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Baker Mayfield
Actions, not words
Baker Mayfield's work this offseason, when he didn't know he'd end up in Carolina, speaks louder and more clearly than anything anyone will say about him this week.
By Darin Gantt Sep 07, 2022

CHARLOTTE — There are so many words. Words that don't mean anything. Words that weren't even said. Words about words that weren't even said. Just a constant, babbling stream of words.

And they all mean approximately the same thing.


If you want to know what this season — which is way bigger than any one game, no matter which game — means to Baker Mayfield, none of the words matter, no matter how hard you listen for cheap motivational material or profound insights.

Don't listen to the words. Look at the actions.

Mayfield was reeling in March, hurt by the wandering eye of his first professional love, not knowing what would come next, or when. He was months from the trade that brought him to the Panthers, weeks from the time it almost happened the first time during the draft.

All he knew was that he was still recovering after surgery on his non-throwing shoulder in January, but that he needed to throw. So he got on the phone, and called the guy he believed could help. Got on the phone, and lined up his old high school field. Got on the phone, and recruited some receivers who had no reason to join him other than it seemed like a righteous cause.

And at that point, there were no words. Just a series of regularly scheduled, and very meaningful actions.

Jeff Christensen had met Baker Mayfield before. But this guy was different.

The Chicago-area passing coach, himself a former NFL quarterback, was referred to Mayfield by his then-Browns teammate Drew Stanton years ago. They talked, they worked together for seven or eight days. It seemed to help, as Mayfield went onto his best season, leading the Browns to a rare playoff win.

The Mayfield that Christensen talked to this offseason was different, and he could tell how much from his first session.

Christensen, who has also worked with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, was asked how much the events of this offseason changed the way Mayfield approached their fine-tuning of his mechanics.

"Probably beyond, . . . the number is probably too big to talk about," Christensen said. "A physical injury. Severe physical injury. Rehabbing. Going through what he went through with the organization in Cleveland. How he went through it. How the media, at times, piled on him. Every possible reason why you would have self-doubt as a player, and a human being, was put on his doorstep.

"As I worked with him, you got none of that. Not one negative comment about Cleveland or the organization. Not one negative comment about any player he played with in the past. Not one statement about him being in a tough situation and being screwed over. Not one, not nothing. It was just, 'Here's what I'm going to do, I'm going to control what I can control, and I'm going to get great.' That's it."

From where Mayfield was even a few weeks earlier, that was an incredible journey in and of itself.

After his 2020 season, when he led the Browns to their first postseason win since 1994, things went south in a hurry for the former No. 1 overall pick.

The left shoulder injury was painful; playing through it and not playing as well as he had the year before was painful in its own way. And then came this offseason. As the Browns were meeting with quarterback Deshaun Watson on March 15, the precursor for the eventual trade, Mayfield tweeted out (he has since stepped away from social media) that he had "no clue" what was coming next. The next day brought a report that the team was looking for an "adult" at the position — his position. The next day, he asked for a trade. Thinking they weren't going to land Watson, the Browns initially said no. And then the Browns agreed to a new deal and acquired the former Houston quarterback, and Mayfield was effectively without a home.

So he did what he knew how to do.

He threw.

With Christensen enlisted to work on his delivery during those sessions at Lake Travis High back in Austin, Tex., Mayfield got longtime NFL receivers Danny Amendola and Cole Beasley to show up to catch the passes.

The 33-year-old Beasley's still trying to get back in the league, after catching 82 balls last year for the Bills. The 36-year-old Amendola's comfortably retired, as evidenced by the fact a two-day visit with the Cardinals and his old buddy Kliff Kingsbury was followed by a two-week vacation to France.

"When you're me, and you show up to work and Danny Amendola and Cole Beasley come out, and run routes for him privately, in the middle of their day, and they're dripping sweat, and they'll go for 90 minutes, non-stop until Baker's had enough, three days a week. I say to them, 'Why are you doing this, man?'" Christensen recalled. "They said, 'I love that guy. That guy's a dude. I want that guy to get what he deserves. I love that guy.'

"Two guys like that with their resumes saying that about him, my opinion doesn't matter at that point. If I have a different opinion than those two cats, both huge overachievers with the bodies the good Lord gave them. Effort off the grid. And truly care about him that much when there's nothing in it for them. Nothing. Just helping a friend. That's the kind of guy an offensive lineman will follow into a fight. And that's basically what this is on Sundays.

"We tend to forget in this business, it's about gaining the respect of your peers, and he has mine because of the way he works and the way he's wired."

Beasley acknowledged he'd like to play again, and nothing in his 10 years in the league suggests he's not capable. At the same time, nothing that was happening on the field at Lake Travis in March was necessarily getting him any closer to that goal, even though it was a short 15-minute drive from his home.

For him, seeing the way Mayfield was getting after it was all the motivation he needed.

"I always liked quarterbacks who are dogs — and there aren't as many as you think," Beasley said.

