCL that sidelined him for the first two weeks, he completed 70 percent of his throws with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 11 games.

“Obviously a knee injury rehab is aggressive and it’s not fun for anybody. A back injury is not fun either but it’s a different thing,” Wentz said. “I definitely feel better where I’m at [compared with last offseason] both physically and mentally, and I’m really excited. Feels like the first day of school today a little bit. It’s exciting.”

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Broncos hope their poor QB play ends with Flacco



ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Denver Broncos became the first full team in the league to report for training camp Wednesday, president of football operations/general manager John Elway made it clear just how much he hopes Joe Flacco can break the team’s disappointing run at quarterback.

The Broncos have used four different starting quarterbacks over the last two seasons — Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Case Keenum — and have finished with back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses for the first time since the 1966 and 1967 seasons. And none of those four quarterbacks are on the current roster as the Broncos haven’t finished above 19th in the league passing yardage in any of the last three seasons.

Their last top 10 finish, in fact, was in 2014, which was the last season Peyton Manning started more than nine games — he missed seven starts in 2015 with a foot injury when the Broncos were 14th in passing yardage.

“It’s a hard position to fill,” Elway said Wednesday as Broncos players reported to training camp. “We tried to shake all these trees around here the last four years and the quarterbacks didn’t fall out. So, it’s difficult. We’ve taken a lot of shots, we’ve tried a lot of different situations … Hopefully with Joe we’ve got it solidified with Drew working under him.”

Enter Flacco, who the Broncos acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in a pre-draft trade, a 34-year-old who has made it clear he believes he has plenty of football left in him.

Elway and coach Vic Fangio reaffirmed the Broncos have no question about the starting quarterback — it’s Flacco — and as the Broncos roll into their first on-field practice of training camp Thursday, Flacco carries the expectation he can break the Broncos’ current run of tough luck behind center since Manning retired after the 2015 season.

“It’s been a battle, but this league’s a battle,” Elway said. “It’s been a tough situation, especially at that position … I’m excited for that position.”

The Broncos may practice, at least initially, without rookie quarterback Drew Lock in uniform. Lock, who was the second of the team’s two second-round picks in the April draft (41st overall) is the Broncos’ only unsigned rookie.

Lock and his representatives are looking for a slightly different structure of his rookie deal in case he becomes the team’s starting quarterback over the next four seasons.

Wednesday, Elway was asked if a deal would be done in time for Lock to be on the field Thursday morning and he said simply: “We’ll see. I’m not going to make a prediction one way or the other.”

When the Broncos exited their offseason workouts after their June minicamp, Fangio said Lock was still competing for the backup job behind Flacco. Kevin Hogan, who was the Broncos’ backup last season, and Brett Rypien are the other quarterbacks on the roster.

But, in the end, the team’s hopes and expectations at the position reside squarely on Flacco’s shoulders.

“Any football team when you get back to that position I think, when the football team has confidence with the guy at that position it makes your football team better,” Elway said. “Joe proved, he showed everybody on our football team he’s that guy. Our team responded to him well … he’s ready to take that spot over.”

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Browns’ crowded bandwagon includes superfan wrestling stars – Cleveland Browns Blog



Unless they have their AARP cards, ardent followers of a certain team in Ohio probably don’t remember the words “Cleveland Browns fan” without the words “long-suffering” in front of them.

The Browns haven’t won a division title in 30 years. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1994.

In 1995, owner Art Modell even absconded with the franchise to Baltimore.

Now, everyone wants on the bandwagon. The arrival of Odell Beckham Jr. to pair with 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield has Clevelanders positively giddy.

So give the large Browns following among professional wrestlers a lot of credit: They have stood by their team. They are hardcore fans through and through. They remember Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner, Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, the Dawg Pound, Cleveland Stadium … hanging Modell in effigy.

The wrestlers who are unabashed Browns fans include WWE superstars The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Johnny Gargano and EC3, wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler and Impact Wrestling star Dave Crist of the tag team oVe, which stands for Ohio Versus Everything. And despite their own successes, they’re all basically fanboys when it comes to talking about their team.

All of them were born in Ohio save for Lawler (though born in Memphis he spent some portion of his formative years in Lorain, Ohio, after his father was transferred to a Ford assembly plant there), and all of them save for “The King” are in their 30s. ESPN spoke to The Miz, EC3, Gargano and Crist about their Browns fandom, their earliest recollections and the future of the franchise (hint: they all agree it’s bright).


