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How Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray pushed each other to greatness as Oklahoma teammates



During their two years together at Oklahoma, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray never stopped competing.

Not so much for the starting job. Mayfield had already locked that up, having quarterbacked the Sooners to the College Football Playoff during the 2015 season, weeks before Murray arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, after transferring from Texas A&M.

But that didn’t stop them from finding other ways to compete, even in the smallest of ways.

“They’re out there in a warm-up drill, seeing who could throw the best spiral,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley recalled. “It was just constantly about that.”

Was it ever, according to Austin Kendall, Tanner Schafer, Reece Clark and Connor McGinnis — the four other Oklahoma quarterbacks who shared a meeting room with Mayfield and Murray during those 2016 and 2017 seasons.

“We always turned every single drill into some sort of competition — just because they wanted to beat each other, which was obviously quite fun,” McGinnis said. “But oh my gosh, it was nonstop.”

This Sunday, the two former teammates will be out to beat each other once again, as Murray and the Cardinals travel to face Mayfield’s Browns in Cleveland (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox). In their first NFL meeting two seasons ago, Murray got the best of Mayfield. Now, Mayfield will look to return the favor by handing the undefeated Cardinals their first loss.

“Obviously he was the guy, but I gave him s— all the time,” Murray said. “It was competitive, but at the same time, we had the best quarterback room in the country — we knew it.

“The confidence, the swagger about that room was unmatched. … and it was fun.”

Unmatched, indeed. Mayfield and Murray became the first quarterbacks from the same school to not only win the Heisman Trophy in back-to-back seasons but go No. 1 overall in consecutive NFL drafts.

“Really special,” said former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who handed the reins over to Riley in 2017, one year before Mayfield would do the same with Murray. “Just two incredibly talented, driven individuals that really were great examples for the team on how to be teammates, how to work and how to prepare.”

Yet despite that drive to be the best, Mayfield and Murray never allowed a potentially combustible situation at Oklahoma to spill into controversy, even after encountering a pitfall or two.

Mayfield embraced the competition, as opposed to feeling threatened by Murray’s unique ability. And even though he might have been a starter almost anywhere else in college football, Murray never became disgruntled or a distraction for Mayfield or the Sooners, even after Mayfield retroactively was given an extra season of eligibility, which left Murray on the sidelines.

“It was a healthy relationship for us,” Mayfield said. “All egos were put to the side. … And we were able to push each other and absolutely get the best out of each other.”

They channeled those competitive streaks to help the other ultimately reach greatness — while having fun along the way.

“For having two players of that caliber in the same meeting room, it was about as positive as you could imagine, because there’s obviously a million different things that could’ve gone wrong where it wouldn’t have been good for one or the other or both,” Riley said prior to last weekend’s Red River Showdown, when he benched former five-star recruit Spencer Rattler, in favor of another, Caleb Williams, who propelled the Sooners to an improbable comeback victory over Texas.

“They didn’t take s— from each other, but it was a healthy competition and a healthy respect,” Riley said of Mayfield and Murray. “And they were both smart enough to figure out that they could learn something from the other.

“They certainly would’ve been good players anyway. But they pushed each other to become even better.”

WHEN MAYFIELD AND Murray were both at Oklahoma, practice seemed almost as exciting as the games.

“Baker would be just yelling the entire day, swatting the defensive coaches on the butts” after big plays, Stoops said. “Unbelievable the energy he brought, made it fun for everybody.”

Murray was as unbelievable operating the scout-team offense, virtually untouchable whenever he would scramble out of the pocket. Stoops said he and his assistants would rewatch those practice highlights, simply for entertainment value.

“It was just like, holy cow,” Stoops said.

When Mayfield and Murray weren’t tormenting Oklahoma’s defenders, they were going at one another, competing to see who could bounce the most throws off the goalpost’s crossbar or land more passes into a trash can. The quarterbacks would always split teams by even and odd jersey numbers, so Mayfield (wearing No. 6) and Murray (No. 1) could be on opposing sides; losers usually had to carry the winners’ shoulder pads inside after practice.

“Here we are in the middle of special teams, a chance for those guys to relax, chill a little bit, and instead they’re going all out, trying to win these quarterback games,” said Ohio University assistant coach Tyler Tettleton, a former graduate assistant who worked with the quarterbacks at Oklahoma. “We looked more forward to that over anything else in practice, just because of how fun and competitive those two guys made it.”