Cole Beasley

Beasley counts former teammates Dak Prescott and Josh Allen that way too, and said the Mayfield he worked out with had the same kind of animal inside him.

"A guy who will do anything to win," Beasley said when asked what gives a quarterback canine qualities. "A guy who will put his body on the line for his teammates in a fight. There aren't too many guys who, when a fight breaks out, will be back out in the middle of the field. Josh is like that. Dak is like that.

"And Baker is definitely like that."

Beasley's recent experience with Allen — the 26-year-old owner of one of the NFL's strongest arms — also came into play on those Texas afternoons. When he saw Mayfield throwing highlight reel passes in Panthers camp (like the 60-yard touchdown to Robbie Anderson early in his Spartanburg days), it struck him as familiar.

And still, different.

"He throws a better ball in general than people give him credit for. Baker takes a lot of crap and I don't know the reason why. But he's got an arm," Beasley said. "Something happened to me down there that never happened when I was playing with Josh. I always wore gloves in Buffalo. The first time I went out to practice with Baker, I wasn't wearing gloves. By the time we finished after about an hour and a half, my thumbs were sore like they hadn't been sore before.

"After that, I was wearing gloves the rest of the time we worked out together."

And through all of those workouts, all of the days spent together, sweating it out with no apparent reward for any of them, there was another thing that stood out to Beasley.

"He didn't talk about it at all, honestly," Beasley said of Mayfield's not-yet-past with the Browns. "He was locked into working with Christensen, and it was all good stuff.

"Baker was always focused on what he was doing. I never heard him say a word about it."

Baker Mayfield

Maybe that's because words don't mean all that much when you have something to prove, and the possibility exists that people only want the words, not the meaning.

An entire NFL media ecosystem exists to create content. For many of them, the juicier, the better. And this one, well, this one was the low-hanging fruit. But Mayfield hasn't bitten, and it wouldn't matter if he did. He acknowledged last week that the storylines have only grown in number because he hasn't played along with the people who want to write or talk about the stories, but that doesn't matter to him.

None of the words matter. Only the work.

The 62-year-old Christensen played at Eastern Illinois and was a fifth-round draft pick of the Bengals, one of six NFL teams to employ him. He threw 58 passes in eight years in the league, all with the Browns in 1987. Since then, he's gone on to mentor thousands of quarterbacks, from high schoolers to pros, as the head quarterbacks coach at Throw It Deep.

He's particular about his work, the way a longtime backup who had to fight for the chance for even a chance to study the game from up close has to be. He talks about throws being accurate in increments of feet, in a game measured by yards.

"It's like I can see things because of those years of experience and millions of throws physically and visually I've been involved in, and you just know when the ball's perfect and you know when it's five feet late," Christensen said.

The veteran tutor talks about "it throws," and he saw a few of them in Mayfield's final preseason tuneup against the Bills.

"That was 100 percent what he did with his feet," the perfectionist said.

But what really impressed Christensen was the daily habits he saw back in Texas, as early as March, when Mayfield couldn't have known where he was ending up.

Christensen figures if he can get 100 hours a year with a quarterback, he can see a clear difference in the small mechanical details. He and Mayfield are up to 60 or so right now (about 28 individual sessions), with more coming on Mondays and Tuesdays over the course of the season. He's not coaching with the Panthers — Christensen makes it very clear he'd never tell Mayfield who to throw to, only how to better throw it to them — but is more of a supplement. A reminder of the things Mayfield already knows, like a swing coach for a golfer.

"I look at myself like their subconscious," Christensen said of his quarterbacks. "I can unemotionally say here's what I saw, make sure when you're warming up this week, or warming down, consider doing this little bit to make it better.

"Nothing in the coaches' world. Don't ever tell them who to throw the ball to, or how to play. Just, when you throw the ball from A to B, that's what we're addressing."

He said Mayfield remembers the particulars from their first work together, but has shown a different ability to repeat them now.

"He got to that point this last year, and he said, 'I think I'm ready to get serious with you,'" Christensen said. "He said, 'I want to be great. What do you think?' . . . Three years ago, he was at the height of confidence. I'm not going to say this time he wasn't confident, just that this time, he understood that he threw some balls in Cleveland, and went through some duress from the time he threw it, and just didn't quite feel comfortable as it had in the past. He just wanted my opinion on where he was at, and where he could be. When we started working, and he saw that I knew. Then he just couldn't get enough. And since then, it's been basically a perfect relationship.

"To his credit, he's just a tremendous, tremendous student, and tremendously intelligent. I don't throw out tremendous very often. He really is in the moment."

And this moment is where Mayfield has remained. This week, it's a bigger deal because there are more words written about the confluence of past and present, but Mayfield has always had the ability to get people talking. Staying in the moment also keeps it from being a long-term discussion, because there really is no long-term right now. He's in the final year of his contract, and Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer has communicated with Mayfield's people that any talks about a new deal will wait until they see how the season plays out.

