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Baker Mayfield and the new world of expectations in Cleveland

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Under the Monday night lights, millions of football fans witnessed Odell Beckham Jr.'s entire NFL career on rewind during a Godforsaken game between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. It went something like this:

A breathtaking one-handed catch, a me-first equipment violation that hurt his team, an injury that took him off the field, a thrilling touchdown scored at video game speed and a pair of personal scores settled with New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman, who wasn't in the building, and Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who wished he wasn't in the building.

This is your life, OBJ, whose star was born in 2014 with his otherworldly catch against Dallas in the same corner of the MetLife Stadium field where he pulled in a Baker Mayfield throw with a single gloved hand. When Mayfield was told Monday night that his former coach, Williams, had questioned Beckham's credibility as a dynamic player by reminding reporters that the Giants had effectively fired him, he started rubbing his beard and shaking his head.

"He said that?" the quarterback asked incredulously after the Browns 23-3 victory. "Jesus. Next question. He's not a dynamic football player? OK."

Hey, there's a reason the offseason Beckham trade tilted the Cleveland hype machine for a franchise that had experienced 11 consecutive losing seasons, a streak that's next to impossible in a league that does its damnedest to prevent teams from being dominant or dreadful for very long. Mayfield, Beckham, Jarvis Landry -- who's stopping that? The Browns were scheduled to wake up the echoes of their storied past, at least until the Tennessee Titans exposed them in the opener as big on personality and more than a little short on execution and grit.

The Week 2 Browns badly needed the always accommodating Jets to give them a pick-me-up, and boy did the Jets deliver. With Sam Darnold already out, and with Trevor Siemian pounded into submission by Myles Garrett, the Browns needed only to survive Luke Falk. Mayfield completed 19 of 35 passes for 325 yards and a touchdown, but he basically played his C-plus game.

"I think I need to be better checking the ball down and getting completions," the quarterback said.

So the night belonged to Beckham, who wrapped a bow around the experience by taking a short pass in the seam and racing 89 yards to pay dirt, and by positively glowing while mingling with familiar faces during his postgame rounds.

"When the lights come on ... he's going to turn it on," Mayfield said. "He's a special guy who loves when the game is played."

Of course, the same has been often said of Mayfield, the No. 1 overall draft choice and 2017 Heisman winner who still plays with the edge of a walk-on trying to earn a full ride. Temporarily lost in the Beckham-fest at MetLife was the fact that Mayfield has to play better than he has these first two weeks if Cleveland is to take advantage of Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending injury and earn a playoff spot out of the AFC North for the first time since 2002.

In the end, Mayfield -- not Beckham or anyone else -- will be the man who determines whether the Browns make their first Super Bowl appearance or win their first NFL title since 1964. Mayfield doesn't just play the sport's most important position; he plays what has become something of an ageless position. Theoretically, anyway, he will be leading the Browns long after Beckham is gone.

And that sounds like a pretty good proposition to the last franchise player who understands what a championship football season looks and feels like in one of the country's greatest football towns.


Jim Brown lives in Los Angeles, but remains a Special Advisor to Browns ownership. The old running back still attends games and practices, travels with the team, and consults coaches and players on request. Brown will show up at the team facility when he is in Canton for Hall of Fame ceremonies, or when Browns legends are brought in to speak to rookies, or when the franchise holds its annual alumni weekend. He is 83, and still lightning quick with an opinion.

Asked if he sees this Cleveland regime winning it all over the next three or four years, Brown said, "Actually I do, and I don't mind saying so."

Despite Jimmy and Dee Haslam's grim record of picking coaches and executives since buying the franchise in 2012, Brown said he believes in the owners and in the roster their latest decision-makers, GM John Dorsey and rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens, have pieced together. He said the current combination of management acumen and player talent gives the Browns "a great opportunity for a championship." He said he is "looking forward to some wonderful years."

Those wonderful years, Brown believes, will be shaped by Mayfield.

"He's going to be a superstar," the Hall of Famer told ESPN.com by phone before the Browns made it to 1-1.

"He's the real deal. He has the physical skills, but more than the physical skills he has a great attitude toward his position, toward his responsibility. ... He's the first quarterback I've seen the Browns come up with that I really believe can truly do the job."

The first, at least, since Frank Ryan, the quarterback who threw three touchdown passes to Gary Collins in Cleveland's 27-0 victory over the Baltimore Colts in the '64 title game (Brown rushed for 114 yards in that victory). In fact, Mayfield might be the most significant player the Browns have put under center since Otto Graham, who won four titles in the old All-America Football Conference before winning three more in the NFL.

Brown sees Mayfield's blind belief in himself as one of his most valuable assets.

"I think it's totally necessary for a quarterback to have that," Brown said. "The reason we're talking about it is Baker has it, and he doesn't care about you or me or anybody looking at it a certain way."

"It's a real confidence, and he doesn't mind showing it. But yet it doesn't come off as a cocky young man who hasn't proven anything. It only took me a few minutes watching him to realize he has greatness in his future." Jim Brown on Baker Mayfield

Of course, Mayfield carries himself like he knows he's destined for superstardom. After Brown mentioned that Beckham "had the audacity to come up to me one day at practice" with a few teammates to welcome him, he was asked if Beckham's quarterback had shown the same kind of respect to the Browns' all-time great.

"Oh yes," Brown said, "that's why when I first brought up his name, I laughed. I understand a little bit about him. He gives his respect very casually, in a very casual manner. You have to pick up on it. He's really about business and being a quarterback. He understands he has to concentrate on things that even an old guy like myself might not realize. I won't be able to influence him a lot. I'm sure I'll talk to him, and as the season goes on we'll get closer.

"I would say he is unique, because he has that attitude about himself. He can throw the ball, and he's very special because the confidence he has is not a fake confidence. It's a real confidence, and he doesn't mind showing it. But yet it doesn't come off as a cocky young man who hasn't proven anything. It only took me a few minutes watching him to realize he has greatness in his future."

These forecasts do nothing to lighten the load on Mayfield or his team. But as far as heightened expectations representing the most formidable opponent on Cleveland's schedule, Brown isn't buying.

"What's funny about expectations is, a lot of time people say, 'Don't have it,' or they make a point of being cool about it," Brown said. "But when you have a certain kind of talent and coaching staff and ownership, you've got to have expectations. I mean, why not? And right now Cleveland has expectations and the fans have expectations and I have expectations, and I'm not going to downplay that end of it. I'm going to play it up."

Monday night wasn't an ideal time to play up the Browns' championship chances, no matter what the scoreboard said. They beat an awful team on the road, then headed off to face a good team, the Rams, in yet another national TV night game for a franchise that hasn't exactly led the league in prime-time exposure.

Between now and Sunday night, the Browns need to find more consistency on offense. They also need Mayfield to rediscover his A-game. He is the team's most consequential long-term player, after all, not Beckham. He is the one most responsible for someday giving Cleveland on the field what LeBron James gave it on the court.