At least we had those funny commercials
by Mitch Pollock
progressive (adj.): (1) in favor of new ideas, modern methods, and change; (2) happening or developing steadily.From the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.
First, let’s talk dates. On April 26, 2018, the Cleveland Browns selected quarterback Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Their record over the previous two seasons was 1-31, and they hadn’t reached the postseason since 2002 or had a winning season since 2007. On September 30, 2018, Baker entered his first NFL game and led the Browns to their first victory in 635 days. He finished the season with 27 passing touchdowns, the most ever by a rookie QB, and a reputation as one of the most exciting young players in the league. On January 12, 2020, the Browns hired Vikings O.C. and noted hunk Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach. He promptly led the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance while winning the Coach of the Year Award. And on January 10, 2021, roughly one year ago, the Browns pantsed the Pittsburgh Steelers at
the Toilet Bowl Heinz Field for the franchise’s first playoff victory since 1994. We led 28-0 in the first quarter. We made Big Ben cry. After a sophomore slump, Baker looked like stud, and the youthful leadership team of Stefanski and GM Andrew Berry were finally bringing new ideas and modern methods to the franchise. Things were developing steadily. Change had arrived.
Today is February 8, 2022. The Super Bowl is in five days, and the Browns season is a distant memory. Mayfield had his worst season as a professional after playing through a shoulder injury for most of the year. He was frequently high on throws, struggled to read the field, and took far too many sacks. His decision making was… puzzling. The team finished with a mediocre 8-9 record and no playoff berth, and the only good news since has been the success of Baker’s shoulder surgery. No word yet on possible brain surgery.
Sports fandom is inherently masochistic; I understand this. But choosing to be a Browns fan is a particularly severe form of self-hatred. The Super Bowl this year is a nightmare scenario for us: division rival Cincinnati Bengals versus former Browns malcontent Odell Beckham Jr. and the L.A. Rams. Meanwhile, the first Browns team in decades to show legitimate promise is facing an all-too-familiar problem: a quarterback crisis. Next season, they can either sacrifice future assets and cap space for an inconsistent veteran or place their Super Bowl ambitions in the hands of Mayfield. As ‘Survivor’ legend Rupert Boneham once said, “so much for my dreams.”
It’s not all bad, though. I’ve got another date for you: on August 28, 2019, following Baker’s stellar rookie season, Progressive Insurance signed him and his wife to an endorsement deal, and “At Home with Baker Mayfield” was born. It’s an ad campaign with a simple premise – that Baker actually lives in the Browns stadium 24/7 – that’s been a major hit. Progressive released eight new commercials in the series this season; I reviewed them in chronological order ahead of Super Bowl Sunday, an exercise I hoped would help me set aside the white-hot rage and debilitating heartbreak I feel over the sorry state of my favorite football team. It didn’t work. Nevertheless, here it is.
“Baker Mayfield Holds a Yard Sale” – September 2
Synopsis: Baker and Emily hold a yard sale of Browns equipment outside the stadium; Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills is confused.
The key to a good ad campaign is to stick to formula. The recipe for “At Home with Baker Mayfield” is a simple one: mundane domestic scenario (here, a neighborhood junk sale) applied to a football stadium, with Baker supplying the natural charisma and suburban dad vibes that make it all work. Give the man a clipboard and a couple of one-liners, and he’ll market the hell out of your insurance.
This commercial is a strong one to start the season with. It’s clear that Baker’s acting has improved over the years, and it’s always nice to see your quarterback work on his skills in the offseason. This ad also deserves high marks for bringing in Wills, another top ten draft pick who actually played well this year. I love all the little things, too, like Baker’s fanny pack and the old lady in the background buying a football helmet – stuff you only appreciate on the 50th re-watch. The best part is the unintentional foreshadowing. Why is Baker selling his stuff as if he’s moving out? Does this take place in the future after he’s been traded? Is Wills actually confused about Baker selling shoulder pads, or about how a roster as talented as ours is watching the playoffs from home? Thought-provoking questions.
This is the last commercial I’m even going to pretend to review, by the way. From here on out, it’s just a chronicle of suffering.
“Baker Mayfield Shares Hot Goss” – September 2
Synopsis: Baker waters his plants, swaps gossip with a couple of neighbors.