So there's just this moment, the latest in a string of big events Mayfield finds himself in the middle of.

What's different about this time is that he's not participating. He still says words, but he's not saying any that make a tangible difference, beyond satisfying the ecosystem's need for input.

That's why his Panthers coaches shrug a lot when asked about all that's swirling around them.

Head coach Matt Rhule, when asked about the "distraction" of last week's flap about words not said, just looked casually back and said: "It's not a distraction to me."

"I haven't seen anything other than him being a pro," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said of Mayfield.

"He shows up at 5:15 or 5:30 every morning. He's dedicated to his craft," quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan added. "I'm not surprised, but the thing that impressed me was his professionalism. Knowing what I know thus far, and what I know of him since July whatever, I would tell you he'll approach that week with a very professional attitude, 'I'm going to prepare myself to be a quarterback and win a game for the Carolina Panthers.'

"He will not make it about Baker Mayfield. I know that. He'll make it about winning for the Carolina Panthers and playing the quarterback position the best he can. That's what I know about that guy."

Of course, we'd also be doing a disservice to the truth if we present this story as one about how Mayfield has changed as a human being and somehow turned him into something he isn't. He's still got that vandal's smile when he's up to something, and he's still often up to something with his teammates.

He caught a ride to training camp with linebacker Shaq Thompson, and immediately started making fun of him and cornerback Donte Jackson — a pair of team captains — for their ability to talk trash.

Even over the weekend, when players were off for the last three days in a row until December, Jackson said Mayfield was blowing up his phone with texts about "an inside joke."


"Ultimate leader. Ultimate competitor. Just a great teammate," Jackson said of his new quarterback. "Whether he is in the room with you, an offensive player, a lineman, he's going to seek out time to have a conversation with you. We were texting all day the other day. I'm a corner. He's a guy who's all about his teammates, and all about football."

Jackson laughs when asked about the common perception of Mayfield, knowing that nothing anyone can say is really going to change it.

"That's the times we're living in," Jackson said. "The majority of the world is going to go by what you read on their phone screen. They're never going to take the time out to get to know anything really about a guy.

"I've seen the same thing guys told me about. Guys who were in the locker room, guys who spent every day with him. We play in a world; we can't be the guys who focus on what people say. I've had guys I played with in college, and they say nothing but great things about him.

"That's the guy I know."

He's serious when he needs to be. Watching him and Christian McCaffrey discussing pass routes in detail over coffee in the morning is like watching surgery being performed. But Mayfield also walks through the building leaving smiles in his wake.

Wide receiver DJ Moore is not a talker like Jackson, but players have said that having Mayfield around has brought something out of him. Moore laughs too — people who are around Mayfield on a regular basis laugh a lot — and said nothing he has seen in the last two months is different from the guy he met during the combine in 2018. Mayfield went first overall that year, creating month's worth of words and expectations. Moore went 24th, and has been quietly excellent ever since.

"Man, I knew Baker at the combine. I've never seen him change," Moore said. "From the time we've been in the league, I've never seen him change. Once he got here, it was all love and fun. I can't speak to what everyone might be talking about. I've only seen and known one person. I can't dive into why. I don't know. The way he is here is great for here, so that's what we're going to love and love to see."

But people expect cocky. They expect him to plant a flag, to send a message, to say the things that cause all the words to flow around him, if not from him.

"Trust me, he's still cocky," Moore said. "Him and D-Jack go back and forth. So you know it's there. I think he knows when to bring it out. In the locker room, he's not going to bring it out. But on the field against our defense, he does, definitely."

And because the next defense he'll see is from the place he used to live, there are plenty more words to come.

Baker Mayfield

Mayfield will have a press conference Wednesday. He'll say some words. They will be parsed, and repeated, and turned into even more words as the machine grinds on.

And they'll all mean the same as all the other words.

The thing that convinces people who have seen Mayfield up close that this will work is the way he's ignored those words and focused only on the next step.

When Christensen talks about Mayfield being "in the moment," he knows what the next moment will mean. That's part of the reason he's planning to be here to see it in person, but he only agreed to make the trip if it gave him a chance the next day to get back in the lab, to pore over the data, and make the next thing better. He and Mayfield will visit on Monday, when the words about the Browns are all said, and the work will continue.

"Fitterer and all the coaches in Carolina, they've all been incredible to work with," Christensen said. "Everyone just really has one purpose, and that's to bring Carolina a Super Bowl. That's all he's focused on. It's transparency; it's honesty, and open conversations.

"Everybody involved in this equation is hungry to win. That's a great way to be. They've all left all the sidebar, individual issues aside. I think it's going to be great. I think people in Charlotte are going to be really happy, really shortly."

If it goes the way Christensen thinks it might, that'll be the last word everyone has been waiting for.

But especially Mayfield.

View photos of Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield at training camp and in preseason games at Washington, New England and against Buffalo.

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