Revenge game? Mayfields showdown vs. Browns is about more than just pride

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield claims he’s not out for revenge against the Cleveland Browns.

Then again, he once planted a flag in Ohio Stadium. Threw seven touchdowns against his former college team. And stared down coach Hue Jackson.

In the past, Mayfield has thrived when emotionally charged, especially when revenge has been on the line. And Sunday against his former team, he can settle his biggest score yet.

Will the Panthers’ quarterback begin to revive his once promising career by humbling and humiliating the franchise that discarded him this offseason?

Or, will the Browns shut him down, shut him up and show why they moved on from their former No. 1 overall draft pick after only four years?

On the heels of a dramatic divorce, Sunday’s showdown in Charlotte (1 p.m. ET, CBS) will carry massive morale implications for both sides. The outcome could portend plenty for Mayfield, the Panthers and the Browns for the rest of the season.

“It’s a great storyline,” Mayfield said. “Obviously, there’s history involved.”

NOT LONG AGO, Mayfield was the face of Cleveland’s franchise.

As a rookie in 2018, he led the Browns to their first victory in 635 days. In 2020, he quarterbacked Cleveland to its first playoff victory in 26 years.

But Mayfield struggled after tearing the labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder in Week 2 last season. The Browns finished with a losing record. And Cleveland pursued a trade for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, even though Watson faced more than two dozen allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate sexual misconduct during massage sessions.

In March, as Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski flew back from meeting Watson in Houston, Mayfield posted a goodbye letter to Cleveland on social media.

The following day, ESPN NFL insider Chris Mortensen reported a Browns source had told him that the team wanted to replace Mayfield with “an adult at that position.”

Mayfield responded to that by requesting a trade.

That Friday, Watson announced he was waiving his no-trade clause to join Cleveland, which sent three first-round draft picks to Houston to complete the deal. The Browns then gave Watson a new fully guaranteed $230 million, five-year deal — the richest contract in NFL history.

On July 6, Cleveland finally jettisoned Mayfield to Carolina and agreed to eat $10.5 million of his $19 million fully guaranteed contract to facilitate the trade.

“I’m not going to get into specifics as to why they moved on,” Mayfield said this week, “just because I don’t have those answers.”

MAYFIELD BECAME JUST the third quarterback in NFL history to go No. 1 in the draft and last four or fewer seasons with the team that drafted him, according to ESPN Stats & Information, joining JaMarcus Russell (Raiders) and Jeff George (Colts).

He’s also the third quarterback in the common draft era (since 1967) to start a season opener against the team that drafted him first overall, joining Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe. Both Manning and Bledsoe won their respective games.

“When he’s jacked up, he plays good,” said Carolina wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who played with Mayfield in Cleveland. “When Baker’s out there, swinging [his arms] with his chest out … talking his talk, and walking his walk — that’s what we want to see. Let him eat, man, let him eat. Man, let him do his thing. This is where he gained his confidence. … It’s going to be fun.”

Acrimony has often brought out Mayfield’s best.

At Oklahoma, he put up 66 points on Texas Tech, his former college team, whose students wore “Traitor” T-shirts. He arrived at their game the next season donning the same shirt, then defeated Tech again.

Mayfield also took issue with Ohio State’s players celebrating a 2016 victory on Oklahoma’s field. After upsetting the Buckeyes the following year, he retaliated by staking OU’s oversized flag inside the midfield Block O at Ohio Stadium.

His appetite to exact revenge carried to the pros.

In 2018, after Cleveland fired head coach Hue Jackson in the middle of the season, Jackson immediately took a job with the rival Cincinnati Bengals. That irked the Browns, especially Mayfield. He snubbed Jackson’s postgame hug attempt after their first game; Mayfield then eyed him down after a huge play during their second game — both Browns wins behind big Mayfield performances.

After his own ugly split with Cleveland, Mayfield will attempt to redress any grievances against the Browns, with his play — and, possibly, his antics — as the first step in resurrecting his NFL career.

“Baker’s going to be Baker,” said Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., when asked what to expect from Mayfield on Sunday. “He’s a competitor. He wants to be great. He’s going to compete. It’s going to be fun.”

IF CAROLINA HAD its way, Mayfield would still be in Cleveland and Watson would be the Panthers’ long-term solution at quarterback (waiting out his NFL-imposed, 11-game suspension to begin the season) while they start a backup Sunday.

Like the Browns, Carolina was all-in on Watson despite the allegations against him and were willing to deal with the suspension that came with the former Texans quarterback.