The Browns generated a lot of “hot goss” this season. I am not going to relitigate the Baker-Odell Beckham saga (I’d rather kill myself) but I’ll recap it for the uninitiated. Despite their big-name status and previous Pro Bowl-level play, both Baker and wide receiver Beckham started the season poorly. Their connection was off: Odell wasn’t running the right routes, and Baker wasn’t finding him when he was open. Then, hours before the trade deadline and days after a 15-10 loss to the Steelers, Beckham’s father, Odell Beckham Sr., shared an 11-minute highlight video on Instagram outlining all the ways that Baker was screwing up his son’s career. There was a big media brouhaha around it, it shadowed the team for a week, and per his wishes, Odell was eventually cut.
He wanted out, we obliged, and on Sunday, he’ll be playing in the Super Bowl. Considering Beckham also encouraged our hated rivals to trade for him during a game and told other star players, “Don’t come to Cleveland” while still on the team, you’d have to be pretty obtuse to think it was the Browns who failed him in this situation. And yet, because national sports pundits are accustomed to clowning the Browns organization with unencumbered glee whenever they so much as sniff dysfunction, and because Beckham made the Super Bowl, that was exactly the media narrative.
It’s honestly hard to blame them, though, given the team’s recent history. For two decades, they’ve been the subject of countless stories of humiliating front office decisions, disgraceful coach/player conduct, and impossible-to-believe on-field collapses. You want specifics? Here are some highlights: owner Jimmy Haslam drafting Johnny Manziel because a homeless guy told him to; losing to the Ravens on national TV because of a last-second blocked field goal turned touchdown; coach Hue Jackson promising to jump in Lake Erie if the Browns don’t improve on a 1-15 season, and fulfilling that promise when we went 0-16 the next year.
We were supposed to be past this stuff. The Browns hired a widely respected young Harvard graduate, alongside the Jonah Hill guy from Moneyball, to lead the front office; hired a widely respected young coordinator out of Minnesota to coach the team; stacked the roster with All-Pro level talent at all position groups; went 11-5 with a playoff win in year one; and still ended up as a punchline after year two. We couldn’t escape ourselves. Excuse me while I scream into a pillow.
“Baker Mayfield Ups the Treats Game” – October 1
Synopsis: some cute trick-or-treaters show up to FirstEnergy Stadium on Halloween and receive some unorthodox goodies from Baker and Emily.
I was a child once. I rode the bus to school, did my homework, and played football on the blacktop at recess. Only I never pretended to be a Browns player; it was always Tom Brady, Randy Moss, or T.O. When we talked about the Browns at the lunch table, it wasn’t recalling memorable victories or incredible plays, but comparing how angry our dads got at the TV on Sundays (my dad’s pretty chill, but there was apparently a lot of violence against inanimate objects going on in my friends’ living rooms). It sucked to be a Browns kid, basically, and our suffering was compounded by the handful of contrarian little assholes who chose to be Steelers fans instead. Even after all these years, I have nothing but contempt for those blood traitors. You know who you are.
As for me, I never considered that I had a choice. I’m third generation Dawg Pound on my mother’s side. I wore brown and orange diapers. My first words were “there’s always next year.” Before long, I’ll be a parent myself, and I’ll face that question with my own kids: do I raise them to be Cleveland sports fans? Is it even fair to bring children into the world, knowing I’ll eventually make them suffer through Sunday Browns games with me, cursing them to ceaselessly wait for a glorious championship moment that will never come?
These are the things I think about when I watch the Baker commercials.
“Baker Mayfield Gets a Bad Call” – October 1
Synopsis: to Baker’s annoyance, the Cleveland stadium play-by-play guy calls every move of his morning routine.
Speaking of parents, here’s a fun fact to lighten the mood: my dad is the P.A. announcer for my hometown high school football team. He’s “the Voice of the Greenmen,” as they say. As such, this is his favorite Baker Mayfield commercial. I know this because I remember watching it with him during a Browns-Ravens game while I was home for Thanksgiving. The Browns had given up two first half fumbles and were on their way to a gutting defeat, a loss that, unbeknownst to us, would mark the start of their collapse. After the P.A. guy’s final punchline, I turned to my father to find tears in his eyes. He embraced my mother, her face runny with makeup, and they fixed me with abiding stares that still haunt me when I lay awake at night. “Don’t be a Browns fan, Mitch,” they said. “Get our while you’re still young.” Then my mother and I ate dinner in silence while my dad sat on the porch alone.
“Baker’s Neighbor Gives Bobby a Makeover” – October 22
Synopsis: Baker’s neighbor gives a Browns janitor a rockin’ makeover.
That’s Alice Cooper. He’s apparently a legendary heavy metal singer known as “The Godfather of Shock Rock.” I don’t know, I’m a millennial. He’s a guest star because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is next door to FirstEnergy Stadium (see next section). This is one of the weaker commercials in the series, and I’m not sure how to comment on it, so, I’m going to tell a story instead.
