CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns have never won a Super Bowl. But nearly a year ago, against the same team they'll face on Monday Night Football, it sure felt like they did.
After going 635 days without a victory, the woeful Browns had become the NFL's punching bag and punchline. From Tim Couch to Johnny Manziel, Cleveland cycled through so many quarterbacks it became laughable, even to languishing Browns fans. The ineptitude had gotten so bad that Bud Light promised free beer in Cleveland if the Browns ever won again.
But under the Thursday night lights with a massive national television audience gradually tuning in, that all changed in Week 3 against the New York Jets.
A rally opossum appeared. Twitter was exploding throughout. The Bud Light fridges were unlocked. And in one game, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who had embraced hype and hate at every turn, gave Cleveland hope of a football savior, while joining the pantheon of NFL superstardom.
And, at least for one night, it seemed as if the entire sports world was pulling for the Browns.
WE'RE ALLLL BROWNS TONIGHT— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 21, 2018
'We got our guy'
Mayfield says now he had a premonition something special was going to happen that night. No, he didn't "wake up feeling dangerous," to borrow his own famous catchphrase.
"It wasn't one of those bulls--- terms," he told ESPN.com. "It felt like I was back in college game day, where the first two games, I was like, I'd wake up, it's not the same game day feeling knowing that I go out there and I play right away.
"When I woke up that morning, I just think, there was just a different energy about it, I just felt like I was going to play that day and I just had a feeling about it, I don't know. ... it felt different."
Would it ever.
Late in the second quarter with the Browns trailing 14-0, the No. 1 overall draft pick out of Oklahoma replaced injured starter Tyrod Taylor. Mayfield immediately would start talking trash before summarily taking over the game. The comeback culminated with Mayfield's game-tying two-point conversion catch off Cleveland's version of the Philly Special, the trick play the Philadelphia Eagles ran in their Super Bowl LII win.
The improbable 21-17 victory ended the NFL's second-longest winless streak since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Congratulations @Browns!!!!!— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 21, 2018
"I mean, it was just one of those movie reels, like a surreal moment. Like OK, we've got the No. 1 overall pick and he's going to lead us to the promised land," Browns safety Damarious Randall said of Mayfield, who wound up delivering one of the greatest rookie debuts for a quarterback in NFL history, and the best statistically, according to Pro Football Focus, since at least 2006. "The whole city rallied behind him and we definitely rallied behind him. We broke open the [Bud Light] cooler.
"That was really the start of something new."
Browns fans poured out of FirstEnergy Stadium and into the streets chanting Mayfield's name. Others cheered and sang at bars, drinking free Bud Light into the night.
"The feeling coming out of that game was, 'We got our guy.' This guy has what it takes to be that franchise quarterback," said longtime Browns Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Thomas, now an analyst with NFL Network, who was on the FirstEnergy sidelines that night. "Baker gave that hope back to a franchise that was desperate for some hope. Those fans were desperate for hope."
The momentum Mayfield ignited carried through last season. He set a rookie record for touchdown passes as he narrowly finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. Even though the Browns flopped last weekend in their most-anticipated season opener in decades, the promise of the foundation Mayfield helped put in place remains, as Cleveland seeks to end the NFL's longest playoff drought this year.
"That was a major starting point. You could physically see it," said Pro Bowl cornerback Denzel Ward, also a rookie last season. "And Baker showed that he was our guy, our star quarterback."
The Cleveland Browns win a game for the first time in 635 days.— paco (@AllaireMatt) September 21, 2018
With titanic music.
It happened. pic.twitter.com/NtzDPW6b3G
Since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have started 29 different quarterbacks. But not since Couch had Cleveland drafted a quarterback No. 1 overall, until Mayfield, who won the Heisman Trophy with the Sooners.
"Baker had a huge following because of his personality and the success he had in college," Thomas said. "So nationally, he was already a huge brand."
Yet unlike the Jets, who started fellow first-round draft pick Sam Darnold from Day 1, Cleveland coach Hue Jackson refused to give Mayfield the chance to win the starting job in training camp, deferring to Taylor instead. As the Browns' winless streak continued to balloon, so did anxiety among the fan base.
"'Put in Baker,' that's all we'd hear," Randall said. "The crowd would go crazy every time we didn't get a first down."
Fate would finally step in and overrule Jackson. With three minutes to go before halftime, Taylor was sacked and suffered a concussion.
Cleveland is home for Baker Mayfield
Baker Mayfield has quickly formed a bond with the city of Cleveland and has fans expecting big things in his second season.
Mayfield doesn't know who told him he was going in, but he does remember what he was saying to himself as he watched Taylor gingerly leave the field.
"It's never the way I want go in, but just the energy, you know I was thinking to myself, 'Not a lot left in the second quarter, get some points, get some momentum, just because the crowd's going to be a different animal in the second half,'" he said.
