Mayfield’s Debut Not Much Different Than Other Browns’ QBs in History

Baker Mayfield
Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America via

Baker Mayfield made his much anticipated NFL debut as a starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns this past Sunday, Sept. 30.

While Mayfield performed admirably, completing 21-of-41 passes for 295 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles lost, his four turnovers helped the host Oakland Raiders eke out a 45-42 overtime victory.

The loss continued a road losing streak that began nearly three years ago and prevented the Browns’ first two-game winning streak since 2014.

Mayfield certainly isn’t the first Browns rookie QB to make a start, and certainly isn’t the most-hyped rookie to do so as well. As Mayfield became the 30th quarterback to start a game for the Browns since they returned in 1999, there have been several wannabe studs who turned into duds here.

In fact, the last Browns’ rookie quarterback who won his debut was the immortal Eric Zeier, who defeated the Cincinnati Bengals on the road, 29-26, in overtime in 1995. One week later, the move to Baltimore was announced, thereby turning Zeier’s feat into a mere forgotten footnote in history.

Let’s take a look at some other notable Browns quarterbacks who made their first starts and how Mayfield stacks up against them, starting with the gold standard of Browns quarterbacks.

Otto Graham – Sept. 29, 1946, Browns defeat New York Yankees at home, 24-7: Because he reported to the team late from the Navy, head coach Paul Brown started Lakewood native Cliff Lewis at quarterback during the Cleveland Browns’ first three games as a franchise in the All American Football Conference. All three were lopsided wins, and Graham received plenty of playing time under center in all three of those wins. Taking the reigns as a starter for the first time in his legendary Hall of Fame career, Graham led the Browns to two touchdowns in the first nine minutes of play. A Graham fumble on the Browns’ 14 led to New York’s first (and only) touchdown, and it stayed 14-7 for three more quarters. The Browns put the game away with 10 unanswered fourth quarter points on a 43-yard run by Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones and a field goal by Lou “The Toe” Groza. Graham completed 10-of-15 passes for 144 yards with a touchdown and an interception. It was New York’s first loss of the season and made the Browns the only unbeaten team in the AAFC. Graham would lead the Browns to four-straight AAFC titles, five-straight pro football titles, 10 consecutive pro championship games and seven championships in those 10 seasons before retiring as one of the NFL’s all-time best quarterbacks.

Len Dawson – Oct. 22, 1961, Browns defeat Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, 30-28: Dawson was drafted one pick ahead of Jim Brown in 1957 (fifth overall) and wound up being traded from the hapless Steelers to the Browns prior to 1960. Dawson only made one start – his first professional start – in two seasons with the Browns before he embarked on a Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League. Subbing for regular starter Milt Plum, Dawson only completed 6-of-12 passes for 68 yards with two interceptions before Plum came in off the bench. But, behind 100-yard rushing days from Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell, the Browns jumped out to a 10-0 halftime lead, then rallied with 17 fourth quarter points to pull away with the hard-fought win over their archrivals. Dawson only threw one touchdown pass in three games with the Browns that year and was released, regarded as a bust until a new league granted him new life.

Frank Ryan – Nov. 4, 1962, Browns tie Philadelphia Eagles at home, 14-14: The last Browns quarterback to win an NFL Championship, Ryan came to Cleveland in an offseason trade with the Los Angeles Rams and was slated to backup Jim Ninowski. But after Ninowski broke his collarbone against the Steelers the week before, Ryan – a fifth-year pro with 11 starts under his belt – got his shot. Ryan only completed 10-of-23 passes for 119 yards and no touchdowns, with two picks. But the brainy quarterback from Rice gained 80 yards on nine carries (leading the team), and his nine-yard touchdown run late in the game forced the tie (no regular season overtime back then). Ryan started the rest of the year and held the job for the next five seasons. Along the way, he led the Browns to the 1964 NFL Championship and reached the 1965 title game and the postseason in 1967.

Bill Nelsen – Oct. 5, 1968, Browns defeat Pittsburgh Steelers at home, 31-24: After Ryan struggled in the first three games of the season, head coach Blanton Collier made the switch to the gimpy Nelsen, acquired in an offseason trade with the Steelers, to start against his former team. Nelsen, with 23 professional starts under his belt in five seasons in Pittsburgh, completed 16-of-25 passes for 190 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His 28-yard touchdown pass to Hall of Famer Paul Warfield early in the second quarter put the Browns ahead, 14-3, and it was a lead they would never relinquish. Nelsen wound up going 9-2 in 11 starts that season, guiding the Browns to the NFL Championship game (a 34-0 loss to the Baltimore Colts at home). Nelsen would reach the Pro Bowl and yet another NFL Championship game in 1969 and held the starters’ job until 1972, eventually giving way to our next contestant.

