CLEVELAND, Ohio — He fumbled, so he was right.
“I failed this team,” Baker Mayfield said Sunday. “Plain and simple, I have to hold on to the damn ball.”
Maybe Tim Tebow wouldn’t have said damn.
Mayfield’s fourth-down sneak in the final 90 seconds, when a conversion would have set up the next step toward a game-tying touchdown, ended with a lost ball, a lost cause, a lost game and a lost chance, the Cleveland Browns now probably needing to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to make the playoffs when a win against the New York Jets would have punched a postseason ticket.
“I’m aware of what could’ve happened if we had won today,” Mayfield continued.
Both Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefanski repeated that the absence of their five best receivers (let’s not forget Odell Beckham’s injury in addition to the COVID-19 contract tracing that knocked out four others) and three of the top six offensive linemen (let’s not forget top backup Chris Hubbard in addition to starters Jedrick Wills and Wyatt Teller) were not excuses for Sunday’s 23-16 defeat.
“We had all of the guys we needed, and we did not get it done,” Stefanski said.
“There is no excuse,” Mayfield said.
They, of course, are wrong. Undoubtedly, all of it is a perfectly reasonable excuse, a clear-eyed and obvious reason for losing. Learning late Saturday that Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge would be out, and stacking that on top of the need to start their seventh- and eighth-best offensive linemen in Kendall Lamm and Nick Harris, blew a hole in the offense and the game plan.
“It was a little too late in the week to wholesale change anything, and we did not need to,” Stefanski said. “We made some modifications, as anybody would in that situation, but the guys understood what we were doing.”
They just couldn’t do it. Where Mayfield was right was in insisting no one blame those backups, who combined for six catches on 13 targets for 72 yards and whose names will be lost to history.
“These guys didn’t even think they were going to play,” Mayfield said. “For anybody to criticize them, shame on you. Put it on me for not doing my job, for not playing at a high level like I should have and for not getting these guys going and finishing out this game.”
It’s not about them. It’s about the quarterback, just like everything is. Once Mayfield fumbled on that sneak, after fumbling when hit from behind on two previous sacks, it wasn’t about his 28 for 53 passing for 285 yards. It was about what comes next. It was about responsibility and frustration, about opportunity and anger.
So for Mayfield to take a single question in his postgame news conference, announce that he was going to answer all the questions at once, three times say there was no excuse, twice say he failed and one minute and 52 seconds later tap the table, stand and leave …
That felt right.
That felt like the Browns moving on to what’s next.
That maybe felt like the first step toward a win.
In 2008, while he was the quarterback at the University of Florida, Tebow entered the postgame interview room after a 31-30 loss to unranked Ole Miss. Tebow, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was leading a team that had expected to follow its 2006 national title with an undefeated season two years later. Instead, they’d lost to a 2-2 team. Like Mayfield on Sunday, Tebow had been stopped on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak in the closing moments that sealed a loss.
Tebow was even more to the point than Mayfield. He spoke for 39 seconds in 98 words, first apologizing to Florida fans, then vowing that he and the team would work harder than anyone in the country. Florida didn’t lose again, won that national title and Urban Meyer, then the Florida coach, had the speech engraved on a plaque and hung outside the stadium. On the 10-year anniversary in 2018, ESPN and everyone else did a story not just on the championship, but the speech, remembered now as “The Promise.”
Mayfield spoke for about three times longer than Tebow, so it won’t all fit on a plaque. Depending on how you use contractions when transcribing the quote, Mayfield was around 380 words. The type would have to be too small to get it all on there. And while Tebow was promising what would happen next, Mayfield was more focused on absorbing what had taken place in the moment.
But absorbing that was the first step in a promise of what happens next. Florida was trying to add to a title only two years old. The Browns are trying to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. There’s a little more built up here. So before the Browns could move forward, they had to take this punch.
Mayfield took it, some of it deserved, some of it not. That doesn’t make him a hero. It just makes him a quarterback. Sunday, that’s what the Browns needed. There was a lot of anger looking for a home, about testing protocols, NFL postponement rules, a Jets incompletion that maybe should have been a fumble recovered by the Browns, blown coverages, and lousy luck for a team that had been playing so well.
Maybe ESPN will be back for a story in 10 years. Maybe the Browns beat the Steelers next week, make the playoffs, make a postseason run and then at some point, some year, win it all. Maybe the words won’t matter in all of that. But sometimes, words do matter. Because maybe the words set the stage for action.
Still … probably no plaque. “I Failed” isn’t much for a plaque headline. But it worked for a disappointed team and a frustrated quarterback. The ending of Mayfield’s speech does sum it up pretty well. The last 95 words, then on to the Steelers.
“This one’s on me. Here’s the thing, this one is gonna sting for a day or two, but we have the Steelers to win and get in. Yes, I’m aware of what could’ve happened if we would have won today. I’m well aware of that, but it is what it is. So I’m gonna have to roll with these punches. Backs against the wall, and we have to win to get in. You know what, this group fought today, but I didn’t do enough and play well enough for us to win, and that’s it.”
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