That carried over into the meeting room, where the quarterbacks perpetually squared off in a celebrity guessing game they called “passcode.”

“Their level of competitiveness was not like anything I’ve ever been around. And I think that’s what made us so good those years. Everybody was feeding off those two guys. Not just the quarterback room, but the whole team.”

Tanner Schafer
Oklahoma QB 2017-present

“Say me and Kyler were on a team, me and Baker would come up with a celebrity, and we each took turns saying one word to our partner to try to get them to guess it — it just bounced back and forth until somebody guessed the celebrity,” Clark said. “And we would play this for weeks on end, because they’re like, ‘OK we’re playing to 10. No, no, no, we’re playing first one to 20. No, no, first one to 30.’ It just kept going on and on, just because they wanted to win even in something like that.”

When Mayfield and Murray weren’t playing passcode, the two would argue about almost anything, from who would win the Masters that year, to who was better in the video game Rocket League, to whose Texas high school alma mater had the superior football program.

“Their level of competitiveness was not like anything I’ve ever been around,” said Schafer, who is still on the Oklahoma roster. “And I think that’s what made us so good those years. Everybody was feeding off those two guys. Not just the quarterback room, but the whole team.”

It was a mutual bravado that also led to plenty of trash talk.

“He might show it differently,” Mayfield said of Murray, “but behind closed doors, he is quite the trash talker. Don’t let him fool you.”

Mayfield teased Murray for carrying around a keychain with a tiny bottle of sriracha sauce attached to it, which he would pop open to spice up his meals. Murray never passed up an opportunity to take a shot at Mayfield’s speed — or, in his opinion, lack thereof.

“We’d be watching film and Baker would take off on a scramble,” Clark said, “and Kyler would kind of smirk, like ‘Oh, I would’ve taken that to the house.'”

Yet while they enjoyed goofing around, Mayfield and Murray were all business when it mattered.

“They knew every answer to every question,” Clark said. “Every blitz that was coming, every protection, every line shift, like the back of their hand.”

And through that, Riley believes, they also learned from one another.

“The preparation, Baker is pretty meticulous with that, and I think Kyler took a lot from him,” Riley said. “But I think Kyler had the ability in his mind to keep things very simple. And I think at times with Baker — sometimes with quarterbacks, you cannot know too much, but you can be trying to process too much at times — the way Kyler was able to break things down and keep them very simple and keep the main thing the main thing, I think that’s something that Baker took note of.

“And all of that was fun to watch unfold.”

IN 2015, AS Mayfield guided Oklahoma to the playoff, Murray, then at Texas A&M, was looking to transfer.

Because Mayfield had only one season of eligibility remaining at the time, the Sooners were looking to take a transfer quarterback. So Stoops had Riley, then in his first year as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, study tape of three prospective quarterbacks — Will Grier, Kyle Allen, who have both since started games in the NFL, and Murray — to determine which to pursue.

“Lincoln comes back and says, ‘I like all three. All three can help us and can win for us,'” Stoops recalled. “But this guy Kyler Murray, he can win a Heisman Trophy.'”

Sure enough, Murray would do just that in his lone season starting for the Sooners.

“Sometimes you see things over and over,” Riley said, “and then all of a sudden you see something that’s just totally different and it just hits you in a different way. That’s how his tape hit for me.”

By that point, Mayfield was entrenched as the starter. But Murray’s natural talent never allowed Mayfield to feel complacent.

“Baker deep down knew that he had to continue to play at a high level,” Riley said, “just because he had another good player in the room.”

But Mayfield welcomed the challenge.

“He had the self-confidence to say, throw whoever in front of me, I’m going to take him down,” Clark said. “And Kyler was so self-confident, he knew, even if he only had a year, he was going to make it all happen.”

When Murray initially picked Oklahoma, though, he assumed he’d have two years to play. But the summer after the 2015 season, the Big 12 Conference voted to give Mayfield a year of eligibility back, since he walked-on to Oklahoma when he transferred from Texas Tech. The Sooners privately worried Murray might leave as a result.

“But he didn’t flinch,” Stoops said.

Murray redshirted during the 2016 season. Then in 2017, he was the backup, as Mayfield won the Heisman.

“Bake’s a great player. He gets a lot of hate and all that, but I watched firsthand each and every day, how hard he worked, make throws that a lot of people can’t make,” Murray said. “I’m glad that I got to learn from him throughout those years.”