Mike Phipps – Nov. 15, 1970, Browns lose to Cincinnati Bengals on the road, 14-10: Phipps was the third-overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft (two picks after Terry Bradshaw) and sat behind veteran Bill Nelsen, who had led the Browns to the playoffs the previous two seasons. But, in the Browns’ first ever visit to Riverfront Stadium to take on former team founder and coach Paul Brown, the youngster got the nod. It was Phipps’ lone start as a rookie, and he wouldn’t become the Browns’ regular starter until 1972. His debut was pretty unmemorable (like his career), completing 11-of-25 passes for 170 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He did put the Browns ahead, 10-0, midway through the second quarter, but failed to generate any other offense in the second half. Paul Robinson’s 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter proved to be the winning points for the Bengals. Phipps had played in parts of four other games before his first start, even helping the Browns beat the Steelers and the Dolphins that year.

Brian Sipe – Nov. 3, 1974, Browns lose to San Diego Chargers at home, 36-35: Sipe, who came off the bench to lead a come-from-behind win over the Denver Broncos the week before in his NFL debut, generated a lot of buzz locally for a team that was spiraling downward. Sipe’s line was pretty average – he completed 16-of-23 passes for 186 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but he had the Browns ahead, 35-26, midway through the fourth quarter after his second of two rushing touchdowns. But Hall of Famer Dan Fouts led the Chargers to 10 unanswered points, capped by a 40-yard Ray Wersching field goal in the final seconds, to deny the win. Sounds awfully similar to Mayfield’s scenario, doesn’t it? Sipe wound up starting five games that season, going 2-3 in those starts, en route to one of the most legendary careers in Browns’ history.

Paul McDonald – Dec. 19, 1982, Browns defeat Pittsburgh Steelers at home, 10-9: McDonald had been in the league for three years before he made his first NFL start as the heir apparent to Sipe. The most action he had received was in the season finale of the 1981 season, where he came off the bench to throw for 297 yards and 3 scores in a 42-21 loss at Seattle. Taking over for an injured Sipe the week before, McDonald was ready to take the reins the following week. He only completed 19-of-40 passes for 227 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, but was aided by the first three interceptions of rookie Hanford Dixon’s career and gave this writer the best birthday present a 9-year-old could ask for. McDonald went 1-2 in starting the final three games and also started a playoff game that year. He started all 16 games in 1984, a 5-11 season that set the tone for the next notable rookie to come aboard.

Bernie Kosar – Oct. 13, 1985, Browns defeat Houston Oilers on the road, 21-6: The hometown kid via The University of Miami, Kosar came to the Browns as the No. 1 overall pick of the 1985 NFL Supplemental Draft with a lot of hype. Veteran Gary Danielson began the season as the starter, but was injured during a 24-20 win over the New England Patriots the week before, giving Kosar his first taste of NFL action. Kosar completed 9-of-15 passes for 104 yards in relief, but was ready to face a tough crowd in his debut. In a conservative game plan, Kosar only completed 8-of-19 passes for 208 yards with one touchdown and one interception. However, he rallied his team from a 6-0 halftime deficit with 21 unanswered points, giving Browns a taste of what would make him a bonafide local legend. Kosar’s first NFL touchdown went for 68 yards to Clarence Weathers and kick-started the comeback. Kosar started 10 games that year, including a playoff game at Miami (a 24-21 loss) before becoming entrenched as the Browns starter from 1986-93.

Eric Zeier – Oct. 29, 1995, Browns defeat Cincinnati Bengals on the road, 29-26 in OT: Zeier, drafted in the third round out of Georgia that year, became the first rookie QB to start for the Browns since Kosar when Bill Belichick decided to yank Vinny Testaverde, despite the Browns getting off to a 3-4 start. Zeier cut loose, throwing for 310 yards on 26-of-46 passes with one touchdown and one interception. He had the Browns ahead, 26-16, midway through the fourth quarter before Cincy scored 10 unanswered points, including a 1-yard touchdown pass from David Klingler to Carl Pickens in the final seconds of regulation. In OT, Zeier put together a game-winning drive, capped by a 29-yard field goal by Matt Stover, for the huge win. As mentioned earlier, this proved to be one of the last bright spots for the Browns that season. Zeier did start the next three games, but struggled mightily in three straight losses and wound up giving way back to Testaverde for the remainder of the season. It also proved to be the highlight of Zeier’s career, as he only started seven games with the newly-christened Baltimore Ravens over the remaining three seasons and ended his career as a backup in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis.