In the fall of 2019, I attended the Toronto International Film Festival. It had been a rough year, and I hoped to improve my spirits by getting out of the States and checking a big item off my bucket list. In five days, I saw a dozen movies, spotted countless celebrities, ate an ungodly amount of pizza while rushing between theaters, and generally had the time of my life. It also happened to be the weekend of the Browns season opener, the first game of Baker’s highly anticipated second year. I left an open block in my screening schedule and on Sunday afternoon, I hopped in an Uber headed to the only Browns bar in Toronto.
The place was called Shoxs Billiard Lounge. When I got there, an enormous, bearded man in a Baker jersey spotted my Browns beanie, took me by the shoulder, and ushered me to the back room. Even an hour before game time, the place was packed with Browns fans. I took a seat with my new friend and a young couple from out of town. The husband was some kind of contractor on a months-long work assignment in Toronto. He and his wife expressed legitimate amazement that I grew up in the Cleveland area and asked me if I’d ever been to the Dawg Pound. He told me he’d grown up in Kansas City, but his dad was a Jim Brown-era Browns fan who passed the tradition down. Noting the fortitude it took to stick with the Browns in the city of Patrick Mahomes and his electric Chiefs, I felt genuine respect for the man across from me. Naturally shy people like me are uncommonly sensitive to friendliness and warmth from strangers. I should have known I’d find that among the Browns Backers. I was glad I’d come.
Then the game started. The first half was deflating but not disastrous; we trailed the Titans 12-6 at halftime. The second half was a train wreck. We gave up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, lost by 30, and were thoroughly dominated on the most hopeful day in recent Browns history. The young couple left early, along with most of the other Backers. I stayed for a while with a mostly full beer, partly due to shock, but also because I was unsure where to pay my bill and afraid to ask anyone. Soon, it was just the bearded man and me. The friendliness was gone; I was an out-of-towner in a random bar in Canada keenly aware of what a lonely experience this had become. It suddenly didn’t seem so fun and quirky that the Browns’ new head coaching hire was a short, fat guy with no experience named Freddie Kitchens. When I got home to Virginia, I called my doctor and got a prescription for antidepressants.
That was one game. I watch 17 of them every year.
“Baker Has a Package Mix-Up” – October 22
Synopsis: Baker takes a mixed-up package to neighbor Alice Cooper next door.
Hey, the Rock Hall! As seen in the opening montage of every national TV sports broadcast from Cleveland. “Welcome to Cleveland, home, of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame….” Meanwhile, this Clevelander has been there exactly once and had exactly zero conversations about it that I can remember.
Still, it serves as a nice segue to talk about the peculiar relationship that Northeast Ohioans have with their city, and how that relationship is influenced by our national reputation – and how all of that is perfectly epitomized by the Browns. There’s a quote from the ’30 for 30’ documentary about Cleveland sports, titled Believeland, that illustrates this. It’s from ESPN writer Wright Thompson, speaking about Cleveland’s reaction to LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010:
“LeBron didn’t do anything that an entire generation of people from Cleveland haven’t done. People go wherever the opportunities take them … I feel like a lot of the anger was people struggling with their own guilt because they have watched themselves and their sons and daughters love Cleveland and leave it, for the exact same reasons as LeBron James did.”
Using me and my hometown friends as a sample, I can confirm that he has us pegged. We all moved away to pursue career or educational opportunities. We all make fun of Cleveland but get fiercely defensive when anyone else does. We still follow the Browns, Cavs, and
Indians Guardians with varying levels of commitment. None of us are planning to move back, and while I won’t speak for any of them, I definitely have a small sense of guilt about that.
If you’re not from there, you may not know that Cleveland was once a truly important American city. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a prospering boom town that boasted a top ten population and a strong industrial economy. Its population peaked in 1950, a time when Cleveland was dubbed “the best location in the nation” for business. We had another nickname, too: the City of Champions. The Browns in those days were a bonafide dynasty, winning eight championships in the two decades after World War II. They had arguably the best coach and best player in NFL history (Paul Brown and Jim Brown, respectively). The Indians won it all, too, in 1948. This was the Cleveland my grandparents grew up in. A proud place.
The following decades were rough on the city. They saw race riots and white flight, the Rust Belt industrial decline, political corruption, and a host of other problems. Our sporting fortunes followed suit. The Indians became the league’s most lovable losers, enduring a World Series championship drought that’s now 73 years and counting. The Browns suffered several heartbreaking playoff defeats in the 80’s, left Cleveland in the 90’s when owner Art Modell relocated them to Baltimore (don’t get me started, that’s a whole ‘nother blog), and returned as the cosmically inept expansion franchise we know today.