WWE superstars The Miz (Mike Mizanin) and Ziggler (Nic Nemeth) are both 38. When they were discovering football in grade school, Kosar was putting the Browns in the playoffs annually.

Miz said he can remember riding the bus to school in the fifth grade and the students singing to the tune of The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” with the words, “Bernie, Bernie, ohhh ohh … Super Bowl!”

“Bernie is my first recollections of the Browns and of a quarterback,” said Miz, who despite the extraordinarily busy schedule of a WWE superstar manages to get to a game or two every year. “I’m too young to remember Jim Brown.”

Miz acknowledges how hard it has been over the years to be a Browns fan, with the harassment from his friends who root for other teams. But he said when you’re from the area, it’s ingrained that you stick with the Browns, come what may.

The Browns are now the pick of many to win the AFC North, and Miz cut a promo on the rest of the division moving forward.

“Baker is the real deal,” said Miz, who was born in Parma, Ohio. “And the young crew that we have will make heads turn. The North is going downhill. The Steelers are a mess with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They just can’t figure that stuff out. You’ve got two All-Stars who don’t want to play there. Why is that? The Bengals are already downhill. I don’t think the Ravens can sustain it. I don’t think Lamar Jackson is that guy. Baker is. He’s the guy people will talk about for years to come. I’m excited. I say playoffs this year.”

One of Miz’s fondest Browns memories actually occurred last season, and he documented it on Twitter.

Miz was at his then-new home in Austin, Texas, when the Browns broke their losing streak with a 21-17 victory over the New York Jets on Sept. 20. Ziggler was there, too.

Anheuser Busch gifted Miz one of its Bud Light refrigerators set to open when the Browns ended their losing streak. The problem for Miz — well, really for his wife, former WWE competitor Maryse, who is French Canadian — was that the lock for the fridge took some assembly.

“I was setting up the lock,” Miz recalled, “and Maryse was like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you locking the refrigerator?’ I said, ‘You don’t understand.’ She said, ‘No, I get it. But I don’t get it. Why would you lock it? Why don’t you just drink the beer?’ ‘Because we haven’t won a game in a long time. When we win, we get free beer.’

“It was a whole discussion. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. What a great idea by Bud Light. I didn’t think it would even open. It was legit five seconds later when the lock dropped.”

Miz said he, Ziggler and another friend proceeded to drink all of the beers that very night.


At 31, “Johnny Wrestling” is the baby of the group with which ESPN spoke.

And speaking of babies, Gargano’s ties to the Browns go back literally to the womb.

He was born on Aug. 14, 1987, which in and of itself isn’t an especially significant date in Browns history. But what it does mean is that when his parents attended the 1986 AFC Championship Game between Cleveland and the visiting Denver Broncos on Jan. 11, 1987 — the game known for “The Drive” — Johnny was there, too.

In his mother’s belly.

“I guess you could say I experienced my first Browns heartbreak while I was in the womb,” Gargano said.

Cleveland fans could do without the details of “The Drive,” but it’s interesting to note that Gargano’s father was there to root on John Elway, his favorite player. Despite also being born in Cleveland, he just had an affinity for Elway, who engineered a 98-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to tie the game. Denver won in overtime on a field goal.

Gargano’s first real recollection of anything Browns-related was running around at the wild scene in Cleveland when Modell was hung in effigy in December 1995 after announcing he was moving the Browns to Baltimore.

“My parents brought me downtown. Everyone was going crazy,” Gargano said. “I was like 7 or 8, so I didn’t really understand the execution of a mannequin.”

Gargano said his father had Browns season tickets from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. He said he bought the jerseys of players such as Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Charlie Frye.

“I distinctly remember going to training camp a lot,” Gargano said. “I got Jeff Faine’s autograph and was super pumped about it.

“I started getting really into the NFL draft because as a Browns fan, that’s our Super Bowl. Every year it was new hope. ‘We got Luke McCown! We got Charlie Frye!’ I was such a big draft guy and still am to this day. Every April I would hone in on a player I wanted the Browns to go after and just hope and hope. Then they would draft somebody else and I’d talk myself into him, like all Browns fans do.”

The Browns’ first-round draft history pre-2017 is spotty at best. But they’ve added four building blocks since, with 2017 No. 1 overall Myles Garrett, 2018 No. 1 overall Baker Mayfield, David Njoku (No. 29 overall in 2017) and Denzel Ward (No. 4 in 2018). Their other first-round pick during the recent span, Jabrill Peppers, was traded to the Giants in the deal that brought Beckham and Olivier Vernon to Cleveland.

