Crack open the victory fridges and hand out the free beer, the Cleveland Browns have finally won a game.
It was not the Super Bowl, or even a playoff game; it did not put the Browns in first place, or even give them a winning record, but Cleveland, thanks to an electric debut by Baker Mayfield, beat the Jets, 21-17, on Thursday night, ending a winless streak that had stretched for 635 days.
There was no expectation that Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, would play in this game because the veteran Tyrod Taylor was entrenched at quarterback. But after getting off to a terrible start, Taylor sustained a concussion in the second quarter, opening the door for Mayfield, who woke up a team that was trailing, 14-0, when he jogged onto the field to raucous cheers at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium.
Mayfield showed off everything that made him the top pick in the draft. He created plays with his legs, he made difficult throws look easy, he even caught a 2-point conversion on a trick play in which he split out as a receiver and caught a floater in the end zone thrown by Jarvis Landry, a wide receiver.
Cleveland instantly took the momentum of the game under Mayfield, who ended up throwing for 201 yards in just over two quarters of action, easily outdueling Sam Darnold of the Jets, who was taken two picks after Mayfield in the draft.
“Tonight was his night,” Coach Hue Jackson said of Mayfield at his postgame news conference. “It was his coming-out party.”
Mayfield, who is known for a fiery personality on and off the field, kept things cool, crediting his teammates and expressing concern for Taylor. But he also projected a great deal of confidence in the direction the Browns were headed.
“It’s not the only win we’re going to celebrate,” he said. “It’s a building block for us.”
That confidence is the reason so many of Mayfield’s teammates have expressed excitement about him since the moment he was drafted. When asked if there was any doubt that Mayfield was the man for the job, Landry broke into laughter.
“Doubt who? Never doubt 6,” he said, referencing Mayfield’s jersey number. “I don’t think there’s a coach or player in this building who has doubted him.”
It was hardly a one-man show in Cleveland, though. Landry had a strong connection with Mayfield and finished the day with eight catches for 103 yards, including a circus grab at the goal line that helped set up the Browns’ first touchdown. Carlos Hyde rumbled for 98 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and the Browns’ defense, led by Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, flustered the Jets into enough mistakes to get Cleveland back into a game that at one point seemed like it would be a blowout in New York’s favor.
Darnold, who last week became the youngest quarterback ever to pass for 300 yards in a game, could not do nearly as much against Cleveland’s upstart defense. He completed 15 of 31 passes for 169 yards but did not throw a touchdown and threw two interceptions in the game’s final two minutes. Isaiah Crowell, the former Brown, accounted for the bulk of the Jets’ scoring with two touchdown runs, punctuating one with a lewd celebration that angered the fans in Cleveland.
The Browns’ futility since the franchise’s resurrection in 1999 has been well documented. In 19 seasons, Cleveland had a winning record just twice and made the playoffs just once. Their quarterbacks had the staying power of a drummer for Spinal Tap, their acquisitions nearly always seemed to fail and their castoffs too often found success elsewhere.
But in the first two years under Jackson, they had somehow found a lower level than the N.F.L.’s basement. Coming into Thursday night’s game, the team had gone 1-32-1 for Jackson, including an 0-16 finish in 2017 that resulted in fans holding a parade to celebrate their shortcomings.
Despite some optimism surrounding the team’s off-season moves, the Browns had low enough expectations for the season that Bud Light engineered a promotion in which fridges filled with beer were distributed to bars in the Cleveland area with a promise that they would be opened the next time the Browns won.
It only took three games for Browns fans to drink for free.
“Everyone wants to make this a big moment,” Jackson said in an attempt to play down the significance of the victory. “Winning is outstanding, but we plan on doing this more.”
Asked to weigh in on just this game, rather than the future, Jackson lightened up considerably.
“Am I excited about tonight?” he asked. “Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? I’m tired of the jokes.”
The terrific performance by Mayfield helped erase memories of Taylor’s awful start. An eight-year veteran who was traded to the Browns this off-season, Taylor was expected to be a solid caretaker until Mayfield was ready. He had been known for his accuracy in Buffalo, where he helped the Bills end their long playoff drought last season, but over three games with the Browns he has completed just 41 of 84 passes (48.8 percent).
The win gives Cleveland a modest 1-1-1 record after three games, which represents Cleveland’s best start since 2011. Next week they will travel to Oakland to face the Raiders in pursuit of something that until now has seemed impossible: a winning streak.
But even after Mayfield’s comeback win, Jackson was not quite ready to name him the starter going forward should Taylor clear the N.F.L.’s concussion protocol.
“Obviously Baker did some great things,” he said. “We don’t play until next Sunday. Let’s not get into those debates tonight.”