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Swanson: Baker Mayfield’s late-season exploits reward Rams’ tenacity

THOUSAND OAKS — We’ve apparently stumbled into the “Great Angeleno Baking Show” tent, where this bake-off’s payoff is well deserved: The Rams’ season going from ruined to delectable in just a few weeks’ time.

No, their Super Bowl defense didn’t pass muster, but their late-season arc passes the toothpick test. Baker Mayfield’s arrival and stunning resurgence is just dessert, in a good way, for a team and a quarterback who didn’t fold in on themselves.

Beset by injuries, including to starting quarterback Matthew Stafford and backup John Wolford, the Rams nailed it when they brought aboard Mayfield, giving the embattled quarterback an opportunity to do what he seems to do best. Prove it.

Lightly recruited out of high school, Mayfield had to walk on twice in college, first at Texas Tech and then after he transferred to Oklahoma. And he showed ’em, all right, becoming the first walk-on to win a Heisman Trophy and leading Oklahoma to within a regulation score of the national championship game.

That made believers out of the Cleveland Browns, who picked him first overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

“There’s no question,” Lincoln Riley told The Athletic in 2018, when the then-Oklahoma coach was asked to weigh in on his pupil’s pro prospects. “If the situation stays good and he stays healthy, then good things are going to happen.”

Didn’t happen.

A chaotic situation (four head coaches and four coordinators in his first three seasons) plus a torn labrum in his left shoulder and the Mayfield magic that was promised in Cleveland never transpired.

Proving people wrong is different than proving them right, of course, and Mayfield, the 6-foot-1 lightning rod, short on stature but long on chutzpah, was underwhelming during his Browns tenure, including in his final season there, when his 35.1 quarterback rating was 27th of the 31 qualified QBs.

In July, Cleveland traded him to Carolina for a 2024 fifth-round pick, though his stay lasted only six months. He completed just 57% of his passes and threw as many interceptions as touchdowns – six – before the Panthers released him to a chorus of criticism, like that from national sports talk host Colin Cowherd, who proclaimed Mayfield’s “career is a bust,” and called him a D+ quarterback.

D, for Doubt – the additional measure of which seems to have gotten a rise out of Mayfield in L.A., the same city where Riley now also is making his home, leading the USC Trojans’ resurgence just down the freeway.

Since the Rams’ claimed him on Dec. 6, Mayfield, 27, has delivered two of their five victories this season – both of them memorable, money’s-worth wins for fans who have stuck with the team through this season of struggle.

First came the wild 98-yard game-winning drive against the Las Vegas Raiders in Mayfield’s debut. Then, after a pedestrian 12-for-21, 111-yard performance in a 24-12 road loss to the Green Bay Packers, who held the Rams’ offense to 43 plays in fewer than 23 minutes of possession, a Christmas feast.

Against a normally formidable Denver defense on Sunday, Mayfield threw for two touchdowns and 230 yards in the Rams’ whopping 51-14 victory.

What’s more: Mayfield missed on only four of his 28 pass attempts – so on the money that the first of his incompletions was, apparently, an intentional strike, thrown away but on target: “He threw that thing off the crossbar just to see if he could ricochet it back to himself” said Sean McVay on his weekly “Coach McVay Show.”

That’s what playing free looks like. A good taste of what happens when you let Baker bake.

And it’s indicative of the Rams’ culture, determined and solution-oriented, a pretty good situation still, exemplified by how McVay tweaked his offense to better suit Mayfield.

Rather than stick with 11 personnel, their typical package with three wide receivers and a tight end on the field, the Rams went with 12 personnel last week, putting two tight ends on the field for the first time this season.

In addition to their astonishing memories, that sort of flexibility is something Riley and McVay have in common, Mayfield said Wednesday, standing barefoot in front of his practice locker, his brown eyes smiling and an “OU” insignia on his T-shirt, over his heart.

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“They also put guys in a good position to showcase their talents,” Mayfield sad. “To have a great position for success.”

With two games left – including Sunday’s against the Chargers – the discourse surrounding the Rams (5-10) isn’t focused on their lost season, but on the notion that they have reasons to be hopeful about the future, when they’ll be healthier and when Baker Mayfield will be … well, it’s hard to say.

He’s reminded all those many doubters that yes, he does have what it takes to be an NFL quarterback, and because of that, he’ll have options during free agency. Whether he feels at home enough in L.A. to entertain the prospect of staying here as a backup to Stafford, Mayfield wasn’t saying Wednesday.

But whatever happens this offseason, Mayfield’s late-season exploits ensure that neither he nor the Rams will go into it with a bitter taste lingering.

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