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Tim Couch – Sept. 19, 1999, Browns lose to Tennessee Titans on the road, 26-9: Couch, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, was expected to sit behind veteran Ty Detmer for most of his rookie season. However, a 43-0 whitewashing by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener changed those plans. Behind a patchwork offensive line and with few offensive weapons, Couch was thrust into action on the road in the second game of the season. He was a respectable 12-of-24 for 134 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in the game, but his team never really had a chance. A 39-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson in the third quarter was the expansion team’s first touchdown. Couch would play five seasons with the Browns and take them to the playoffs in 2002, but injuries really derailed his career. He wouldn’t play in another NFL regular season game following the 2003 season.

Spurgeon Wynn – Dec. 3, 2000, Browns lose to Jacksonville Jaguars on the road, 48-0: Wynn was drafted in the sixth round in 2000 (just a few spots ahead of Tom Brady for the New England Patriots – you might have heard of him) as a developmental guy behind Couch. But an injury to Couch and struggles by Doug Pederson (the current Eagles head coach) thrust Wynn into action. Wynn only completed 5-of-16 passes for 17 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions in the whitewashing. The Browns never crossed the 50-yard line in the game. Pederson was put back in action the following game and Wynn was traded to the Vikings in the offseason. Wynn did start two games for the Vikings in 2001, but struggled despite throwing to Hall of Famers Cris Carter and Randy Moss and never played in the NFL again.

Kelly Holcomb – Sept. 8, 2002, Browns lose to Kansas City Chiefs at home, 40-39: Holcomb had only started one previous NFL game before signing with the Browns in 2002, but a preseason injury to Couch opened the door for Peyton Manning’s former backup to start the season opener. Holcomb put on a show, completing 27-of-39 passes for 326 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He drove the Browns into field goal range, and Phil Dawson converted from 41 yards out with 29 seconds left to put them ahead, 39-37. It looked like the game was over, but a 15-yard penalty on linebacker Dwayne Rudd for tossing his helmet in the air after he thought he made the game-ending sack gave the Chiefs one last play, and Morten Anderson’s field goal with no time on the clock gave the Chiefs’ the stunning victory. Holcomb started 12 games in three seasons with the Browns and eight games for the Bills in 2005.

Luke McCown – Dec. 5, 2004, Browns lose to New England Patriots on the road, 42-15: A fourth-round pick in 2004, McCown was thrust into action after injuries to veterans Jeff Garcia and Holcomb. His reward was a trip to face the eventual Super Bowl champions. McCown completed 20-of-34 passes for 277 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. His team never really had a chance. McCown started three more games for the Browns – all losses – before being traded in the offseason. McCown wound up carving out a nice career as an NFL backup, only starting six more games in his long career.

Charlie Frye – Dec. 4, 2005, Browns lose to Jacksonville Jaguars at home, 20-14: Frye, a third-round draft choice that year out of Akron and from nearby Willard, made his much-anticipated debut in relief of veteran Trent Dilfer by coach’s decision. And Frye completed 13-of-20 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. And he had the Browns in the lead, 14-3, heading into the fourth quarter. But a touchdown pass from David Garrard to Jimmy Smith with 1:11 remaining prevented Frye from picking up the win in his debut. Frye started four more games that season and 13 in 2006. But he was traded following the 2007 season opener and became an NFL journeyman.

Derek Anderson – Dec. 7, 2006, Browns lose to Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, 27-7: Anderson was a sixth-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens that year but was claimed by the Browns on the eve of the regular season. He made his NFL debut the week before, completing 12-of-21 passes for 171 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, leading the Browns to a come-from-behind 31-28 overtime win over the Chiefs. With Frye injured, he got the nod against the Steelers. He completed 21-of-37 passes for 276 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the loss at Heinz Field. The Browns went 0-3 in his three starts as a rookie, but he stunningly made it to the Pro Bowl in 2007, leading the Browns to a 10-6 record. Anderson struggled in 2008 and 2009 and was cut. His career recently ended after a lengthy stint as the backup quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.

Brady Quinn – Nov. 6, 2008, Browns lose to Denver Broncos at home, 34-30: Quinn, the 22nd overall pick in 2007, barely played as a rookie and was thrust into the starting role the following season, replacing a struggling Anderson in a Thursday Night game against the Broncos. Quinn completed 23-of-35 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and had the Browns leading, 30-27, late in the fourth quarter. But a touchdown from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall with 1:11 gave the Broncos the come-from-behind victory. Quinn started two more games in 2008 and split time with Anderson in 2009, only winning three of his starts. He didn’t start another game until 2012 with the Kansas City Chiefs, after not taking a snap for the Broncos in 2010 and 2011.