All it took for the crowd to erupt, however, was Mayfield grabbing his helmet.
"I remember Baker, the camera zooms to Baker and Baker's snapping his helmet on and he runs in there and I'm at home and I could feel the crowd from my house," said then New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., not knowing at the time he'd be joining the Browns in a few months.
"I get chills thinking about it. I could feel it."
Critters in Section 149
Mayfield's morning premonition wasn't the only pregame omen.
Greg Pleasant was in his seat in Section 149 about an hour before the game when he noticed a stir two sections over. An opossum had hunkered down along one of the rows in the southwest corner of the stadium, and was scaring fans from their seats. Pleasant had no experience wrangling critters. But he decided to take action, anyway.
"I'm not afraid of a opossum, man," he recalled to ESPN. "I'm not afraid of animals."
Pleasant bravely made his way to the opossum, scooped him up by his tail and placed him in a box provided by a security guard.
That possum needs to be at every Browns game from now on.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) September 21, 2018
(Also Baker Mayfield) pic.twitter.com/J41uogMc8W
Pleasant, who said he doesn't use Twitter or Facebook, went back to his seat next to his wife to get ready for the game -- unaware he was about to go viral.
"The guy that took the videos informed us that he posted the video on, I don't know, on YouTube or something," Pleasant said. "I was around my section until we were leaving the game, so I thought that just people from my section were complimenting me on grabbing the opossum. But then we were leaving the stadium and people were coming up to me outside of the stadium. I'm like, 'Well, these people aren't from our section.'"
Pleasant couldn't believe it when the following morning, driving his daughter to school, the local sports talk radio station was talking about him.
Security had released the opossum humanely outside the stadium. And Browns fans had an impromptu mascot to commemorate the night.
Three weeks later, the Browns made Pleasant an honorary Dawg Pound captain.
Coincidentally, that same morning, an opossum -- the same one? -- was spotted outside FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns would win that game against the Baltimore Ravens, too.
That wouldn't be the end of critters for Pleasant, though. This past May, he was changing the tires on his car when he noticed a baby raccoon with a wounded foot.
"Vets won't touch a raccoon," Pleasant said, "so I had to fix him up myself."
"Chomps" now lives at the Pleasants' house.
"He's more of a pet now," Pleasant said. "We have a dog kennel that he sleeps in. ... Yes, he likes the trash. He's big enough now that he just climbs into the trash can."
In his first career NFL huddle, Mayfield told the offense, "Let's get this s--- done," according to tight end David Njoku.
"[Mayfield] just took complete control," Njoku said. "And we all bought in."
Mayfield was also talking trash -- a lot.
"It's funny because you could see Baker's confidence, but also at the same time you're like, 'Baker, you're not the one blocking these guys,'" veteran offensive lineman Joel Bitonio said. "I look back on it now, and that's how I knew Baker was going to be confident and have this swagger to him.
"But at the time I was like, 'Quit talking! We haven't done anything yet.'"
The most memorable banter came as he was kneeling the ball before halftime.
"One of the linebackers was like, 'I'm coming for you, rookie,'" Mayfield recalled. "I was just like, 'Turn around, man. I don't know your last name, I don't know who you are.' Just one of those."
Nobody, fittingly, can remember who that Jets linebacker was who attempted to rattle Mayfield. But it obviously didn't work.
"That's a true story, that definitely happened," Tretter said.
"If someone wants to challenge Baker, Baker will be open for the challenge. That's just his personality. He's going to talk back. That's just who he is."
Despite the talk, Mayfield was focused on getting points before halftime. He completed his first pass to Jarvis Landry for a first down. The second, he found Njoku for another.
"You definitely felt the momentum shift when he came in," said Jets defensive end Henry Anderson. "He started to complete some passes and obviously the fans were feeling it, too. They were pretty hyped."
Mayfield eventually did as he hoped, leading the Browns to a 45-yard field goal before halftime. Cleveland trailed by 11. But it felt like it had the lead.
And that's when the rest of America seemed to begin tuning in to what would become the NFL Network's highest-rated Thursday game in three years.
Because they utilized it to beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Eagles get the credit for the reverse-pass-back-to-the-quarterback trick play. But in actuality, a few weeks before that Super Bowl, Oklahoma executed a version of the Philly Special with Mayfield during the Rose Bowl against Georgia.
While preparing for the Jets, Cleveland installed a copy of the play. Problem was, the Browns practiced it exclusively with Taylor catching the pass; Mayfield didn't get a chance to run it once.
After Mayfield's 29-yard strike to Landry set up a touchdown in the closing seconds of the third quarter, the Browns had the chance to tie the game on a two-point try. Their first attempt failed, but was negated by offsetting penalties. So the Browns dialed up their version of Philly Special, which for them had the banal designation of "reverse pass."
