Six years ago, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll made a difficult decision that altered the trajectory of the franchise.
In training camp, on the heels of two straight 7-9 seasons, Carroll observed his young, athletic, undersized rookie quarterback outperforming the veteran Seattle had lured in free agency. Two weeks into the preseason slate, Carroll promoted third-round pick Russell Wilson ahead of Matt Flynn and never looked back.
Wilson started all 16 games and the Seahawks, protecting their fledgling quarterback with a potent ground game and emerging defense, racked up 11 wins, upset the fourth-seeded Redskins in the wild-card round, and narrowly lost to the Falcons in the divisional round. One year later, Wilson and the Seahawks became Super Bowl champions for the first time in team history, and they returned to the title game the following season.
After Thursday night's preseason showcase from quarterback Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson seems to be facing a choice that's as challenging - and potentially as consequential - as the one Carroll made in 2012. Mayfield passed for 212 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-10 win over the New York Giants. The accuracy, mobility, and leadership that made him a Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma and the No. 1 pick in the draft didn't take long to translate at the pro level.
On a third-and-18, an almost impossible down on which to move the chains, Mayfield bought time by climbing the pocket before connecting with Damion Ratley for 20 yards and first down. On his game-tying touchdown in the second quarter, Mayfield hung in the pocket and went through multiple progressions before finding tight end David Njoku with a high-arcing toss that threaded three Giants defenders in the end zone.
Jackson's insisted that veteran Tyrod Taylor is the starter after the Browns sent a third-round pick to the Buffalo Bills to secure his services, but Mayfield - who's been compared to a cross between Wilson and Drew Brees - looks like he at least deserves the opportunity to change his coach's mind. Jackson should certainly reconsider his stance if the quarterback takes another step forward in the second preseason game.
Mayfield isn't a small-school project or a one-year wonder who needs to spend a developmental season being babysat on the bench. He played 48 college games - 40 at Oklahoma after transferring from Texas Tech - and finished his career with a 68.5 percent completion rate, more than 14,600 passing yards, and 131 touchdown passes.
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Mayfield walked on at both schools, illustrating his work ethic and determination - though those qualities may have been overshadowed by some public moments of immaturity and poor decision-making. But the throws and huddle command Mayfield demonstrated in the preseason opener are examples of why the Browns chose him first overall in a quarterback-rich draft despite his atypical body frame and red flags.
Execution, poise under pressure, and pro-readiness are the same reasons Carroll went with Wilson instead of Flynn in 2012. It's also why Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson, having traded Sam Bradford a week before the 2016 opener, elevated rookie and No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz over free-agent veteran Chase Daniel.
Pederson started the North Dakota State star despite Wentz's small-school pedigree and short resume of 612 pass attempts - almost 900 fewer than Mayfield had in his college career. In his second NFL campaign, Wentz won 13 games and set the franchise record for touchdowns in a season before torn knee ligaments sidelined him for the team’s Super Bowl run.
Last year, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay implemented an up-tempo, innovative offense suited to Jared Goff, who was selected first overall ahead of Wentz in 2016. As a rookie starter, Goff went 0-7 and seemed to be on the path to getting labeled a bust. In 2017, he improved his completion percentage by almost eight points to 62.1 and his passer rating climbed nearly 40 points to 100.5 as the Rams won 11 games.
The Browns are strong on the offensive line and have proven skill-position weapons in running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and (perhaps) Josh Gordon, and tight end Njoku (another first-round pick). They've also hired Todd Haley, one of the NFL's most successful offensive coordinators.
Cleveland offers the right kind of support system for Mayfield to develop while taking his lumps as the team grows around him, and can afford to ride out an up-and-down rookie season. What the team can't afford is failing to get the best out of him. After all, the Browns have posted a winning record once in the past 15 years, won just one of their last 32 games, and haven't developed a long-term quarterback since the 1990s.
They've picked Mayfield as the future of the franchise, and the future needs to start now.
Geoff Mosher is an award-winning sports reporter, radio host, and TV personality with more than 20 years of experience covering all major sports and leagues. He also hosts regularly on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia and co-hosts "The Sports Shop" on Facebook. You can find him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.