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Baker Mayfield is in a much better place this Christmas, and bringing joy to Browns fans – cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A big fan of old, classic Christmas music, Baker Mayfield is having a 2020 season that’s enough to make him blast some Nat King Cole and really enjoy the holidays this year.

Not only is he in a much better place than he was last year, he’s also got the Browns at 10-4 for the first time since 1994 and on the verge of clinching their first playoff spot in 18 years, since 2002.

“This will be the first time that I’m not planning offseason trips as soon as New Year’s Day hits,’’ Mayfield said Wednesday. “It’s a different year all around. Just taking it one day at a time quite honestly.”

With Mayfield playing some of the best ball of his career, the Browns can clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Jets and a loss or tie by AFC rivals Baltimore, Miami or Indianapolis. In this COVID-19-ravaged year, Mayfield has given Browns fans much to be happy about this holiday season.

“It’s been a tough year on everyone and been extremely different,’’ Mayfield said. “A lot of ups and downs and trials and tribulations that everybody has had to deal with, but I will just be thankful for family. I know I can’t exactly get with them and be all together, but just blessed and thankful that my family has been safe, and continuing to pray for those outside of my family that are dealing with issues, sickness and all of that that is going on in the world. It’s been a tough year.’’

Unfortunately for Mayfield and the rest of the Browns, their gift of winning comes in a year when they can’t feel love from fans the way they normally would. Only 12,000 can attend games at FirstEnergy Stadium, and players can’t be out and about in the sea of orange and brown like they normally would.

“In some ways [he can sense the joy], yes,’’ he said. “In others, no. It’s obviously not the typical year. With protocol, you can’t go out to restaurants and hang out and be around the town. Obviously, there’s no tailgating and not as many fans at our home games. It is just different. You can kind of sense it, but I do not think it’s the full effect.”

Even though he can’t be out posing for photos with fans and signing autographs, he knows how much this means to the city of Cleveland. After the 41-35 victory over the Titans, he explained that his former Oklahoma teammate Joe Palange from St. Edward High School described the passion here and he didn’t truly believe it.

“I realized when I got here, I was like, ‘Wow, this is real,’’ he said. “This is a passionate fan base that lives, breathes and dies football, and Cleveland Browns football at that. I think it means a lot to them, but they need to reset their expectations because we all need to reset the standard. That’s what I’ve been saying is there’s a new standard and there is a foundation you have to continue to build on and improve. That’s just the way we need to handle things, and I think we are trending in the right direction like I said.”

At the NFL Combine in 2018, Mayfield uttered those famous words during his podium interview that gave many Browns chills.

“If there’s anyone who would turn that franchise around, it’d be me,’’ he said.

When he bounded in off the bench and beat the Jets his rookie year to end the Browns’ losing streak and bust open beer coolers all over the city, the fortunes of the franchise seems to turn on a dime.

“I said it a few weeks ago, growing up in Texas in an extremely football town, going to Oklahoma – obviously, it is a football state, as well – and then coming here, it feels like home,’’ Mayfield said.

Like the hardscrabble people of Cleveland, Mayfield got knocked around by life last season and persevered. At this time last year, the Browns were 6-9 and he was second-last in the NFL with a 78.8 QB rating. He tried to hold it together in a dysfunctional and splintered offense under Freddie Kitchens, but it was too much to ask for a second-year quarterback.

This season, he’s surrounded by even more talent but with a coaching staff full committed to maximizing his strengths and bringing out the best in him. In addition to Kevin Stefanski, he’s got offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, a former NFL quarterback, guiding him every day and restoring him to the accurate, confident player the Browns drafted No. 1 overall in 2018. It’s night and day from what Mayfield experienced last year with Kitchens and quarterbacks coach Ryan Lindley.

“AVP does an outstanding job with our offense in total,’’ Stefanski said. “He does a great job with those quarterbacks. It goes a long way when you have a guy who has played the position, played in the NFL and has been a backup. Backup quarterbacks have made some great coaches over the years, and it’s because these guys understand how to prepare and how to prepare without getting reps. AVP just how he runs the meetings, how he coaches the guys on the field and his demeanor on gameday with those guys, he does it at a very high level.”

Van Pelt has brought out the best in Mayfield the same way he did with Aaron Rodgers when he coached him in Green Bay from 2014-2017.

“AVP is a part of every single decision when it comes to offense, quarterback play and all of it,’’ said Stefanski He is in the thick of this. He has been a huge help to me as we put this thing together and sharing that vision together. Ultimately, when you are working closely with that quarterback and understanding how the quarterback thinks and putting him in spots to succeed, AVP has a huge, huge hand it that.”

Mayfield’s challenging 2019 has him empathizing with his 2018 QB classmate Sam Darnold, who’s battling through a 1-13 season with the Jets.

“The ups and down of the past almost three years now of taking that step from college to the NFL, I definitely feel for what Sam is going through and has gone through. I am not in his shoes so I know I am not there for the day-to-day stuff, but I know the responsibility and pressure that he is under,’’ he said. “You feel for him. You want it to work out. You do not want somebody to do any ill will – it is just bad karma – but Sam is a good guy, and I hope for the best for him.”

Mayfield learned this year to be the same player every day, regardless of the outcome of a game. It was something he struggled with last season when he pressed and threw 21 interceptions for second most in the NFL.

“That’s something that I tried to learn early on,’’ he said. “Obviously, I wasn’t able to do that last year, but that’s very important. You don’t want to change. You want to be the same leader each day. I saw a quote of somebody from Tampa talking about (Buccaneers QB) Tom Brady that it does not matter how good he is playing or if it is not going well, he is always the same person. That is important to be a leader. During the good stuff, they are always looking up at you. During the bad stuff, they are going to look at you, as well. It is key to find that medium.”

It hasn’t been lost on his teammates.

“Success never got to him,’’ said running back Nick Chubb. “He has been successful his entire career so that is nothing new to him. He has been the same guy and been a great leader for us. It is paying off for him now. I am extremely happy for him. I have seen the work he has put in. I have seen the countless hours he has spent at the facility and how hard he works every day. Have to keep it going.”

He’s been as much of an inspiration to the defense as the offense.

“I love his fight,’’ said linebacker B.J. Goodson. “I always knew he had a little bit of a spark to him, but I love his drive and I love his fight and his will to compete. I love it.”

Browns fans love it too, and it’s the gift that keeps giving this Christmas.

browns face coverings

Official Cleveland Browns sideline face coverings available from FOCO.com. (Photos via FOCO.com)

New Browns face masks for sale: Here’s where you can buy Cleveland Browns-themed face coverings for coronavirus protection for adults and youth, including a single mask ($14.99) and a 3-pack ($24.99). All NFL proceeds donated to CDC Foundation.

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