Mayfield, whose pregame routine throughout his college career included mimicking catching touchdown passes, told Landry he "was gonna get open for him." Admitting he had no idea whether Mayfield could catch, Landry remembers Mayfield also saying to throw the ball to him "no matter what."
After running back Duke Johnson took the direct snap and flipped the ball to him on the reverse, Landry saw Mayfield was open. With his left hand, he flipped the ball to Mayfield, who comfortably hauled in the pass at its highest point with two hands.
"That was huge for us," Mayfield said. "The stadium was going wild, too."
Mayfield wouldn't be stopped after that. On the game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, he converted two third downs with a pair of completions, to finish 17-of-23 for 201 yards in just over a half.
"He's relentless, he just competes," said Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, who was an offensive assistant last season. "Didn't really know what the reads were and stuff like that.
"But he just made stuff happen."
'Oh God. The free beer thing'
Robert Costanzo has managed the Grindstone Tap House for 17 years. And he's not sure he has ever had a night like the one when the Bud Light fridge was opened.
"We were at standing room capacity, it was ridiculous," said Costanzo, whose Berea bar is located just around the corner from the Browns' practice facility. "Everyone was so pumped up. And I'm not sure if they were more pumped up about the refrigerator getting open or that we had won the game."
Partnering with the Browns, Bud Light had proposed several ideas to leverage Cleveland's lovable losing. Finally, they came up with the Victory Fridge.
Bud Light provided 10 different bars across Ohio with locked fridges stocked with 200 cans of beer apiece. Bud Light also parked two fridges at FirstEnergy Stadium. Once the Browns finally won, those fridges would be unlocked, giving fans free Bud Light to celebrate.
Privately, team officials were concerned if the Browns remained winless and the fridges stayed locked deep into the season, the gimmick might turn the team into a bigger joke. But thanks to Mayfield, Cleveland didn't have to wait long for free beer.
The marketing ploy was such a smashing success, Bud Light followed up this month by creating a mock pop-up appliance store with the Browns to sell commemorative victory fridges. The inventory ran out in hours, with more than 2,000 fridges selling in the store and online. Net proceeds went to Browns charities.
"People were [lined up] at like 4 a.m.," said Landry, who along with defensive end Myles Garrett and wrestling star "The Miz" attended the event. "It was crazy."
Day 1 of a winning streak
After the game, Thomas was exhausted from a day of work with NFL Network. But like the rest of Cleveland, he wasn't about to go to bed, either.
"The city was on fire," he said. "It was just such a special moment. ... There were just people everywhere. Nobody wanted to leave the stadium, nobody wanted to leave the streets, the bars were packed until [closing] time, and even then the police that night were like, 'All right, you guys can stay out a little longer.'"
Thomas went to eat at a restaurant near the stadium and ran into legendary Browns running back Jim Brown. Together over drinks and appetizers, they talked about Mayfield and the team for hours.
"I just remember how optimistic he was about Baker leading that franchise," Thomas recalled. "How excited he was to see that stadium as excited as they were, with as much hope as they had. He hadn't seen the fans that optimistic, that excited about a team or a player in a long time."
It didn't stop the next day.
"I went out to eat and I couldn't sit down," Garrett said. "People were bum-rushing me, [saying], 'Did you see that?' It was like, 'Yeah, I was there. I remember the whole thing, I'm still sore from it.'"
The reaction of the crowd as he ran into the tunnel that night has stuck with Mayfield. And at that moment, it cemented his connection to them and to the city.
"It meant so much more for them," he said. "The mood and culture of this town of 'Here we go again,' it was critical for us. ... We got the first one. Let's put all the bulls--- aside of, 'Oh, they're gonna have another 0-and-16 year,' and let's just go to work."
Mayfield went home that night with his parents and brother, who were in town. He had a celebratory beer, went to team meetings the following morning, then caught a flight to Oklahoma to watch the Sooners play that weekend.
Bitonio, now in his sixth season with the Browns, is Cleveland's longest-tenured current player. Prior to last season, he'd played in nine wins -- total -- in his NFL career. He'd been through Manziel, three head coaches and all 635 days of that streak. Bitonio, too, confessed he was growing desperate for hope.
In Mayfield's performance against the Jets, he finally found it.
"I never felt so much relief and so much joy after a game," Bitonio said. "I hope we win a championship coming up here soon, and people are like, 'That was the turning point. That was Baker Mayfield's start.' It'll be one of those ESPN classic games where you have the Philly Special play, and you had that rally possum and the Bud Light fridges, and 635 days. ...
"Down the line, people are going to be like, 'That was the start of it. That's when the tide shifted.'"