Baker Mayfield entered the 2020 season with everything he needed to take his game to the next level.
That task was one of the top goals for new head coach Kevin Stefanski, who designed a playbook meant to make the most out of Mayfield's quarterback talents and the top offensive weapons around him. The offensive line, which struggled to find consistency in 2019, was revamped with a first-round rookie at left tackle and a Pro Bowl-caliber player at right tackle. He also had two returning Pro Bowl wide receivers, a new veteran tight end and two running backs with 1,000-yard seasons in their back pockets.
Mayfield's protection and play calls were going to be stronger in 2020 than both of his previous two seasons in Cleveland. The only question was whether he could take full advantage of those improvements and make a leap many young quarterbacks must take in their third NFL season.
"I'm not going to put any added pressure on myself," Mayfield said last May. "There is no need for that because if I win, good things will happen and good things will happen for our team and the guys around me. If I play better, our team is going to do better. I put that pressure on myself. It does not matter what year it is. I have to play better each year."
Mayfield certainly backed those statements in 2020.
The Browns offense thrived with Mayfield and built their most efficient season since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999. He finished the season with 3,563 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and a career-low eight interceptions while winning 11 regular-season games, the most the Browns have won since 1994. His performance truly ascended in the second half of the year, when he threw 16 touchdowns and two interceptions in the Browns' final 10 games, which includes their two playoff games.
The Browns' run to the playoffs was led by their quarterback. Now, the franchise can't wait to see what more they can do with Mayfield in the future.
"We would not be where we were at the end of the season without his performance," Browns EVP of Football Operations and General Manager Andrew Berry said. "He led us to our first playoff appearance in eons. We got 12 wins, played winning football all year and developed a really strong relationship with Kevin and the offensive staff. He really thrives on a weekly basis both on and off the field. We are very, very pleased with him."
Mayfield's improvements came in just about every quarterback category, but he and Stefanski stressed one common theme throughout the season that might've been his best attribute: ball security.
Mayfield's accuracy and steering passes away from defenders was crucial for the offense. After throwing 21 interceptions in 2019 and vowing to become a more accurate passer last offseason, Mayfield was one of seven quarterbacks to throw nine or fewer interceptions this season — Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Derak Carr, Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Jackson complete the list.
The Browns finished seventh in the NFL with a +5 turnover differential, and Mayfield's accuracy was one of the biggest reasons why.
"He did a very good job taking care of the ball, just learning the system and some of the intricacies of this system," Stefanski said. "I knew that it was going to get better over time with losing the offseason. I think we saw that from Baker. Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, which is a big part of this, he really started playing at a high level.
"I am proud of the progress he made, but if I had to say one thing, I would say just taking care of that football."
The Browns believe Mayfield's ascension is only getting started. He's still 25 years old and has room for his body to continue to grow and for technique to further improve. His chemistry with his receivers, many of whom are expected to return next season, figures to only expand, too.
But coaching continuity could be most beneficial for high hopes of an even better season in 2021. For the first time in his career, Mayfield won't have to spend an offseason forging a relationship with a new head coach and diving into a new playbook. He'll have an opportunity to conduct a full review of last season's concepts, schemes and play calls and seek improvements under the same offensive base Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt laid for him in 2020.
The Browns won't know how far the continuity will help Mayfield until next regular season, but it certainly won't hurt his development.
"He is very excited not to learn a new offense," Stefanski said. "That is a huge part of this. We can start at that baseline and we can start that foundation and build on what we have done to date."
The Browns are entering the 2021 offseason exactly where they hoped at the quarterback position. A solid season with Mayfield under center and Stefanski on the headset is finished, and there's plenty of reasons to believe they can build on that success next season.
"We have come a long way since I first got here," Mayfield said. "There is a new standard here and that is to be expected. We're not done yet, and that is the best part."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday by the Browns photo team