The acquisition of OBJ took the excitement of Browns fans for the upcoming season to a whole new level.

“The first thought that went through my mind was, ‘Oh man, our bandwagon is gonna be full this season!’ To go from the team that everyone clowned on year in and year out to America’s new must-see team is quite the jump,” Gargano said. “On paper, our offense looked great before OBJ. And now it’s a straight-up video game with him included. It’s literally ‘Madden.’”


EC3 (Michael Hutter) is 36. He was born in Cleveland, and his father is a diehard Browns fan.

“My dad started taking me to games back when the Dawg Pound was the real Dawg Pound,” EC3 said. “My favorite player and one of the first ones I remember was Leroy Hoard. I liked him and Eric Metcalf.”

EC3 recalled sitting close to the front row of the Dawg Pound at one of his first games as just a boy. He said he wasn’t aware of all that was going on around him, but that it was loud.

“It could get nasty and messy, and there were beers flying all round,” EC3 said. “I was almost like a mascot for the day. But I can remember Michael Jackson caught a touchdown on our end, and he pulled me out of the Dawg Pound and gave me a bear hug.”

EC3 also holds the distinction of having been banned from Cleveland Stadium by then-Browns owner Randy Lerner.

“I may have gotten a little unruly once. I have a letter from 2006 that says I’m not welcomed back,” EC3 said. “I got it framed, and it hangs in my office. I sent a letter saying I won’t be coming back due to your management.”

Apparently, the ban was lifted at some point. EC3 and Gargano were invited guests on the field last year for the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals.

“The energy was completely different,” EC3 said. “You could feel the change coming.”


Impact star Crist, one half of oVe with his brother Jake, is 36. He was born in New Carlisle, Ohio, just outside Dayton.

He also is the proud, first-time owner of Browns season tickets for 2019. Club seats, no less.

The Browns noticed Crist mentions them on social media. A lot. Almost every time he tweets or posts on Instagram. So they invited him to tour the facility in Berea and ended up convincing him to get all the way on board for the upcoming season.

Crist, whose father is a Browns fan, was blown away by the invitation.

“Being a lifelong Browns fan, it has always been a dream of mine to visit the practice facility to see where they hone their craft,” said Crist, who made it to four home games in 2018 and road games at Cincinnati, Oakland and Baltimore. “Larry Ogunjobi was literally 5 feet away from me. I missed Baker by like 10 minutes. I was just … it was an amazing situation. When I was talking to them, they were like, ‘You’re a pro wrestler, but your knowledge of football is pretty good.’ I was like, ‘This is what I do.’ Football season, I submerge myself in football.”

Not wanting to miss his 1 p.m. appointment in Berea, Crist and his fiancée arrived at the facility 30 minutes early and sat in the lobby. He said she told him this was going to be the longest 30 minutes of his life. He just stared at the jerseys and photos on the wall.

They went on their tour. They took loads of pictures. Crist had a goofy smile plastered on his face from start to finish.

“The entire time,” he said, “my fiancée was like, ‘You need to calm down. I love that you’re this happy, but like, you just need to calm down a little bit. You’re coming off as though you might be a little off.

“When we sat down to talk — this was the craziest thing — when we sat down to talk about pricing, and they were like, ‘How would you feel about club seating?’ I was like, ‘She’ll never be about this. I’ll never be able to get these.’ So they said, ‘They’re extra-wide chairs, better cushions …’ and she goes, ‘OK, we’ll take them.’ I was like, ‘What?!?’”

Crist and his brother, along with fellow oVe member Sami Callihan, were in the front row of the Dawg Pound for the season finale last year when Gargano and EC3 were on the field. Fortunately, a battle royale didn’t break out.

Crist sees a bright future for his team. He’s all about the quarterback.

“Baker is my dude,” said Crist, who recently started a podcast called “Wrestling with Sports” with former MLB All-Star Jason Kendall in which they talk to wrestlers about their love of sports and to athletes about their love of pro wrestling. “The thing I like most about Baker is he just has that intangible, that ‘it’ factor. When he cut that promo and said, ‘I woke up feeling dangerous’ (after the Browns beat the Falcons), that literally woke up Cleveland. That was the spark that Cleveland needed. From that point on, the team followed him and he was ready to rock and roll. I think he’s a natural-born leader.”