Murray finally got his chance, ironically, in Mayfield’s final college home game. Mayfield had been suspended from starting against West Virginia for grabbing his crotch and yelling, “F— you!” to the Kansas sidelines the weekend before, after the Jayhawks snubbed Mayfield’s handshake attempt at midfield following the pregame coin toss. That put Murray behind center on the opening series against the Mountaineers.

Before the first snap, Stoops told those in his stadium suite to buckle up. And sure enough, on the very first play, Murray took off for a 66-yard run before being dragged down at the West Virginia 4-yard line.

“And the person most excited on our sideline is Baker,” Riley said. “That was just them, how they were.”

The next day, though, as they watched the film, Mayfield couldn’t resist lobbing a “not fast enough” jab back at Murray for being caught from behind.

“The respect those guys had for each other went a long way,” said Austin Kendall, now Louisiana Tech’s starting quarterback, who noted how much he learned from Mayfield and Murray about leadership and preparation. “And I respected the hell out of those guys for it.”

WEEKS LATER, IN the aftermath of the season-ending-defeat to Georgia in the Rose Bowl, Mayfield stood a few feet away from Murray’s locker. As soon as he finished answering questions about losing the heartbreaking overtime thriller, he beelined to Murray and gave him a hug.

“They’re in great hands,” Mayfield had said moments before of the Sooners. “Kyler is the best athlete in the country. … They’re going to be just fine.”

Just as Mayfield had predicted, Oklahoma was more than fine. Murray went on to break Mayfield’s FBS single-season passing efficiency record while winning the Heisman and leading Oklahoma back to the playoff.

“You could just tell he had it — the way he elevated his teammates, the way he played,” Mayfield said. “He might show it in a different way, but he’s extremely competitive. That’s another reason why he is where he is.”

Their shared success from college has since carried into the pros.

Last season, Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years. And behind Murray’s spectacular start, Arizona is the NFL’s last unbeaten team this season.

“They were a lot of fun to have in the room. … And I think they ended up getting the best out of each other,” Riley said. “They’re the ones that deserve the credit because they handled it in a way that a lot of people wouldn’t have.”

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss contributed.

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Indianapolis Colts’ Julian Blackmon out for season after tearing Achilles



Indianapolis Colts safety Julian Blackmon will miss the rest of the 2021 season after suffering a torn Achilles, the team announced Thursday.

Blackmon suffered the injury in practice Wednesday.

The 23-year-old Blackmon has started 20 games for the Colts since they drafted him in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft. He had one forced fumble in six games this season.

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The Tao of Denver Broncos’ Teddy Bridgewater



ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos‘ winningest quarterbacks have covered a spectrum of emotion, drive and “it” factor — each combination as unique as their own fingerprints.

And Broncos players adopt the style of each quarterback. From John Elway’s white-hot intensity to Jake Plummer’s free-wheeling competitiveness to Peyton Manning’s ever-churning brain, those who have flourished at the position over the past four decades have had their way become the Broncos’ way.

Teddy Bridgewater is six games into his Broncos tenure and has already experienced the highs and lows of this quarterback-mad Rocky Mountain region. The Broncos opened the season with a three-game winning streak and all was right in the football world. Heading into Thursday night’s game at the Cleveland Browns (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox), the Broncos have lost three in a row, with the requisite hand-wringing all around.

Bridgewater has sported a slight limp through the week with a left foot injury, but has offered his trademark don’t-worry promise, “I’m going to continue to attack this rehab, continue to just lock in on the game plan, and try to make sure I’m ready when Thursday comes.”

What becomes of Bridgewater’s tenure is a story in progress, right down to the matter of whether this will be a one-year experiment. But Bridgewater calls himself “a survivor,” and he has already put his signature on this team with his calm demeanor and thoughtful words.

His “it’s cool” response to most issues is part of a composed, detail-oriented, Zen-infused player who has already become one of the most important voices in the Denver locker room.

“It happened fast,” Broncos safety Justin Simmons said. “Because of who he is and how he goes about it.”

How it happened so fast it can be seen, perhaps, in the Tao of Teddy.

Giving credit, taking blame

“When you win, point your finger at your teammates and when you lose, point the thumb at yourself. Today was one of those days when I point the thumb at myself.” — Bridgewater

Manning always said one of the jobs of a quarterback was to lead the way in accountability — no matter what and without fail.

“Every interception has a story and nobody wants to hear it,” he often said. Plummer put it in his own to-the-point way, that a quarterback’s job was “to take the blame, you always stand up and fight for your guys.”