Colt McCoy – Oct. 17, 2010, Browns lose to Pittsburgh Steelers on the road, 28-10: McCoy, a third-round pick following a glittering career at Texas, is a QB who draws a lot of comparisons to Mayfield, in terms of collegiate success and stature. McCoy was thrust into action following injuries to veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace. He threw for 281 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions in the lopsided loss to the Steelers. However, McCoy engineered back-to-back upset wins over the Saints and the Patriots in the next two starts and came within a play of defeating the Jets the following week. McCoy started for the Browns in 2011, but struggled and spent 2012 as the backup behind another rookie QB. He is now a respected backup for the Washington Redskins, having only started four games since leaving the Browns.

Brandon Weeden – Sept. 9, 2012, Browns lose to Philadelphia Eagles at home, 17-16: Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in 2012, started as a 28-year-old rookie in the season opener. After being trapped under the American Flag during pregame warm-ups, Weeden’s day did not get any better. He completed just 12-of-35 passes for 118 yards with no touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Weeden started 15 games as a rookie and a handful of games in 2013, but was sent packing following that season. He’s only started five games since then and hasn’t taken a regular season snap since 2015.

Brian Hoyer – Sept. 22, 2013, Browns defeat Minnesota Vikings on the road, 31-27: Hoyer, a North Olmsted native who had only made one career NFL start in four previous seasons, got the surprise start in Week 3 of the regular season in place of a struggling Weeden. Hoyer completed 30-of-54 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in a wild come-from-behind victory. His 7-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron with 51 seconds left proved to be the game-winner. Hoyer went 3-0 in his starts that year before tearing his ACL. He had the Browns in the AFC North lead the following year at 7-4 before the wheels came off when the Browns turned to this over-hyped rookie …

Johnny Manziel – Dec. 14, 2014, Browns lose to Cincinnati Bengals at home, 30-0: The hype for this Heisman Trophy-winning clown was off the charts when Manziel was taken with 22nd overall pick that year. Despite the Browns’ success on the field, the noise to play Manziel was getting louder off the field, and the coaches finally relented with the Browns sitting at 7-6 and still firmly in playoff contention. That contention ended quickly, as the artist formerly known as Johnny Football went 14-of-24 for 117 yards with no touchdowns and 1 interception. He showed up ill-prepared and it showed. His Browns career was remembered more for what he did off the field instead of on it, and he was released amid drug and domestic violence allegations after just two seasons and a handful of starts. He is now struggling in the CFL in his last gasp at professional football. He also, like McCoy, drew comparisons to Mayfield.

Cody Kessler – Sept. 25, 2016, Browns lose to Miami Dolphins on the road, 31-24 in OT: Kessler, a third-round selection in 2016, was expected to be a developmental QB behind veterans Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown. But Kessler was thrust into action following injuries to the two players and was given the start in the third game of what turned into a 1-15 regular season. Kessler, who wound up starting eight games as a rookie, was a respectable 21-of-33 for 244 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions in the loss. The Browns took the game into overtime and had a chance to win on the last play of regulation. However, newly signed kicker Cody Parkey missed three field goals, including two potential game-winners, and Jay Ajayi’s 11-yard walkoff touchdown in overtime led to a heartbreaking loss.

DeShone Kizer – Sept. 10, 2017, Browns lose to Pittsburgh Steelers at home, 21-18: The 55th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame and from neighboring Toledo, Kizer was thrust into the starting role after the preseason and became just the third rookie to start the season opener for the Browns in their history. Kizer actually played pretty well in his debut, going 20-for-30 for 222 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception, along with a rushing touchdown. A 3-yard touchdown pass to Corey Coleman with three minutes left cut the deficit to 3, but that’s as close as they got. Kizer started 15 of 16 games as a rookie, throwing a league-high 22 interceptions in the second 0-16 season in NFL history. Kizer was traded to Green Bay and is now Aaron Rodgers’ primary backup.

Mayfield’s performance seems to be on par, if not slightly better, than the rest of the Browns’ rookies on this list. Hopefully his career goes along the lines of Sipe and Kosar and less like Couch, McCoy and, especially, Manziel.

Dan Gilles is a Cleveland Browns writer for Full Press Coverage. So follow him on twitter @dangilles1973

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