The Cleveland Browns came into this NFL season with high aspirations, namely, winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl. The Browns front office has added fuel to the fire of the lofty expectations by building a team of talented and outspoken players that the franchise has enabled to speak their mind to the media. Since Baker Mayfield was drafted first overall in the NFL draft last season, fans and media alike have had no shortage of headlines.
Last season, the Browns began to have success when Baker was inserted into the starting quarterback position, replacing former Buffalo Bill Tyrod Taylor. During this period of short term success, Baker provided the media and NFL fans with many great quotes, such as his famous line, “I woke up feeling pretty dangerous.” However, this season the Browns are 2-6 and appear to be crumbling under the high expectations for the team, set mostly by themselves. Unfortunately for Baker and his teammates, the media tends to ask tougher questions when a team is losing and players receive much more scrutiny from fans and sports talk shows.
The NFL Media Policy provides national and local media with consistent access to the game’s biggest stars, head coaches, and other personnel. The policy allows fans an inside look at their favorite teams, fosters a deeper connection with the NFL, and increases viewership. Specifically, the Policy sets the league’s minimum standards for access, however teams are encouraged to go beyond these requirements to promote the game. Teams must comply with the policy starting with off-season workouts and continuing until the end of the Super Bowl.
As Marshawn Lynch notoriously demonstrated, NFL players can be fined if they do not comply with the requirements of the NFL Media Policy. In 2014, Pro Football Focus reported that Lynch was fined $100,000 for refusing to talk to reporters following a loss to the Chiefs. This later prompted Lynch’s famous “You know why I’m here” interactions with reporters. Essentially, Lynch showed up and provided no response besides “You know why I am here,” to avoid being fined.
Following a loss to the New England Patriots in Week 8 of the NFL season, the Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield returned to Cleveland and complied with their local media obligations. While fielding questions from reporters, Baker got into a heated argument with Tony Grossi, a local media member. Specifically, the questions came roughly seven minutes into Mayfield’s news conference and revolved around a sequence at the end of the first half of Cleveland’s 27-13 loss to the Patriots. Simply put, Tony Grossi, a reporter with 850 ESPN in Cleveland, asked Mayfield about what he perceived as “a lack of urgency” on a two-minute drive before halftime.
According to Tom Schad of USA Today, Grossi concluded his questioning of Mayfield by asking the quarterback if he was happy with the drive, which ultimately ended in Cleveland territory. Mayfield replied “Was I happy with the drive? No. We didn’t score points . . . That’s the dumbest question you could ask. What? Jesus, Tony.” Mayfield abruptly left the media session, much earlier than originally anticipated, and went to Twitter to address his exit.
Baker Mayfield did not seem apologetic toward Grossi on Twitter, however it is worth noting that this is not the first time there has been tension between Baker and the local reporter. In January, Mayfield criticized Grossi for comparing Kyler Murray, who was the quarterback’s former teammate at Oklahoma, to Johnny Manziel. Mayfield further commented “He also said he would retire if the Browns drafted me . . . So does anything he say have truth to it? Couldn’t be any more wrong.”
Unfortunately, the Browns did not learn a lesson following the bad publicity regarding the Mayfield and Grossi verbal altercation. After a surprising Week 9 24-19 loss to the Broncos, Browns’ safety Jermaine Whitehead issued profanity laden responses to criticism over Twitter while in the visiting locker room post game. As reported by Jake Trotter of ESPN, Whitehead responded on Twitter to those who had criticized his play, including former NFL player Dustin Fox, who appears on a post-game show for the Browns’ radio network. Specifically, Whitehead replied to Fox, “Come get it in blood b—- made a– lil boy. I’m out there with a broke hand .. don’t get smoked . . ..” Additionally, Whitehead wrote, “Imma kill you b—-.. that’s on blood” to another Twitter user.
Whitehead’s Twitter account was suspended before he’d even left the visitors locker room, however he declined to take questions from reporters. The following day the Browns released the 4th year safety. One Browns official commented “Jermaine Whitehead’s social media posts following today’s game were totally unacceptable and highly inappropriate.”
Although Baker complied with his NFL media obligations, he could have been fined, at either the NFL’s or the Browns’ discretion, by citing the NFL Personal Conduct Policy. This policy provides broad authority to discipline players for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in” the NFL. Additionally, Whitehead who was cut by the Browns as a result of his Twitter comments, can still be disciplined under this provision by the NFL. To date, neither player has received a fine or suspension as a result of their comments, however Whitehead, unlike Baker, did offer an apology on his Instagram following the incident.
Clearly, the Browns have underachieved both on and off the field this season. Although it may be exciting to have a team full of vocal and flashy all star talents, the Browns have demonstrated that the talent can be wasted without the proper leadership and discipline. Many NFL pundits claim leadership starts from the top down; citing a strong and unified front office, a confident and experienced head coach, and a mature quarterback as prerequisites to success in a highly competitive NFL. Unsurprisingly, the Cleveland Browns’ ownership and front office has long been considered to be in the bottom rung of the NFL. Moreover, the Browns hired Freddie Kitchens as head coach, although he has never even served as a coordinator in the NFL. These circumstances, combined with Baker Mayfield’s brashness, ego, and previous college shenanigans, shed some light as to why the Cleveland Browns are more like a ticking time bomb that has detonated, rather than Super Bowl contenders. Perhaps the Browns players and personnel should have mimicked a former coach they employed, Bill Belichick, and responded to Week 9 post game questions with, “We are on to Buffalo.”