Baker, Kyler, Kliff, Freddie, Steve: The Cards-Browns complex relationships
TEMPE, Ariz. — Baker Mayfield tends to complicate stuff. Just this week, he expressed frustration about how the Cleveland Browns handled receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s health this offseason and required two tweets to calm the waters.
His outspokenness looks bad at those times.
At other times like when he criticized teammate Myles Garrett in a postgame interview for walloping Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph over the head with a helmet, Mayfield’s leadership qualities showed well.
It’s not surprising, then, that as the Cleveland Browns visit the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the two guys he has past histories with fall under two very different categories.
Mayfield’s friendship with Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray and his relationship with Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury are only two of the many cross-team storylines heading into the Week 15 matchup.
‘That’s my boy’
In interviews Wednesday, both Mayfield and Murray expressed the significance of them suiting up against one another this week.
Murray won the Heisman Trophy for Oklahoma a year after Mayfield had done the same. He went No. 1 overall a year after Mayfield. They’re both Texas high school football products who transferred from an in-state school to become a Sooner.
Murray spent two years in the shadows as Mayfield helmed the OU offense.
And while Mayfield is offspoken and Murray’s own coach has joked about trying to get his quarterback to talk, they bonded at Oklahoma over their similarities.
Mayfield welcomed Murray into the fold when he transferred from Texas A&M before the 2016 season. They became fast friends because of their competitiveness, Murray said. And when Mayfield was surprisingly granted an extra year of college eligibility to return to school in 2017, Murray accepted sitting behind him, then only playing a starting role for his senior season.
“He earned that right,” Murray said. “I think we turned out fine.”
Murray, the younger of the two, took a lot from Mayfield, even if their personalities meant very different types of leadership.
“I learned what not to do,” Murray joked Wednesday. “No, I always just got to sit back and watch. To the public … he’s obviously kind of a rebellious guy. He’s a great dude.
“We’re a little different in those aspects … I wouldn’t have done some of the things he’s done. But that’s my boy, he knows that. I just let him do those things and we just laugh at ’em.”
‘I’d like to have had that gone differently’
Kingsbury saw something in Mayfield.
The Lake Travis High School product had quite a bit of success at a high school that prior to him produced quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert, who is now Mayfield’s backup in Cleveland, and Michael Brewer, two attended Texas Tech and Virginia Tech.
But Mayfield just didn’t have a big list of college offers.
David Raih was an assistant for Kingsbury in 2013 and is now the Cardinals receivers coach. He helped Kingsbury dig up Mayfield in his first true assistant coaching job.
“(Kingsbury) put me in charge of our walk-on program,” Raih said in February. “You’re in the state of Texas, OK? Trust me, there are many guys that go under the radar. Baker wasn’t under the radar; he might’ve won 34 games as a high school quarterback and maybe even the state championship.
“For some reason he had offers from smaller schools.”
Raih remembered his first method of contacting Mayfield was over Facebook. And once he got him to attend, it didn’t take long for the quarterback to thrive. Mayfield threw for 2,315 yards and completed 64% of his passes, winning the first five games of the year. But after suffering a knee injury, he lost the starting job to Davis Webb.
Mayfield at the time said he wasn’t offered a scholarship for the next season. So he went on his way.
Time has healed any wounds between coach and player, both Mayfield and Kingsbury said this week.
“We’ve talked. Like I said, we’re in a good place,” the Cardinals coach said, adding he spoke with Mayfield while attending the Kentucky Derby this past offseason. “Always excited to see how he’s playing, his career, what he’s done. Being at ground zero of that deal, where it started to where it is now is phenomenal and you’ve got to give him all the credit in the world.
“Obviously, I’d like to have had that gone differently and handled things differently. You live and learn. I’m just glad we’re in a good place now.”
Just another game?
The two young quarterbacks for the Browns and Cardinals admit some significance toward this week.
“We’ve talked since, played against him a few times since and it’s exactly that,” Mayfield said of Kingsbury. “We’re in a good place, obviously he’s trying to beat me this week, I’m trying to beat him, and on top of that, (former Oklahoma teammate and current Cardinals QB) Kyler (Murray) being involved, it makes a fun one for us.”
Their coaches? Not so much, even with personal reasons to feel a different way about this one.
Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens attempted to downplay his familiarity with the desert and the Cardinals franchise. He was on staff in Arizona from 2007-17 and coached the tight ends (2007-12), quarterbacks (2013-16) and running backs (2017).
“I truly think it’s another game,” Kitchens said, before acknowledging his past. “I’ve got great friends in Arizona and will always have friends in Arizona.
“My daughters were 2 and 3 when we moved there and they were going into high school when we left. I was blessed tremendously to be in the same place for so long. Great people with the Cardinals, great-run organization. All those sort of things.”
Probably not another game for this guy
While Kitchens probably has some good memories with the Cardinals, his defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, probably doesn’t. Those memories are at least much more brief.
Wilks, of course, got one year on the job as Cardinals head coach before he was fired after a 3-13 season in 2018.
Arizona’s defensive coordinator under Wilks, Al Holcomb, is the Cleveland linebackers coach. Cleveland running backs coach and run game coordinator Stump Mitchell also served as Arizona’s RB coach from 2013-16.
Former Cardinals on the Browns staff also include QB coach Ryan Lindley, who was Arizona’s backup quarterback from 2012-14.