Browns' improvement hinges on their 'alpha male' QB Baker Mayfield

Stephen A.: Browns are not Super Bowl contenders (1:31)

Stephen A. Smith urges the Browns to make the playoffs first before he can label them as Super Bowl contenders. (1:31)

The Cleveland Browns followed a simple formula to bring success within their reach.

They found their quarterback. Once they did that, everything else fell into place.

Don’t believe it? Consider the flailing that went on the previous 20 seasons before general manager John Dorsey identified and drafted Baker Mayfield first overall in 2018. When Mayfield rewarded the faith with 27 touchdown passes and a historic rookie season, it was just a matter of adding around the core.

The culmination came with Wednesday’s trade for Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who appears to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Browns to truly compete to win the AFC North and advance in the playoffs.

None of this happens without Mayfield.

Since 1999, the Browns have had four 1,000-yard rushers: Jamal Lewis in 2007, Reuben Droughns in 2005 and Peyton Hillis in 2010. They have had seven 1,000-yard receivers, including Josh Gordon’s league-leading 1,646 yards in 2013.

None of them sustained what they established, in large part because the Browns never had a quarterback. The team would find talent here and there, but the players either never stayed, jelled or built on success because the Browns never could sustain the most important position on the team.

Now the Browns have Nick Chubb and (eventually Kareem Hunt) in the backfield with Duke Johnson. They have Jarvis Landry and Beckham at receiver -- perhaps the best tandem in the league. They have a young tight end in David Njoku. And they have Mayfield to run things, to distribute.

Success rides on his shoulders -- just as it did in his rookie season.

All of this will challenge Mayfield’s ability to galvanize and unite a disparate group of personalities that already has been called volatile and potentially disruptive.

That’s hard to imagine at this point. Beckham’s best friend in the game is Landry, now his teammate. Mayfield already has worked out with the pair, and the three seem to get along well. Beckham’s swagger will match Mayfield’s, as the two believe they either are or will be the best at their position.

The hinge in all this is the young quarterback who made the phrase “feeling dangerous” popular in Cleveland. Can Mayfield be the leader his team needs, and his city deserves?

He showed that ability in college, where former Browns coach Hue Jackson called him “the pied piper of Oklahoma football.” At his workout he had many former teammates in support; Joe Mixon stood behind him muttering “nice shot Bake” with every pass.

Mayfield showed it in Cleveland last season, when he challenged his teammates to “find out what kind of men” we have in the locker room after the firing of Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Asked if he was up to the challenge of pulling a losing team up by the bootstraps, Mayfield responded: “Bring it on.”

As ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said in an interview on WKRK-92.3 The Fan in Cleveland: “Baker Mayfield is an alpha male.”

New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks used the same wording when he said he wanted to join the Browns.

"You can't win in this league without a quarterback," Wilks said in February. "And we have a quarterback. He's an alpha male and affects the whole team."

Almost every analyst has picked the Browns to win the AFC North -- and yes, it’s well before the draft.

It seems a lot to ask of a young man who will turn 24 in April, but the Browns have hitched their wagon to Mayfield.