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield isn’t afraid of the hype



A dozen or so kids line up to catch a pass from Baker Mayfield, and one of them is so gut-wrenchingly adorable, I briefly wonder if he’s a plant. It’s an absurd thought, but the whole scenario carries a whiff of predetermined charm. The visual of Mayfield playing football with hundreds of children at his camp in Norman, Oklahoma, is a publicist’s dream, and this tiny blond, bespectacled child is straight out of central casting. He’s wearing a Baker-esque headband (every camper received one) and knee socks with the quarterback’s face on them. When he walks up to Mayfield, his sneakers sink into the muddy field, and everyone watching goes Ooh.

Mayfield hunches over a little — standing just over 6 feet tall in shorts and Nikes, he looks more like a regular dad playing catch with his kids than an NFL quarterback — and gingerly places a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I don’t know where you got those socks,” Mayfield says, winking. “But I love them.”

The kid is real, of course. I can see his parents in the crowd; even though the sun boils us like bugs underneath a magnifying glass, they’re the ones desperately trying to capture every second of this encounter. Craig and Malia Harvey drove 12 hours from their small hometown in Colorado to attend Mayfield’s camp. Malia tells me that their 5-year-old, Gavin, wore his Mayfield socks over a suit to his kindergarten graduation ceremony; he’s studied every detail of the quarterback’s journey, including his now-iconic celebrations. “He imitates them,” Craig explains.

“When he plays soccer, he lifts up his shirt and celebrates,” Malia says.

“He’s running around, swinging the arm and everything,” Craig says.

There was a time not long ago, before Mayfield led the Browns to their first win in nearly two seasons, before Cleveland heralded him as the franchise’s long-awaited savior, before Mayfield beefed with his former head coach (more on that later), when such revelry provoked angst among the self-appointed guardians of college football’s moral code. On two occasions — one time when Mayfield grabbed his crotch in the general direction of the Kansas sideline, another when he planted an Oklahoma flag on Ohio State’s field after an upset victory, equal parts Buzz Aldrin and Buzz McCallister — the young quarterback was shamed into delivering mea culpas, apologizing to fans for stunting too hard.

And yet Gavin’s parents shrug at the mention of those public stumbles. Sure, they don’t want their son doing everything Mayfield’s done, but they’re happy that a tiny kid like Gavin has a (relatively) tiny quarterback to admire, an overlooked athlete, now one of the most famous walk-ons in college football history, who proved his doubters wrong. His height, his flaws, his story — it all makes Mayfield seem more real to them, like he’s a human playing a position normally reserved for superheroes. “He is who he is, and he doesn’t apologize for it,” Malia says.

As I watch the quarterback gently toss a ball to Gavin, I think about how quickly he’s won over not only these people but millions more like them, a region of skeptics who wandered in the quarterback wilderness for decades, only to find themselves converted into believers by an undersized kid from Texas with immeasurable faith in himself. Then I remember something Mayfield told me a few weeks ago, when I met him for the first time. “You get this term” — Mayfield had paused, making air quotations with his fingers — “‘franchise QB.’ That’s like being a politician.” He spat out the phrase in a way that suggested he didn’t particularly care for it, even though it’s generally used to describe the league’s most valuable players, the traditional role models that teams are built around.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said.

The Cleveland Browns are favored to win their division. Read that sentence again and let it wash over you; marvel at the implausibility of those words being printed in order, passing untouched through a fact-checker’s hands. The Cleveland Browns. Are Favored. To Win. Their Division. The organization that’s doubled as a punch line for the better part of the NFL’s modern era is now the buzziest team in football, a turnaround that began in earnest last winter when Cleveland won five of its final seven games and Mayfield threw his 27th touchdown, a rookie record. Now everyone — fans, reporters, marketers, bettors — wants a piece of the Browns. They want Myles Garrett, the quirky sack artist with sizzling potential; they want Odell Beckham Jr., the wildly talented wide receiver who was traded from the Giants earlier this year.

But most of all, they want Mayfield.

And here he is: strolling into the Browns’ practice facility in Berea, Ohio, on a chilly April afternoon, dressed unassumingly in gray sweats, his bushy offseason beard shaking like a turkey’s wattle when he laughs (he laughs a lot). The prince who was promised. Whenever Mayfield enters a space, he has a way of connecting with everyone in his path that reminds me of a comment coach Hue Jackson made last spring, comparing Mayfield to the Pied Piper. (The analogy, intended to illustrate the quarterback’s rare charisma, struck most people as deeply weird.) Walking past Browns staffers, the quarterback doles out daps and bro nods, stopping to pet Moose, the chocolate Lab who lives in the Browns’ office. When someone presents Mayfield with a box of cookies, he pats his belly and sighs. “You know I’m trying to stay away from sweets!” he says.

