Inside Baker Mayfield making movie-script arrival with Rams
The NFL is good at inventing incredible stories out of nothing.
Raiders, 5-7, at Rams, 3-9. Rams on a six-game tailspin. One of the worst Super Bowl hangovers in NFL history. Matthew Stafford hurt, out. Cooper Kupp hurt, out. Aaron Donald hurt, out. Raider fans take over SoFi so that it’s like a Vegas home game. Most Americans with any sense have turned off the game by 10:30 p.m. ET, with the Rams down 16-3 after three quarters, having just gone punt, punt, missed field goal in the third quarter. But then …
“Trouble falling asleep last night?” I asked Mayfield Friday afternoon.
“I did,” he said. “Adrenaline’s still rolling.”
Baker Mayfield, the third-string Carolina quarterback, asked for and was granted his release Monday. He was subject to waivers, and the claiming order, 1 through 4, was Houston, Chicago, Denver and the L.A. Rams. Mayfield’s agent went to work. Houston wouldn’t claim him (for some reason), and Chicago and Denver wouldn’t either. Good chance the Rams would, though. Teams had till 4 p.m. Tuesday to make a claim, after which the league would award Mayfield to the claiming team. If no one claimed him, he’d be a free agent.
Mayfield went online. There was an American flight, 1247, from Charlotte to Los Angeles at 4:48 p.m on Tuesday. “I got the ticket,” he told me, “and I got the insurance on the flight just in case.”
“You checked the box for the flight insurance, so you could get the refund if you don’t take the trip?” I said.
“I did,” he said. “I honestly was just waiting in the airport for a phone call, hoping and praying the call was from a Los Angeles number.”
At 4:10 p.m., Rams GM Les Snead called to tell Mayfield he was a Ram. Mayfield got on the plane. The Rams sent him a condensed gameplan by the time he was on the 5-hour, 31-minute flight, but he could not download it till he landed. “Plane wi-fi was not friendly on that one, so I was pretty stressed out,” Mayfield said. He got to the Rams facility an hour north of the airport around 9 p.m. PT and huddled with offensive coordinator Liam Coen and assistant QB coach/passing game coordinator Zac Robinson for 90 minutes. “Still on east coast time, so it was a little late for me,” Mayfield said. Bed by 11:15 p.m. PT in a nearby hotel.
Mayfield said he just had this feeling about Sean McVay claiming him. In February 2018, Mayfield was working out in preparation for the Combine in southern California and got on one of few nonstop flights from LAX to Indianapolis, on Southwest. Rams coaches were on the flight, and when Mayfield walked by McVay, the coach told him to hold on. McVay kicked his seat neighbor, a Rams assistant, out so he could have a 3.5-hour chat with Mayfield, a top-five prospect in the ’18 draft. The Rams had Jared Goff so would not be picking a passer, but McVay just wanted to talk football.
“We really started talking about Lincoln Riley and his scheme, what makes him such a good coach, how I saw the game. (Riley was Mayfield’s head coach at Oklahoma who now coaches at USC.) Then we talked about concepts. We started drawing some stuff up in my notepad. One hundred percent it did not feel like an interview. He was genuinely interested in some of the things that we did at Oklahoma to have that success. To me that was so eye-opening to see a guy at the NFL level, that had had so much success leading up to that point, still asking a college kid about a college scheme and what we were doing.”
Thursday games mean no real practices before the game. The Rams had a 9:45 a.m. walkthrough practice to go over the gameplan. Mayfield got in at 6 a.m. for more elementary work on the Rams’ terminology and system, and for a quick physical exam. This thought occurred to him: Since 2017, this was the sixth offense he was tasked to learn—Lincoln Riley’s at Oklahoma, Cleveland with Hue Jackson and then Freddie Kitchens and then Kevin Stefanski, Carolina with Ben McAdoo, and now the Rams with McVay.
“In the middle of it, I did not feel like switching offenses that many times was good, but now, for me, it really is a blessing,” he said. “I could think about learning most of the plays before, and knowing how they work against certain coverages I might see [against the Raiders]. I’ve gotten to be confident I can figure it out.” Example: When McVay was Washington offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan was his offensive line coach in 2015 and ’16, and McVay liked Callahan’s protection packages and brought some of the concepts to the Rams. In 2020, Callahan was Cleveland’s line coach, and worked with Mayfield weekly on protections. So Mayfield felt right at home with his blocking schemes on Thursday.
Presumptive starter John Wolford got most of the snaps in the walkthrough, and in Thursday’s two-minute walkthrough. But Mayfield got a few. I was curious: How many throws before the game did he have with the top receiver he’d never thrown to before, Van Jefferson?