Bridgewater has blamed himself for every interception or turnover he has made this season, including the four in Sunday’s loss to the Raiders. Bridgewater conceded he may have held the ball too long at times while trying to make a play. He lamented not giving “my guys a chance to make a play.” He has generally carried the offensive issues on his shoulders.

“I’m a survivor, throw me in the jungle, and I’m going to come out with a fur coat and a headband that I made out of some leaves.”

Teddy Bridgewater

“And that’s what you do,” Plummer has said. “Everybody is going to tell you how great you are when you’re winning even though everybody else should probably get more of that recognition, too, so when it’s not going right, you stand up. You always fight for your guys, in games, during the week, whatever, man, that’s the job.”

Bridgewater said he tries to keep all of the chatter, especially social media, at bay, for his own mental health. That includes an electronic blackout of sorts — “I watch a little Netflix” — unless, he concedes, there is a promotional deal involved.

“I get on social media just to post about my children’s book, ‘Little Bear Teddy,'” Bridgewater said. “I haven’t tweeted since the Miami Heat were in the Finals in the bubble against the Lakers. Honestly, it’s one of those deals where it can’t do anything for you but break you a lot of times in this profession. You’ve got so many fantasy owners who want you to throw the ball to that guy, or [people] who tell you how good you are and how bad you are. Me, I’m a guy — I really stay away from it unless I’m getting paid to post or something like that.”

To yell or not to yell

“I’ve never been a screamer. I pay attention to guys sometimes. You have those guys who sometimes don’t do well when you scream at them, so you pull a guy to the side [and you say], ‘Hey man, I need you here. When you hit that seventh step, make sure you get out of the break. I’m throwing it and if you’re not there, then I’m getting to the next guy.’ … So, little dialogue like that, it holds a lot of value.” — Bridgewater

Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who is the team’s longest-tenured player, was wearing a microphone during a game earlier this season. Through the years, Miller has transitioned from the uber-talented 20-something to a voice of experience who has routinely cited players such as Manning and DeMarcus Ware as those with the leadership styles he coveted.

Ware was often a calming voice of excellence and experience while Manning, his teammates have often said, exerted pressure with his fanatical preparation.

Bridgewater is often seen talking to players off to the side, away from others, between drills, in the team’s cafeteria, at dinners, most anywhere he can put a word in. He also has earned more than a few compliments for his pregame words each week.

It was one of those pregame presentations earlier this season that caused Miller, with microphone on, to tell Bridgewater near the bench: “I haven’t felt that in a while, since 18 [Manning] was here, man. Keep with that s—, those little pep talks go a long way … we need that s—. We haven’t had that in a minute. I love you bro.”

Bridgewater has said, as he has organized some extra sessions with the offense at the end of practices, it’s the “extra time” players put in that can be the difference in holding things together during difficult football times like the Broncos are facing now.

“The coaches may say it one way but when the coaches leave the field and we stay behind, I feel like that’s when we take ownership as players,” Bridgewater said. “We put in the extra, and we make it ours.”

Life and football

“Appreciate life and the simple things in life. … Always smile. … I watched my mom go through something; I’ve been through something. We all have a story. It’s all about how we can spin that story, if it’s negative, and make it a positive. My mom did just that. Every day I walk around and I put my feet on the soil, I’m happy. Life is short. You can’t take it for granted.” — Bridgewater

Bridgewater is quick to point out that his mother’s battle with breast cancer when he was younger has impacted how he has approached things on and off the field. Earlier this season he described how his mother lost her hair, how her fingernails turned black during chemotherapy and how he would often help her in and out of bed or to the bathroom.

When he suffered a career-threatening tibiofemoral dislocation — the femur and tibia bones essentially became disconnected — in 2016 Bridgewater said, “They were worried they were going to have to amputate my leg.” The injury kept Bridgewater off the field for almost two full seasons — he missed all of 2016 and played one game in 2017. He didn’t start more than five games in a season again, as he had done the year before the injury in 2015, until 2020 when he had signed with the Carolina Panthers.

Bridgewater has rebounded from it and seems unflappable now. He may not be a social media regular, but his Twitter handle still has a bio that proclaims him as “the neighborhood hope dealer.”

“You’d hate to see if a quarterback made a mistake, and you see it on his face, and he’s flustered,” Broncos running back Melvin Gordon III said. “You don’t want to see that from your quarterback. [Bridgewater’s] calmness brings calmness to the whole group. It kind of calms everybody down.”

