BEREA, Ohio— The explanation didn’t make any sense at the time. Days later, Baker Mayfield remains baffled.
After the Browns rookie quarterback was blasted in the helmet on Sunday by Tampa Bay safety Jordan Whitehead, who lowered his head to deliver the blow on Mayfield, referee Shawn Hochuli added a layer of confusion to a controversial play with his reason for not calling a penalty.
“The quarterback is still a runner and therefore is allowed to be hit in the head,” Hochuli announced. “He had not yet begun his slide. There is therefore no foul.”
Mayfield can’t grasp that explanation.
“No words,” an incredulous Mayfield said Wednesday. “Honestly. No words.”
Mayfield said he didn’t initially hear Hochuli’s comments, mainly because he was focused on calling the Browns’ next play.
Once he found out, Mayfield was dumbfounded.
“I thought that’s why they put the rule in,” Mayfield said. “But we’ll see.”
The NFL is expected to fine Whitehead for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Mayfield, a person familiar with league discipline told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Mayfield had begun to slide at the end of a 35-yard scramble when he was drilled by Whitehead, who used the crown of his helmet to plaster the No. 1 overall pick.
Whitehead should have been flagged for unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the league has not commented on calls from last week’s games.
The league, which has placed an extra emphasis on protecting quarterbacks, has been announcing fines on Saturday. If Whitehead is punished, it will be public confirmation that the play should have been penalized.
However, the Browns aren’t looking for another veiled apology from the league. They’ve had several questionable calls go against them this season, but guard Joel Bitonio doesn’t think officials are biased against the Browns (2-4-1), who have played four overtimes games.
“It’s a tough job being an NFL ref,” said Bitonio said. “Mistakes happen. That’s part of the job. We miss things. They miss things. It’s part of the business. We have to overcome that. The refs might have blown a call here and there, but we’ve had opportunities to make things happen. When it came down to it, we missed those opportunities.”
And while the league has been proactive in protecting quarterbacks, late hits remain a problem. The one on Mayfield was particularly alarming because he was doing everything correctly, still got whacked and nothing was called.
Browns coach Hue Jackson is in favor of such plays being subject to replay review if it means getting the call correct.
“The league and the officials want to get it right, so to me anything that is questionable that way, I think you take a real good look at it,” Jackson said.
“Let’s just not move on from it, even if you have to review it. Let’s make sure that those things are correct as those calls are being made, when it’s something that’s that vicious, that kind of hit, especially on a quarterback.”
Jackson said he has had positive “conversations” with the league. Ultimately, he said the goal is for fairness.
“I think the most important thing for the league, for teams, for coaches, for everybody, is we just want to get it right,” he said. “Games are won and lost on these things. Jobs will be on the line because of these things and that’s important. Again, we just want it to be right.”
Mayfield feels the NFL might consider adopting the college “targeting” rule in which players are subject to ejection and suspensions if called for using their helmets to deliver a blow. Mayfield said the rule served as a deterrent when he was at Oklahoma.
“I definitely know it affected our team,” Mayfield said. “When anytime you have guys that are flying around trying to impose their will on an offense and a hit like that can take them out of not only that second half but then the first half of the next game, that can affect a lot of guys.”
Mayfield wasn’t injured on the play and he sneered “I’ll be all right” when asked if he felt fortunate that he didn’t sustain a concussion.
After he got popped by Whitehead, Mayfield jumped to his feet and walked directly at him while yelling that he needs to hit harder. The moment underscored Mayfield’s toughness and fire.
“That’s who he’s always been,” running back Duke Johnson said. “We’re going to back him. We’re going to support him, and it’s great to see. Wish he’d get down a lot sooner, but it’s great to see him get up from it, bounce back and go down there and make more plays.”