By Ed Meyer
In another era, the fans would chant “Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie.”
It was the chant that captivated Northeast Ohio and caused caked-up dust to fall from the decrepit rafters of old Cleveland Stadium – I often rubbed it off the flaking steel beams myself --when the Browns and Bernie Kosar owned the town some 30 years ago.
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Browns (6-7-1) aren’t quite there yet, not with the mess from the 3-36-1 Hue Jackson era still being cleaned up, but you got a good taste of it after Saturday night’s 17-16 nationally televised win over the Broncos in Denver.
Mayfield did not have one of his better games – he said so himself – but as soon as he appeared with the NFL Network broadcasting crew on a stage that was set up behind the team’s bench, Browns fans still celebrating the victory in the field-level seats began a loud, rhythmic chant, “Ba-ker May-field, Ba-ker May-field, Ba-ker May-field.”
The Browns’ playoff hopes began heating up Sunday, for barely 24 hours, when the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) threw an industrial-sized monkey wrench into the mix with their 17-10 win over the New England Patriots.
Many zany things would have to happen now in the remaining games for the Browns to make the playoffs, but there can be no doubt that interim coach Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens have transformed the team since taking over a little more than seven weeks ago.
Look it up.
To transform, according to the Webster bible, is to bring about “change in composition or structure.”
The Browns no longer manufacture bizarre ways to lose, they find ways to win. They won against the Broncos for the first time in 28 years.
They have a 4-2 record under the Williams-Kitchens crew, and even before the hard-fought win over the Broncos, the excitement that Mayfield and his new coaches were generating was palpable.
Mike Tirico, the NFL Network’s seasoned play-by-play man, began Saturday night’s national telecast from Denver with the stage-setting comment that “downtown was full of Browns fans tonight.”
For confirmation Monday, I went to my Browns beat competitor from the Kosar era, Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland.
Grossi was staying in the heart of Denver’s 16thStreet Mall, the mile-long, pedestrian friendly promenade designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, and he said it was fair to say that hundreds of Browns fans were there over the weekend like the firebrand legions of the 1980s.
“It was a lot like the old days,” Gross said.
For much of the game, the Denver defense pressured Mayfield to get him out of his quick, play-making decisions and superbly accurate throws, but after the Broncos took the lead, 13-10 late in the third quarter, Mayfield came alive like winners do.
Starting at the Denver 48, he hit Jarvis Landry for 12 yards, Rashard Higgins for 19 after a scramble left and a pump fake, and then 6 underneath the coverage to Landry again to set up first-and-goal at the Denver 2-yard line.
Williams confirmed in his press briefing Monday that Mayfield made pre-snap adjustments from the original play in that vital situation, knew running back Duke Johnson would clear out two defenders in the left flat, and then saw rookie wide receiver Antonio Calloway breaking free over the middle.
Mayfield’s throw was right on the mark, and the Browns would take a 17-13 lead that they would not relinquish. Running toward the bench after the play, he pounded his chest with both fists.
“Pretty doggone good, and it was him,” Williams said about the rookie’s adjustments on the Calloway TD.
“We had the play called – boom, he saw what they were in. It does not make any difference what Freddie and I think, it is what Baker sees and that is another step that you have to have, and the big-time guys do that all of the time,” Williams said.
Retired left tackle Joe Thomas, now a commentator on the team’s flagship radio station WKNR (850AM), said Monday that Mayfield is playing well beyond his years.
“He’s playing like a 10-year veteran” -- not like a rookie with 10 games under his belt, Thomas said.
Mayfield relished the excitement of the night – the good at the start when he hit Breshad Perriman for a 31-yard touchdown, the rocky middle when many of his throws sailed high, and the brilliant comeback.
With the fans still chanting his name in the background, Mayfield said: “Prime time. On the road. In somebody else’s house. If you don’t love that, there’s something wrong with you.”
Williams took quite a bit of flak for going for a first down on fourth-and-1 deep in Denver territory with 1:53 left on the clock and a 1-point lead, bypassing what should have been an easy field goal.
Instead, he called timeout and ordered an inside run with rookie tailback Nick Chubb, who was dropped for a 2-yard loss.
Within a split second of Williams calling the timeout, the alarmed game commentators pointed out how the right defensive end jumped Mayfield’s hard court, as Browns left tackle Greg Robinson smartly touched his man as he entered the neutral zone.
Williams explained what happened.
“The timeout, I wish that I could have had it (back),” he said, “but there was a little bit of confusion at that point in time on what play we were going to call. We were going to go for it no matter what.
“That is the only way that you have total control of getting the first down, take a knee, and it is over with. I explained that to our team,” he said.
Commentator Kurt Warner said he liked the call. So did I.
It left Denver facing some 50 to 55 yards to go for a realistic shot at a game-winning field goal.