As Baker Mayfield broke the huddle on first-and-goal, he smiled.
The Browns trailed, 13-10, in Denver with just under 12 minutes remaining. They needed this win to stay alive in the playoff picture, and here was Mayfield, smiling. Probably because he knew what was about to happen.
Mayfield walked toward his offensive line to shout directions for an audible, directed Duke Johnson to Mayfield’s left side and excitedly pumped his right leg to call for the snap. He pump-faked once before throwing an easy, 2-yard go-ahead touchdown to Antonio Callaway on a slant route.
“Anytime you’re on a drive like that late in the game, in the fourth quarter, being able to come out with a win is crucial right there,” Mayfield said. “You have to make plays when it counts.”
That’s what Mayfield did on the Browns’ most important drive Saturday. Gifted good field position thanks to a T.J. Carrie interception, Mayfield capitalized by completing all four of his passes for 39 yards and a touchdown. And the reason the Browns scored so breezily on the final play is because Mayfield deciphered Denver’s defense and positioned his teammates to score.
Mayfield noticed Broncos defenders following his playmakers out of the huddle and discerned that Denver was playing man coverage. Then he noticed Justin Simmons — usually a safety — guarding Callaway one-on-one. From there, it was easy. He just needed to wait for Callaway to beat Simmons and throw an accurate pass.
“Pretty doggone good,” coach Gregg Williams said of Mayfield’s line-of-scrimmage changes. “We had the play call, (and) he saw what they were in. It does not make any difference what (offensive coordinator) Freddie (Kitchens) and I think, it is what Baker sees, and that is another step that you have to (take), and the big time guys do that all of the time.”
The irony in Williams’ praise is that Mayfield struggled for much of Saturday’s game. Mayfield completed just 58 percent of his passes — his third lowest percentage of the season — and threw for 188 yards, just 8 more than his season-low. None of that mattered on the go-ahead touchdown drive, though -- another promising sign in Williams’ eyes.
“Each and every week, there are things that are just abundantly clear to how (Mayfield) handles stress, how he handles confusion and how he handles dysfunction,” Williams said. “To be really good, you have to be a master of dysfunction. The best ones that I have been around handle that and do a great job with it.”
Drew Brees, Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Peyton Manning. Those are the types of names Williams means when he says “the best ones.” He’s coached for and against teams led by those quarterbacks, and those are the types of players Mayfield emulated on that play.
Wide receiver Breshad Perriman hasn’t played with the same caliber of quarterbacks Williams coached against, but Perriman still recognizes Mayfield’s advanced skillset. Perriman caught a touchdown from Mayfield on the opening drive, a 31-yard strike that Perriman said was his ball or nobody else’s, a nod to Mayfield’s acute accuracy.
Mayfield failed to display that same accuracy throughout Saturday’s game, but he prevailed on the Browns’ biggest drive. That impressed Perriman far more than the on-target pass Mayfield threw to him on the opening drive.
“It is crazy man,” Perriman said. “Baker is just – I believe he is one of a kind. Just his experience and to keep pushing through whatever comes his way is just crazy. He has a great understanding of the game and we all just basically just go as Baker goes.”