I ask him if it feels weird, starting the offseason with so much hype. “For them,” he says, flicking his wrist toward the door. “Not for me.” He cocks an eyebrow and grins. “For everybody else around here, it’s been pretty terrible to be part of this team for a while.” Then he laughs. Not unkindly but in a way that suggests he thinks everyone in Cleveland is in on the joke.

Until the day of the draft, Mayfield wasn’t sure the Browns would take him with the first overall pick. (For a while, he was convinced New England would trade up for him at No. 2.) He found the challenge of joining a long-struggling team — Cleveland’s last playoff appearance was in 2002 — exhilarating. “I wanted to come here and play and be the one to change it right away,” he explains, snapping his fingers. The Browns had other plans. In March, before Mayfield was picked, the team announced that any quarterback drafted would sit and study behind veteran Tyrod Taylor, a developmental road map with support across the organization.

“I wasn’t happy about it, but I understood it,” Mayfield says. He appreciated that the team was upfront about the plan — honesty means a great deal to him — and he saw the value in learning on the sidelines, especially after sitting out a year at Oklahoma. He also respects Taylor, whom he describes as thoughtful and kind, and he didn’t want to step on his toes. “There’s no reason to be an ass,” he says. Still, it was a little infuriating. As a rookie, he was told to be deferential and quiet, qualities that, unsurprisingly, do not come naturally to a player who once trolled the Texas Longhorns after a Cotton Bowl win by galloping off the field on an imaginary horse.

“Me being me, I wanna be that guy in the locker room, I wanna be myself. But at the same time, I had heard so many different things from different guys and read things … ” Mayfield sighs. “I wanted to go through the process and learn as much as I could so when the moment arose — then it would be my time. Then I could be that person and let it all go.”

That moment arrived sooner than expected. Mayfield had been looking forward to the Jets game in Week 3 as soon as the Browns’ schedule was released, praying that he’d have the opportunity to go head-to-head with rookie Sam Darnold, a quarterback he’d been compared to for years. “I woke up that morning” — he pauses and grins, a little sheepishly –“not feeling dangerous. But I woke up and said: ‘It’s game day.’ I had a different type of juice that morning. It was weird.”

After struggling to move the ball for much of the first half, Taylor exited the game with a concussion, and Mayfield came in with just over a minute left. He threw his first pass to receiver Jarvis Landry, threading the ball between two defenders for a first down. The home fans lost their minds. “It was like a weight lifted off their shoulders,” Mayfield says, before imitating an imaginary fan and whispering: “Thank you.” He shakes his head. “You could tell the energy was in the air. You could feel it: This might be the first win. And when it finally happened, it was like, ‘Well, what do we do now?'”

That night, the city celebrated like the Browns had just won the Super Bowl. The merriment was short-lived; the team went on to lose five of its next six games, with Mayfield struggling to stay upright (he took 21 sacks). During that period, reports surfaced that Jackson, who had compiled a 1-31 record over his first two seasons as head coach, was tangling with offensive coordinator Todd Haley behind closed doors, a feud that had been foreshadowed in the preseason by a couple of tense scenes on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Mayfield’s eyes widen when talking about the Shakespearean drama that unfolded in Berea last fall. “People have no idea,” he says. “Any time you combine the personalities we had — at offensive coordinator, at defensive coordinator and head coach — heads are gonna clash. That’s just a known thing.”

As tensions mounted, Mayfield tried to keep his head down. “I had never gone through a rookie season before, but I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly how it’s supposed to go,” he says, a wry look crossing his face. Then, the morning after the Browns lost their third straight game, falling 33-18 to the Steelers at the end of October, all hell broke loose. Cleveland fired not only Jackson but Haley too; Gregg Williams, the notoriously polarizing defensive coordinator — and the source of many meme-able moments on “Hard Knocks,” mostly because of his profanity — was elevated to interim head coach.