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So, as much as this game is about Mayfield versus the Browns — for Carolina, it’s about finding a long-term solution at a position that has had seven different starters since 2018 when Cam Newton suffered a shoulder injury.

For the Browns, regardless of Sunday’s outcome, they have that long-term solution in Watson for five years.

And for Mayfield, this is the first of perhaps 17 auditions to prove he can be a franchise quarterback with Carolina or somewhere else. And the Panthers want Mayfield to rediscover that bold personality that propelled him to win the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma and break the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes for Cleveland.

“What has made Baker Baker is his brashness,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said. “That’s what we saw of him in college. He elevated and lifted the team around him because of that.”

The Panthers have seen nothing but the humble side of Mayfield since he arrived in Carolina.

“The stories you hear, the stories I certainly heard, are not what I see,” Carolina coach Matt Rhule said.

Former NFL quarterback Jeff Christensen, Mayfield’s passing coach during the offseason, isn’t surprised.

“I’ve spent 100-plus hours with him and [wife] Emily,” he said. “Neither one have had anything negative to say, or do they feel anything negative, towards Cleveland.

“So he is not bitter one bit. He looks at it as a learning experience. He’s just excited about a new chapter.”

Of course, one game alone, win or lose, won’t determine Mayfield’s fate in Carolina. Sam Darnold, who Mayfield beat out for the No. 1 job during camp, opened the 2021 season with a win against his former team, the New York Jets, and started the season with a record of 3-0. Darnold then lost seven of his final eight starts, which put Carolina back on the quarterback hunt.

“We told [Baker’s] agent let’s just get through the year here, and late in the year, we’ll evaluate how he’s playing, and we’ll address that down the road,” general manager Scott Fitterer said of giving Mayfield an extension.

Mayfield, 29-30 as an NFL starter, believes he’s improved statistically every year. He discounts the 2021 season in which an injured non-throwing shoulder impacted his performance and gave the Browns reason to move on from him.

“In my mind, I don’t really count last year because of the injuries and stuff like that,” Mayfield said.

If Mayfield performs poorly this season, as Teddy Bridgewater did in 2020 and Darnold did in 2021, the Panthers will be in the quarterback market again next offseason.

If he shows promise, Mayfield will enter a quarterback market that exploded in 2022 with big deals for Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Watson.

But a win over the Browns would help Mayfield set a tone for this season.

“I expect him to be good,” said Arizona’s Murray, who backed up Mayfield at Oklahoma. “I know Bake. He’s a fierce competitor. Playing against his former team, he’ll probably have some emotions, but hopefully he can control those emotions.”

A WIN — or a loss — would be an emotional tone-setter for Cleveland, as well, on the heels of its chaotic preseason.

On Aug. 1, disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson found that Watson violated the NFL’s personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault. Seeking a tougher penalty, the league appealed her six-game suspension. Eventually, on Aug. 18, the NFL and NFLPA reached a settlement, agreeing to an 11-game suspension for Watson, who also had to pay a $5 million fine and must undergo mandatory therapy. Watson was banished from the Browns’ training facility on Aug. 30 and can’t return until Oct. 10.

Surrounding the quarterback, the Browns boast a Super Bowl-caliber roster. Now, they’re just hoping that backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett can keep them afloat until Watson returns in Week 13.

Brissett had little to say about the matchup with Mayfield this week, noting he wasn’t in Cleveland last season. The Browns’ defenders who did play with Mayfield, however, had plenty to say.

“I think he’s confident,” safety John Johnson III said after studying Mayfield’s preseason games. “I think that was probably a big thing that happened last year. Maybe the confidence wavered a little bit, but he looks confident, looks healthy, looks like he’s whipping the ball. So it’s gonna be a challenge.”

Cornerback Greg Newsome II admitted the Browns will be talking plenty of trash Sunday. They expect Mayfield to do the same.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t going to add something to this one,” Newsome said. “It’s definitely going to add a little, on his side and on our side.”

The Browns have plenty of talent. But with Watson out 11 games, their season already appears to be teetering. A deflating loss to Mayfield could send it spiraling.

For Cleveland, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Week 1. For Mayfield, with his future on the line this season, the chance for revenge has never been greater.

“Any time you’re playing guys you know, it makes it just more interesting, more fun,” Mayfield said. “You get to smack talk with your buddies that you’ve been with for a little bit. You know how to poke and prod and get the best out of them.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

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