Some who know him say it’s what makes the usually smiling, mostly unperturbed Bridgewater a study in mental toughness. That even as the game was almost taken away from him as a 24-year-old who had already been named to a Pro Bowl, he seems intent on willing, instead of yelling, something good to happen.

“I’m a survivor, throw me in the jungle, and I’m going to come out with a fur coat and a headband that I made out of some leaves,” Bridgewater said earlier this season. “It’s about surviving at this point. Every day, I have my fire that’s lit and it’s like God is placing me in different positions for a reason. I’ve made an impact everywhere I’ve been — some on the field, some off the field.”

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NFL agrees to end race-based adjustments in dementia testing used to evaluate concussion claims



PHILADELPHIA — The NFL agreed to end race-based adjustments in dementia testing that critics said made it difficult for Black retirees to qualify for awards in the $1 billion settlement of concussion claims, according to a proposed deal filed Wednesday in federal court.

The revised testing plan follows public outrage over the use of “race-norming,” a practice that came to light only after two former NFL players filed a civil rights lawsuit over it in 2019. The adjustments, critics say, may have prevented hundreds of Black players suffering from dementia to win awards that average $500,000 or more.

The Black retirees will now have the chance to have their tests rescored or, in some cases, seek a new round of cognitive testing, according to the settlement.

“No race norms or race demographic estimates — whether Black or white — shall be used in the settlement program going forward,” the settlement said.

The proposal, which must still be approved by a judge, follows months of closed-door negotiations between the NFL, class counsel for retired players, and lawyers for the Black players who filed suit, Najeh Davenport and Kevin Henry.

The vast majority of the league’s players — 70% of active players and more than 60% of living retirees — are Black. So the changes are expected to be significant, and potentially costly for the NFL.

To date, the fund has paid out $821 million for five types of brain injuries, including early and advanced dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS.

Lawyers for the Black players suspect that white men were qualifying for awards at two or three times the rate of Black men. It’s unclear whether a racial breakdown of payouts will ever be done or made public.

Black NFL retiree Ken Jenkins and others have asked the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department to open an inquiry. The first payouts were awarded in 2017. The fund, now uncapped, is intended to last for 65 years, to cover anyone retired at the time it was first approved.

To date, about 2,000 men have applied for dementia awards, but only 30% have been approved. In some cases, the NFL appealed payouts awarded to Black men if doctors did not apply the racial adjustment. The new plan would forbid any challenges based on race.

“The NFL should be really enraged about the race norming. … That should be unacceptable to them and all of their sponsors,” Roxanne “Roxy” Gordon of San Diego, the wife of an impaired former player, said earlier this week.

Amon Gordon, a Stanford University graduate, finds himself at 40 unable to work. He has twice qualified for an advanced dementia award only to have the decision overturned for reasons that aren’t yet clear to them. His case remains on review before the federal appeals court in Philadelphia.

The NFL would admit no wrongdoing under terms of the new settlement.

The league had agreed in June, amid the uproar, to halt the use of race-norming, which assumes Black players start with lower cognitive function. That makes it harder to show they suffer from a mental deficit linked to their playing days.

The binary scoring system in dementia testing — one for Black people, one for everyone else — was developed by neurologists in the 1990s as a crude way to factor in a patient’s socioeconomic background. Experts say it was never meant to be used to determine payouts in a court settlement.

More than 20,000 NFL retirees or their relatives have registered for the settlement program, which offers monitoring, testing and, for some, compensation. The awards average $715,000 for those with advanced dementia and $523,000 for those with early dementia.

“If the new process eliminates race-norming and more people qualify, that’s great,” said Jenkins, who does not have an impairment but advocates for those who do.

“[But] we’re not going to get everything we wanted,” Jenkins, an insurance executive, said Tuesday. “We want full transparency of all the demographic information from the NFL — who’s applied, who’s been paid.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody, who has overseen the settlement for about a decade, dismissed the suit filed by Davenport and Henry this year on procedural grounds. But she later ordered the lawyers who negotiated the 2013 settlement — New York plaintiffs’ lawyer Christopher Seeger for the players and Brad Karp for the NFL — to work with a mediator to address it. In the meantime, the Gordons and other NFL families wait.

“His life is ruined,” Roxy Gordon said of her husband, who spent several years in the league as a defensive tackle or defensive end. “He’s a 40-year-old educated male who can’t even use his skills. It’s been horrible.”

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