Apologies for the history lesson, but it needed to be done. How else to understand the Terminal Tower-sized chip that every Northeast Ohioan carries on their shoulder? I’ve run out of room, though, so this discussion will be carried over into the next Baker Mayfield commercial review.
“Baker Mayfield Hires a House Sitter” – October 29
Synopsis: I don’t care anymore.
So, Cleveland is a once great city turned national punching bag. The steel is gone, the corporations are gone, and the people are gone: the population is roughly a third of its peak, and a generation of smart, ambitious kids have left the region for greener pastures. In the past decade, the city’s made strides to revitalize downtown and recenter the economy around healthcare and technology, with some success. But it’s still a place where the past casts a massive shadow. As guilty as I feel about leaving Cleveland rather than contributing to its revival, I know that to really bring the city back, I’d need to invent a time machine.
Upon that sociological backdrop we project the Browns, Cavs, and Guardians. Sports are the city’s hope, the one arena where we can theoretically still compete with New York, Los Angeles, and the like. Into our fandom, we pour the disappointment of economic decline and the bitter sting of decades of easy jokes flung in our direction. It just matters more to us; if you want proof, watch the reaction to the Cavs’ 2016 NBA Finals victory. It was like seeing a million exorcisms performed at once.
Expect the Browns Super Bowl reaction to be roughly ten times as ecstatic, because Cleveland, more than anything, is a Browns town. A more obvious symbol for the city couldn’t exist: a historic championship organization brought low by bad luck, the actions of corrupt men, and a long string of mistakes. Yet hope remains and passion endures. Cleveland fans talk a lot about wanting to win in order to prove people wrong. Usually, they’re referring to some national media talking head or a rival team’s fanbase. Personally, I think it’s more about convincing ourselves to be proud again. And for those who moved away, it’s a way to stay close.
To read more about the Cleveland sports psyche, check out the aforementioned Wright Thompson’s 2010 piece for ESPN.com. He’s a far better writer than me, and much of this section was inspired by/cribbed from his excellent essay.
“Baker Mayfield Calls a Password Audible” – October 29
Synopsis: This is the last one. Bernie Kosar is in it.
How to explain Bernie Kosar? In 1985, the University of Miami quarterback declared for the NFL Draft by saying he wanted to come home to Ohio and play for the Browns, and no one else. His wish was granted, and he went on to lead the team to two consecutive AFC championship games in 1987 and ’88, losing both in excruciating fashion to John Elway’s Broncos. Playing without today’s protective roughing the passer rules, he took an absolute beating in his career (in the words of my mom, he was “flattened on every play”), and his compounding injuries led to an early retirement. He now suffers from slurred speech, insomnia, and ringing in his head due to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that resulted from his many concussions. These sacrifices, along with his blue-collar vibe and crucial role on a great Browns team, make him one of the most beloved athletes in Cleveland history. He’s a personal hero to my parents’ generation whose name is spoken with reverence to this day.
There’s a lot of Bernie in Baker. He was a highly touted first round draft pick who quickly became a savior figure. He had obvious flaws as a quarterback prospect that he overcame with big time throws and a heavy dose of swagger. His toughness in playing through injury this year was a throwback to the rougher NFL of Kosar’s time. Despite his shaky play through four years, he has a way of capturing fans’ hearts with his leadership and confidence. A part of me still believes he can surpass Bernie’s legacy and win a Super Bowl for us. And he’s like Bernie in one final respect: he’s far more beloved and respected in Cleveland than he is elsewhere, and lately, he’s become a favored target of an army of online haters.
Baker announced two weeks ago that he’s quitting social media for the offseason, after he and his wife were harassed and criticized endlessly this year. Instead of being lauded for looking after his mental health and avoiding distractions, he was roundly mocked and labeled weak. That didn’t sit right with me. I criticized Baker and the Browns plenty in this essay. He had a bad year, and his status as the future quarterback of the Browns is rightfully in question. However – and as stupid as this is going to sound – the Browns and their fanbase are like family to me. And like any family, we can make fun of each other, sometimes viciously, but if anyone outside the family talks any smack, it’s a problem.
So, I’m going to stand by Baker while he takes a daily beating on my Twitter feed, because he’s ours. Respectfully, if you’re not a Browns fan, your opinion is worthless, and you can kiss my ass. And I’ll be watching on Sunday, but I don’t care who wins; I just want to see if they’ll air a new Baker commercial. Next year’s Super Bowl will be more interesting, anyway: the Browns will be playing. Book it.