Two weeks later, the Bengals announced they were bringing on Jackson, a former offensive coordinator in Cincinnati under Marvin Lewis, to coach the team’s defense as a special assistant. The coach’s supporters pointed out that he had a right to find work and that Cincinnati was a soft landing spot. But the news landed with a thud in Cleveland. Jackson, an offensive specialist, was intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Browns’ game plan — and now he was helping the Bengals’ defense, which they had to face two times that season. Guard Joel Bitonio said their former coach had gone “back to the enemy.” When Cleveland faced the Bengals for the first time that November, crushing them 35-20, safety Damarious Randall picked off an Andy Dalton pass and handed the ball to Jackson on the sideline.

After the game, cameras caught an awkward interaction between the coach and Mayfield, who seemed to dodge a hug before shaking Jackson’s hand stiffly. Asked about it later, Mayfield called Jackson out for going to a division rival. The next day, ESPN analyst Damien Woody criticized Mayfield’s comments, noting that Mayfield had left Texas Tech for Oklahoma. The quarterback responded in the comments on an Instagram video of Woody’s remarks: I didn’t lose 30+ games be fake and then do that. … I wasn’t gonna have a scholarship. Good try though buddy.

Would a so-called franchise quarterback clap back on social media? Probably not. But Mayfield doesn’t regret it. “I said what I meant,” he says. “Don’t stand up in front of us the week before and try to tell us you’re doing everything for us, then go take a job with a team we play twice a year. It was one of those honesty and respect things.” The quarterback says he didn’t mind the blowback, though it did bother him when people said he was disregarding Jackson’s need to earn a living, given that his former coach was still getting paid by the Browns. I ask him if he relished beating the Bengals last season. “Absolutely,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie to you and say that the first time I played Hue did not feel good. It’s human nature to want to get revenge.”

Today, Jackson, who is no longer working for Cincinnati, says he doesn’t regret taking the Bengals job. “I wanted to coach and help a friend and organization I respect,” he says. He tells me he hasn’t spoken with Mayfield since the season ended but doesn’t harbor any ill will toward his former charge. “Baker’s gonna be Baker,” he says. “He was disappointed that I left and was with a team in the division. … That was his feeling and I have to respect it.”

Jackson adds that he stands by his Pied Piper analogy, noting that Mayfield “has a way of drawing people to him” with his charisma that astonished him, even when the coach found himself on the outside looking in. “Opponents? He doesn’t like you. People on the fence? He doesn’t want to be around them,” Jackson says. “That’s the way he’s made. … You’re either all-in with him or you’re not.”

His description sounds severe, but it isn’t meant as criticism. At least not completely. “It serves the purpose you need,” Jackson says, “if it leads to wins.”

Mayfield’s friends call him “The 12-Year-Old,” because, well, he kind of looks like he’s 12 (the quarterback turned 24 in April). When he smiles, you can see a tiny gap between his two front teeth; it’s easy to imagine him as a mischievous little kid, starting food fights and pulling pigtails. But his mother, Gina, says that couldn’t be further from the truth. “He was a rules follower,” she tells me over the phone, cracking up a little. As a boy, she says, Baker loathed getting in trouble. Gina recounts one incident, now infamous in the Mayfield family, when she asked her 9-year-old son to go outside and roll down the windows of the family’s parked Chevy Tahoe and he accidentally drove it across the street and into a tree belonging to the town’s mayor. “He was hysterically upset and crying,” she says. “I didn’t think I was gonna get him to come out of the house for two days.”

As a child growing up just outside Austin, Texas, Mayfield says he was a teacher’s pet, mostly because he wanted to please others. (One of his greatest accomplishments in elementary school, he adds, was earning the right to nap behind his kindergarten teacher’s desk.) He was shy and deeply afraid of making mistakes. “I hated speaking in front of people,” he says. Mayfield didn’t really find his voice until the end of high school, when he was navigating the college recruiting process. After just four FBS schools (Florida Atlantic, Rice, New Mexico and Washington State) offered him scholarships, the young quarterback felt confused and, at times, misled. “I realized I’m gonna have to speak my mind if I want to know what’s really gonna happen here,” he says.

From there, he embarked on one of the more remarkable careers in college football history — and documented every instance of disrespect he encountered along the way. After Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech and became the starter, his relationship with head coach Kliff Kingsbury soured; he told the media that Kingsbury, now the coach of the Arizona Cardinals, had frozen him out (the two have since buried the hatchet, he says). He took screenshots of comments from reporters who questioned his bona fides. But when asked if he has come across any insults lately, he demurs. “I haven’t done that in a while,” he says. “There comes a time when I’m gonna have to block that out. … You’ve got to find your own motivation.”

