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Baker Mayfield and Co. give Cleveland Browns hope amid turmoil

CLEVELAND -- Baker Mayfield gave us an inadvertent comparison of the NFL haves and have-nots on Wednesday. There he was, talking about his old Big 12 rival, Patrick Mahomes, and the game they played against each other in 2016, when they combined for 1,279 passing yards. They're facing each other again on Sunday.

That is where the similarities end.

Mahomes was drafted last year by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he is being coached by one of the NFL's most respected offensive minds, where he has credited being allowed to sit behind a veteran quarterback for part of his success, where he is, halfway through the season, the leading contender for the league's most valuable player award.

Then there's Mayfield, who is -- eight games into his career -- already on his second head coach and coordinator with another of each on the way in a few months, whose offense has been regressing in recent weeks, and who spent most of his press conference Wednesday deftly deflecting questions about just how much dysfunction between Hue Jackson and Todd Haley he had to ignore since the summer.

"Tried not to see anything else besides doing my job," Mayfield said. "Like I said, I am taking it one day at a time. I am learning as we go throughout these things. Whether there was or not, I do not stick my head into that stuff. I stick to doing my job, being around these guys and trying to improve every day."

Mayfield said he has never been through anything like this -- he has also never lost three games in a row -- and he hasn't been in Cleveland long enough to say whether the last few days would qualify as his "welcome to Cleveland" moment. Given the recent history of the Browns -- linebacker Christian Kirksey helpfully counted that interim head coach Gregg Williams is his third head coach in five years here -- it is tempting to assume that Mayfield will get a lot more Cleveland moments in the future.

Still, as much familiar eye-rolling as the last few days have caused, long-time behind-the-scenes Browns employees said the same thing Wednesday: while it's always something with the Browns, things do feel different this time. Mayfield brings undeniable energy and confidence to the entire building. And Williams, who few expected to ever be an NFL head coach again after he served a one-year suspension for his role in a bounty scandal while in New Orleans, is well-liked by players and staff alike, and will provide the jolt needed to keep the team engaged even as the second half of the season plays out with a coaching search already underway.

"Never a dull moment in the National Football League," Williams said to open his first news conference as the head coach.

Especially in Cleveland. Players said they emerged from meetings Monday morning to learn that coach Hue Jackson had been fired the same way most Browns fans did -- on the news or from social media. Only much later in the day, after offensive coordinator Todd Haley was also sent packing, did the players finally hear the news directly from owner Jimmy Haslam. It was, to put it mildly, not the smoothest way to run the operation, particularly because the friction between Haley and Jackson was on full display for anybody who tuned in for HBO's "Hard Knocks" this year. Haslam wanted to give Jackson a chance with an experienced general manager, but the shotgun marriage with John Dorsey was almost certainly doomed to fail from the very start, particularly after it became very clear that the combustible personalities assembled on the staff were, indeed, about to combust.

Haslam was at practice Wednesday to see how the latest iteration of his franchise looked, and that news probably makes many Browns fans cringe. It says something about a team that Williams praised the players Wednesday for how well they responded to -- and he used these words -- the "confusion" and "dysfunction." Dorsey and Haslam deserve credit for responding quickly to the obvious discord and ridding the building of it. They also deserve blame for creating the environment -- with Haslam insisting that Jackson be allowed to return after a winless season -- in the first place.

Mayfield, though, is not the only reason to hope that things might finally change in Cleveland. Dorsey is an experienced and accomplished executive and Haslam should step back -- a must -- and let Dorsey make the next hire of a head coach so that the general manager and head coach will finally be in sync -- with each other and, most critically, with Mayfield. On Dorsey's watch in Kansas City, the Chiefs acquired 14 of their current starters. The Browns have the youngest roster in the NFL and it is stocked with talent in addition to Mayfield: running back Nick Chubb, defensive end Myles Garrett, receiver Jarvis Landry and cornerback Denzel Ward. The Browns currently have $87.5 million in available cap space for 2019, which is fifth-most in the league. It all adds up to making the Browns -- sit down for this -- perhaps the most attractive of the head-coaching jobs likely to come open this season. Attention has already turned so quickly to that hire that Mayfield also answered a few questions about his Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, whose name is already being included on Browns fans' wish lists.

On one wall of the Browns locker room, a few steps from where Mayfield stood Wednesday, is a sign that seemed to be gently mocking the team given the relentless cycle of raised and crashed hopes.

"It Never Gets Easier. You Just Get Better."

The Browns would like to finally make that more than half true.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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