BEREA, Ohio -- Two years ago, on Monday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield tried to escape the pocket to heave a pass downfield. But as he lumbered to his right, Nick Bosa easily tracked him from behind to force him into an intentional grounding penalty.
Bosa, an Ohio State alum, then rubbed in the domination, mimicking Mayfield’s famous 2017 flag plant in Ohio Stadium to celebrate the big play. Just as the flag plant following the win over the Buckeyes defined Mayfield’s brash college career at Oklahoma, Bosa’s mocking of it underscored the Browns quarterback’s struggles in 2019.
That season, Mayfield was consistently unable to evade the rush to deliver completions. Though his offensive line was of little help, Mayfield was sacked 40 times, second-most in the AFC. He also threw 21 interceptions. His footwork was a mess, and he couldn’t get set up quickly enough to aim passes at open receivers.
Mayfield knew he needed a change. More specifically, a physical transformation, which would require an overhaul of his offseason regimen and daily eating habits. He said then he felt too slow and too heavy. And, among other reasons, his performance suffered.
A year and a half later, after a drastic recommitment to eating smarter and exercising harder, Mayfield is in the best shape of his career.
He’s reduced his body fat from 18 to 11%. He lost 14 pounds despite adding 4 pounds of muscle, and now weighs 214, which is lighter than what his listed weight was at Oklahoma. He can do almost twice as many pushups in one stint as before (45 from 25). And he’s hit new personal highs in everything from squats to the vertical jump.
His performance on the field has taken a leap as well. Mayfield finished the 2020 season in the top 10 in QBR (65.5) while guiding the Browns to the postseason for the first time since 2002. He cut his interception total down to eight and took only 26 sacks, thanks in part to a far better offensive line.
Cleveland’s opening drive in Sunday’s Week 1 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs -- a game in which he went toe-to-toe with 2019 MVP Patrick Mahomes -- was the most recent example of how far Mayfield has come.
He danced away from an edge rusher to dump off a completion to tight end Austin Hooper; juked through pressure to reel off a 7-yard run; then, rolling left, effortlessly flipped his hips around to deliver a 22-yard strike to Anthony Schwartz across the field on a third down, setting up an eventual Browns touchdown.
The results of his offseason regimen are clear to see. Yet for all the effort he’s put in and discipline he’s maintained, Mayfield didn’t get to this point on his own. Strength coach C.J. McFarland, nutritionist Angie Asche, his brother -- and workout partner -- Matt, and wife, Emily, have all played leading roles in his success story.
“It definitely takes a village, there’s no doubt about that,” Mayfield said last week. “C.J. has been great for my offseason routine, and Angie, dietwise, has been unbelievable, as well. ... Going to workouts with your brother every morning in the offseason has been pretty fun. And then coming home and having a home-cooked meal is pretty nice, too.
“I’ve never been in it by myself.”
'It’s definitely noticeable'
After the 2019 season, Matt, Baker’s older brother, connected him with McFarland, then a strength coach in Austin, Texas, and former world-champion powerlifter. These past two offseasons, the Mayfield brothers met at McFarland’s gym four mornings a week for grueling two-hour workouts.
“I was looking for a place to work out, but more importantly, Baker was going to be looking for a place to work out,” said Matt, who’d heard about McFarland through a friend. “We realized pretty quickly C.J. knew what the hell he was doing.”
Baker and his brother began training at McFarland’s gym in early June 2020. Their mornings featured a focus on powerlifting to strengthen Baker’s core. Lower-body lifts took place Mondays and Fridays, with upper-body work coming Tuesdays and Thursdays. McFarland also designed lifts specifically around protecting Baker’s right throwing shoulder. Dumbbell rows supplanted bench press, redistributing stress away from the shoulder. To strengthen and stabilize it, McFarland had Baker do single-arm dumbbell presses and a multitude of resistance-band exercises.
Additionally, McFarland tailored the conditioning to mimic a football play, with quick bursts lasting up to 10 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of rest.
“That would be him going back to the huddle, calling the play, getting set again,” McFarland said.
In his eighth week of working with McFarland, Baker Mayfield flew to Cleveland for some commercial shoots before training camp.
“One of the first things he told me was that when he got back to Cleveland, he was smoking everybody in the conditioning test and doing extremely well,” McFarland said. “I know from that he felt really good and peaked perfectly in time for the preseason.”
Mayfield responded with his bounce-back year in 2020, and says he feels even better in 2021, following 16 more weeks training with McFarland this past offseason.
“I try not to tell him how much better he looks, because obviously I don't want to add to his ego,” joked McFarland, who’s since taken an internship on the LSU strength staff, meaning the Mayfield brothers will need a new place to train next offseason. “But he’s a ton stronger and more powerful than he was last season.”
Mayfield says he can feel that difference, especially when making sudden, explosive actions. He also feels more efficient with his movement within the pocket, which has continued to sharpen his throwing mechanics and footwork.
“It’s definitely noticeable,” Matt Mayfield said, comparing his brother’s shape to just last season.
“The explosiveness, you saw some of it last year, you’re going to see even more of it this year.”
'The diet just becomes your lifestyle'
Baker Mayfield played the 2019 season at the heaviest weight of his career. Some of that was by design. But some of it was not. He had gotten married that summer, and various injuries prevented him from conditioning frequently once the season started. Playing heavy messed with his footwork and sapped his ability to escape the pocket.
When he started training with McFarland in 2020, Mayfield weighed over 227 pounds.
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt challenged him to get lighter over the offseason. That prompted his wife, Emily, to introduce him to Asche, a college friend of hers from the University of Nebraska.
Asche gave Mayfield a seven-page assessment to complete and examined his bloodwork to determine whether there were any deficiencies in his diet. From there, she formulated a plan to improve his body composition.
“There weren’t things in his diet like quinoa or sweet potatoes, so I just tried to add a lot more nourishing foods, to get more of those micronutrients and things like vitamins and minerals, things that were going to aid in recovery,” Asche said.
“But really, it was just understanding portioning for him. He can still have his Mexican food, he can still have tequila every now and then. It’s really the portion size that is going to make or break those body-composition goals.”
As Asche reconstructed Mayfield's diet, it was Emily who enforced it, preparing the meals, especially the dinners, according to Asche’s specifications and Mayfield's tastes.
“He's not a big fish guy,” Asche said. “Salmon is not something I ever put on any of the weekly meal plans.”
Mayfield, however, can tolerate cod. Stir-fried vegetables and honey chicken thighs have become hits in the Mayfield household. Asche also regularly includes Mexican dishes like burrito bowls in the plan to satisfy his cravings.
“After a while, the diet just becomes your lifestyle,” Asche said. “It’s something that he just does now.”
'That's the kind of performance you get'
Flashing his newfound fluidity on the move, Mayfield finished 5-for-5 passing for 94 yards on play-action throws, and 5-for-5 for 101 yards against the blitz in Cleveland’s dazzling first half against the Chiefs.
“He’s done an outstanding job of getting his body ready,” Van Pelt said. “He did it last year as well. And it’s showing up in his quickness ... the footwork. He’s made leaps in that way, especially under center with what we ask him to do in the dropback game. He’s made big strides.”
Despite the eventual loss to Kansas City, the Browns showed they have the potential to hang with the NFL’s best. Those little things that have led to Mayfield's new body are one big reason.
“When you put together all of the components -- the training, eating properly, sleeping properly,” McFarland said, “that’s what makes the Cleveland Browns go back to the playoffs for the first time in two decades.
“When you put the entire thing together, the way Baker has, that’s the kind of performance you get.”