He sees the skepticism on my face and giggles. “When I want to stir the pot, I’ll click to see what [Colin] Cowherd’s said lately,” he says. In April, after the Fox Sports radio host said his sources had told him that Beckham was unhappy about being traded to the Browns, Mayfield snapped at him on Twitter: “Come to Cleveland and ask O if he actually likes it.” In April, he lashed out again when Cowherd listed some of Beckham’s off-the-field incidents, calling the host a “clown.” (Mayfield has an “incident” of his own on his record — in college, he pleaded guilty to public intoxication and disorderly conduct.)

When I ask Mayfield about the back-and-forth, he says it bothers him when people perpetuate misinformation about the wide receiver. “He’s here to work, and he wants to be surrounded by people who love him and support him and allow him to be himself,” he says. “He’s here to play in front of fans who actually care, who will actually show up to every game and pack the stadium and love him for who he is.” (Regrettably, the Browns do not play the Giants this year.)

Mayfield’s approach to leadership has always been driven by tribalism. “He’s got his guys and he’s got their back and if you’re not with them … you’re against him,” explains Browns backup Garrett Gilbert, a Lake Travis native who’s known Mayfield since elementary school. “There’s no in-between. It’s very black-and-white.”

This binary framework doesn’t always translate in a business in which the kinship of a shared jersey matters less to owners than the amount of dead money on a man’s contract. In June, Mayfield was asked about one of his teammates, Duke Johnson, a veteran running back who had been phased out of the offense and was asking for a trade. The quarterback’s seemingly unsympathetic response — “You’re either on this train or you’re not,” he told reporters — rubbed some players the wrong way.

It was a rare misstep for an athlete who, by all accounts, possesses the seductive charisma of a cult leader, galvanizing his teammates by drawing battle lines at every possible turn. Mayfield’s coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, says he was captivated when he watched the walk-on practicing with his college teammates before his first season, screaming encouragements and pushing them to work harder before he had even played a snap. Mayfield, he says, is unlike any player he’s been around. “He can play his best when he’s talking trash and he’s mad and has that edge,” he says. “Most quarterbacks are at their worst — he’s at his best.”

Ahead of the 2018 draft, Riley’s full-throated endorsement of his quarterback helped counter the whispers that the Heisman winner was a clone of Johnny Manziel, a comparison that frustrated Mayfield, who calls it lazy. He imitates an anonymous scout, lowering his voice: “On the field, they have a similar game. But off the field …they’re really the same person.”

And yet, when I ask him if he’s still worried about being painted incorrectly, he purses his lips. “I feel like athletes use the ‘I’m misunderstood’ thing too much,” he says. “If you’re worried about being understood, you’re worried about the wrong things.”

A month after meeting Mayfield, I return to Cleveland, where he’s being photographed for this story. As he changes into his uniform, his fiancée, Emily Wilkinson, sits on a small stage in a warehouse-like loft space near the set, heels dangling over the edge. A couple from Indiana is stocking the bar and setting up tables; they’re getting married here this weekend. As Wilkinson, whose own wedding to Mayfield would take place in July, chats with them about their decor, the quarterback creeps behind them and sticks his tongue out at her.

“Is she talking s—?” he asks.

Wilkinson rolls her eyes and shakes her head, her long blond braid flopping over her shoulder. “We’re not talking about you,” she says, before turning to the bride. “Guard the vodka.”

The quarterback and his fiancée, who is from Nebraska, were introduced in 2017 by a mutual friend. At the time, Wilkinson was living in Los Angeles. She says she was wary of dating a “punk football player” and ignored Mayfield’s advances for months: He repeatedly followed and unfollowed her on Instagram, trying to attract her attention. Finally, in late December, they exchanged messages. He begged her to meet him before the Rose Bowl, his final college football game. She reluctantly agreed to grab lunch.

“I was assuming he’d be the typical playboy athlete,” says Wilkinson, who is four years older than Mayfield. Because the Rose Bowl was the next day, she thought they’d spend most of their date talking about the game. But it barely came up. Instead, she says, Mayfield spent their entire first date peppering her with questions about herself, her family, her plans for the future. The next day, after Oklahoma lost, ending its season, the quarterback texted Wilkinson and told her he was staying in LA. Three days later, he moved in with her and her brothers. Six months later, Emily and Baker were engaged.

