Browns

The Bake Lebowski

“Sometimes there’s a man…” says the Stranger, the mysterious cowboy charged with narrating The Big Lebowski, of the Dude, the protagonist played by Jeff Bridges, “Well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” In the world of Lebowski, the time is the early ‘90s and the place is Los Angeles. The essence that the Dude embodies is a sort of benign laziness, a preference for burning one in the tub to cracking a windshield with a bat. That’s the world he lives in, and he suits it perfectly. In the world of the Browns, the time is 2018 and the place is Cleveland, Ohio, a city of increasingly unfortunate nicknames. (“The Land” is uninspired and lame; “The Hardland of America” is forced and lamer. We’ll get there.)

The essence of that time and place, one feels after Thursday night’s win over the Jets, is changing. For years, if you distilled the Browns into a potion you would yield a noxious brew of ineptitude characterized by the exponential growth of losing. The lone consistency has been the ability to always invent a new brand of bad.

But the world in which we awoke Friday was different than the one we inhabited Thursday. You can smell it in the air, taste it in the water, see it in the sky. The Browns have won a game, and they’ve done so before the season’s first snowfall. If only for one day’s worth of news cycle, they are the darlings of the NFL. The essence is changing, my friends. And Baker Mayfield is the reason why.

We’ve seen little more than one meaningful NFL half from him, but screw it, I’m slurping the Kool-Aid and going back for seconds: Mayfield is the man for this time, and for this place. He is exactly the type of player, the type of quarterback, the type of person, to lead the Cleveland Browns to respectability in 2018 and beyond.

Beyond the obvious on-field skills—the accuracy, the pocket presence, the way he slings that goddamn pigskin—is the personality. The confidence. The coolness under pressure that the best quarterbacks possess and the worst can only dream of conjuring.

Beyond the obvious on-field skills—the accuracy, the pocket presence, the way he slings that goddamn pigskin—is the personality.

There was Baker after his first real pro game, a come-from-behind win in primetime, seated at the NFL Network’s desk while fans chanted his name, looking absolutely at ease. He served cake to Joe Thomas with one hand while holding the microphone with the other. He joked with Michael Irvin about being on the receiving end of a two-point conversion. You know how it is, Mike! He had the presence of mind to ask about the status of the beer fridges. When asked about the game he checked all the boxes one is supposed to as a quarterback in the National Football League, invoking one play at a time and hard work and all that, but he managed to make it fun. Genuine, even.

One relatively unremarkable scene from Hard Knocks has stuck with me vis-à-vis Mayfield’s charisma. The whole team is gathered in the big meeting room in Berea and the No. 1 pick is called to the front. After being gently heckled over the size of his contract, he is asked to sing a song, as rookies often are. He dives in with no hesitation. While his selection, John Denver’s “Country Roads,” doesn’t seem to be a favorite of the room, his performance wins everyone over. He’s no Pavarotti but he sings with gusto. His arms are out, eyes open, head high. He projects supreme confidence and just enough self-deprecation. Soon his teammates are clapping and singing along. Everyone is smiling.

Watching that, it’s easy to understand how he’s won people over at every stop.

Mayfield’s collegiate football trajectory is by now the stuff of legend. He was an undersized, lightly recruited high school quarterback who eschewed offers from Washington State and Florida Atlantic in favor of a walk-on opportunity at Texas Tech. He arrived a nobody but immediately made himself a known entity, winning both the Red Raiders’ starting job and Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year.

Mayfield traded on that success by transferring to Oklahoma, a bigger program with loftier goals. Again he beat out more heralded competition for the title of QB1. Three years later he’d thrown for over 12,000 yards and 119 Sooner touchdowns (and planted one flag in the middle of the Horseshoe). Three times he was named All-Big 12, twice he was an All-American, and as a senior he won every award a quarterback can.

All the while, doubts lingered. Sure, the numbers were gaudy, but that’s just life in the Big 12. Is he really the guy an NFL franchise wants to bank on, what with the flag-planting and crotch-grabbing? Can he even see past the line of scrimmage without lifts in his cleats? How dare he approximate Johnny Manziel’s measurables?

Regardless of the time and place, Mayfield’s story hits similar beats. First they ignore him, as when he was overlooked as a high schooler. Then they’re skeptical of him, as Oklahoma teammates were when he arrived in Norman. Then they doubt him, as numerous media types and fans have, stoking the quarterback’s inner flame. Then he wins, usually completing 70 percent of his passes in the process. Exceeding expectations is what he does.

To be sure, leading the Browns out of the abyss is the greatest challenge of Mayfield’s football life. We’ve seen our share of would-be saviors driven out of town, from the top of the front office all the way down. The streets of Berea are paved with ungranted wishes and broken reputations.

But—and god knows I’ve said this about quarterbacks before, dating back to Charlie Frye—there’s something different about Baker. The way the ball jumps out of his hand. The way he celebrates with his teammates. The way he answers the same question a thousand times without appearing flustered. The way he seems unsurprised by his own success, but not performatively—legitimately. Like he’s known all along that he can do this, and all he needed was a chance. He got one on Thursday and proved himself right.

Sometimes there’s a man, and he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. He has the right stuff. Perhaps he turns boos into cheers and malaise into hope. He can make third-and-10 more than prelude to a punt. Maybe he even wills refrigerators open and renders beer free. If ever there was a time and place for a man like that, it’s now, and it’s Cleveland. And folks, I do believe we’ve found him. And his name is Baker Mayfield.