“Ten to 15,” he said. “A few of them, you say, that felt good, that looked good. Let’s call that [in the game].”
Shaky game, obviously. Wolford QB’d a three-and-out to start, and the final 50 minutes were handed to Mayfield. In Mayfield’s first 40 minutes, he put up three measly points, and streaming devices across the country clicked away from Amazon Prime. But Mayfield drove the Rams to seven first downs and a Cam Akers TD run with 3:19 left, and the Rams forced a three-and-out by the Raiders, and Vegas punter A.J. Cole skittered a sideline-hugging 64-yard punt to the Ram two with 1:45 left. I mean, no way. Mayfield might drive the Rams eight yards, but 98? In 100 seconds? With no timeouts? No way.
First bit of good fortune: the erased interception. On third-and-two from the 10-, Mayfield threw for Jefferson up the left seam and Raider safety Duron Harmon picked it. “Van was my first read and I saw the DB [Harmon] grabbing him. So I triggered it.” Threw it right then, he meant. “Right. Sean and I talked about this [Thursday]—Van’s either gonna make a contested catch or get a defensive hold or DPI [defensive pass interference]. A feel like that comes with the fact that I’ve played a decent amount of ball.” DPI. First down, Rams’ 22-.
Second bit of good fortune: Next play, Mayfield got sacked for a loss of nine. Getting up, Mayfield had the ball slapped out of his hand, stupidly, by Raiders defensive lineman Jerry Tillery. No flag, at first. “I looked at the ref and said, ‘That’s a penalty. That’s delay of game on the defense. You gotta throw that.’ He reached in his pocket and threw the flag. It’s ticky-tack, but it’s a penalty.” First down, Rams’ 28-.
First great throw: Next play, 80 seconds left, two Raiders covered seventh-round 2021 wideout Ben Skowronek, a tall drink of water Mayfield had just met one day earlier. “We needed a chunk,” Mayfield said. “I mean, he’s a big dude. [Skowronek’s 6-3.] He’s a contested-catch guy. I just threw it up there and gave him a chance.” What helped was the ball was a yard or two short, and Skowronek came back a step for it, and Raiders corner Nate Hobbs was a bit discombobulated, and Ram jumped over Raider for the catch, good for 32 yards. “Those are the moments in a two-minute drill, somebody’s gotta make a play. Catching it right on top of the DB’s head, with the safety bearing down on him? That’s a guy I’m gonna trust, a lot.”
BIG BEN SKOWRONEK#LVvsLAR on Prime Video
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— NFL (@NFL) December 9, 2022
Second great throw: Some inexplicable stuff. Second-and-10 from the Vegas 23-, with 15 seconds left. Rams in a 1-by-3 formation, Jefferson alone split left, and Tutu Atwell, Skowronek and tight end Tyler Higbee is a row to the right. Higbee and Skowronek float to the end zone, both single-covered. Atwell does a deep out, and two safeties and a corner float to his area. Three men on Atwell! Jefferson, alone, sprinting to the left pylon, covered by Sam Webb, an undrafted rookie from Missouri Western State. Rams’ best receiver in the game, covered alone, with no help over the top, by the Missouri Western guy. A year ago, he’s playing Emporia State and Fort Hays and the Central Missouri Mules. Now with an NFL game on the line, he’s trying to knock away a pass from the first pick in the entire draft in 2018 to a second-round pick in 2020.
“Obviously, I was shocked,” Mayfield told me. “Not only because they were in in press coverage, but because they didn’t have a two-shell-safety defense, so the safeties could react to the play in front of them. But good for us. I mean, I just put the ball up there for Van, just like with Ben, and they made plays. They made great plays.”
OMG. TOUCHDOWN RAMS!#LVvsLAR on Prime Video
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— NFL (@NFL) December 9, 2022
Final: Rams 17, Raiders 16.
Pause. “I mean, I didn’t even know if I’d play in the game. Nobody expected us to be able to win that game, let’s be honest.”
Forty-seven hours and 45 minutes after Baker Mayfield walked into the Rams’ practice facility for the first time Tuesday night, a stunned Sean McVay stepped to the podium for his post-game press conference. “I’m still like, what the hell’s going on right now?” he said.
The next day, I asked Mayfield: “Of all the things you’ve done in football—high school, college, pro—where does this rank?”
“Crazy as it seems,” he said, “this might be number one, to be honest with you. With 48 hours from getting here till gametime, this is number one for me. It’s not just the moment. It’s everything that led up to it. It’s just special. Unforgettable.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column
Inside Baker Mayfield making movie-script arrival with Rams originally appeared on NBCSports.com