As Mayfield walks back from the shoot, he pauses to sign the couple’s wedding guest book. “He’s such a softy,” says Wilkinson, watching from the stage. “He’s a mama’s boy.” Every year, the quarterback sends a packet of birthday cards to Gina, picking out ones with the corniest jokes. He inherited his love of dancing from his mother; when he was small, she would put on Michael Jackson CDs and twirl him around the living room.

Mayfield might not care about being misunderstood, but many of the people in his orbit seem determined to set the record straight on the divide between his public and private personas. “My perception was a lot like everybody’s — that he was kind of an outlandish, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kinda guy,” says Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, who was coaching the team’s running backs at the start of last season. “What I found was somebody totally different.” As Kitchens got to know the rookie quarterback, he identified parallels in their journeys. “At the core of everything is the fact that he’s always been told no: You can’t do this. We’re looking for someone else. You’re not this,” he says. “I think we have that in common.”

Before Kitchens was named offensive coordinator last October, he had been an offensive assistant in the NFL for 12 seasons. But he had never been asked to interview for a coordinator position. “I don’t sound like you, or most coaches, so the perception of me is different,” he tells me in a thick Alabama drawl. “You’ve got a bunch of gurus out there that tell you what a QB should look like and what a head coach should look like,” says Kitchens, who bears a stronger resemblance to someone’s cornhole-loving uncle than, say, Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay. “We don’t look like anybody’s version of those people.”

The day that Kitchens took over the offense, he swore to his players that if they put their trust in him, he wouldn’t let them down. “He was emotional. That was life-changing for him,” Mayfield says. Over the next two months, coach and quarterback worked hand in hand to fix an offense that had stalled. Kitchens zeroed in on the plays Mayfield was comfortable with, including concepts from college. “Some of the play-action and zone-read stuff, the RPO, how we ran some of our empty packages when I was at Oklahoma, we’d talk about it and get on the same page,” Mayfield says.

After Kitchens took over playcalling, the Browns’ offense exploded. During the first half of the season, Mayfield completed 58% of his passes with a QBR of just 36; over the last eight weeks, his completion percentage rose to 68% and his QBR nearly doubled. Under the new regime, he landed near the top of the league in most passing categories. As soon as the season ended, Cleveland announced that it was promoting Kitchens, the coach who hadn’t even been considered for a coordinator job, to the top spot. Mayfield was elated. “You could tell he just wanted the best for his players,” he says.

Coming off the Browns’ strong finish last season, the hype around the team was simmering. Then the Beckham news broke — and expectations erupted. While rumors about a trade had been floating around the NFL for weeks, Mayfield said it was confirmed to him just a few minutes before everyone else, when Kitchens sent him a simple text: “We just got better.”

The quarterback smiles at the memory, almost wistfully. “I was overcome with emotion,” he says.

Kitchens was right, of course: The Browns did get better. A lot better. So much better that, like Mayfield himself, they can no longer call themselves underdogs, harvesting motivation from perceived slights. After years of being shunted to the outer fringes of the NFL’s zeitgeist, the team is fully in the spotlight, with four prime-time games on its schedule after playing at night just three times in the prior three seasons combined. Mayfield is fully aware of the ear-splitting buzz, but he insists it doesn’t worry him. “Here’s the thing,” he says, smirking a little. “They’re gonna hype you up. But as soon as you lose a couple of games, they’ll throw you in the trash.”

If that happens — if the Browns lose, and the quarterback struggles, and the bubbling optimism in Cleveland boils over like an unwatched pot — how will Mayfield respond? It’s easy to reject the status quo in the NFL when you’re winning, but adversity invites second-guessing and hate. It’s why so many “franchise quarterbacks” are so bland in public. Sure, some of them are just boring people, but others say little because their silence affords them protection, shielding them from the scrutiny that inevitably follows self-expression.

Mayfield knows all of this but maintains that he doesn’t care. He isn’t afraid of scrutiny — god knows he’s used to it — and he doesn’t want a shield. “I’m gonna be myself and believe in that,” he says. “And if you don’t like it, that’s OK.”

Styling by Courtney Mays; grooming by Connie Kellers; production by Allison Cole; wardrobe: cover image: jacket by The Kooples; bomber jacket and shorts by Nike; T-shirt by Uniqlo; shoes by Nike; Baker with dogs in studio: track suit by Daniel Patrick; T-shirt by ATM; shoes by Nike; bracelets by David Yurman & Miansai; Baker with kids: sweatshirt by Homage; pants by Perry Ellis; shoes by Nike.

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