Is Baker Mayfield the greatest quarterback in the history of Oklahoma football?
As the No. 8 Sooners and No. 11 Cowboys — both 7-1 overall and 4-1 in Big 12 play — rumble toward Saturday’s Bedlam showdown in Stillwater, there’s a danger of being caught up in the moment. The temptation is strong to want to live in history. So maybe the question is flawed.
Or, maybe, it’s not.
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The reality is that Mayfield is doing things his predecessors did not, often because they could not. And at this school, that’s heady stuff.
At Oklahoma — let’s eliminate the wishbone wizards for now and stick to the pro-style passers of the Bob Stoops era — the list includes two Heisman Trophy winners, a No. 1 overall pick, a national champion and a guy who threw for more than 16,000 yards.
Mayfield is 29-5 as Oklahoma’s starter, second only to Landry Jones’ 39 wins in four years. He has an outside chance at setting the modern-day mark for winning percentage (Jason White’s was .871). Mayfield also is second to Jones in passing yards (passing for 10,293 yards Jones’ 16,646) and touchdowns (99 to 123). Mayfield already owns single-season school records for completion percentage and passer efficiency, and is on track to break those marks this season. Despite operating without a formidable defense, Mayfield is 10-3 in his career against ranked teams (even Sam Bradford was just 8-5).
Considering how well Mayfield stacks up against his predecessors, it’s not unfair to ask the question as he heads into battle against the Cowboys, whose own quarterback Mason Rudolph has had a tremendous amount of success as well.
Although a marked dichotomy exists between the way they present themselves — Mayfield can seem cocky and loud, a flag-planting, T-shirt-messaging gunslinger; Rudolph can seem humble and reserved, a media-deflecting, self-deprecating sharpshooter — they both ooze confidence, excel at pocket presence and are natural leaders. Their teammates fight for them because they fight for their teammates.
“I think the biggest thing for both of us,” Mayfield said, “we have great supporting casts and teams that are playing hard for us. Those guys make our jobs easy.”
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Mayfield’s greatness is easy to argue, even in Oklahoma annals. His numbers are better than most, but he does something neither Josh Heupel nor White nor Bradford nor Jones could do: He escapes pressure like Johnny Manziel and throws on the run like Aaron Rodgers. And when he wants to, he runs. Heupel had 69 career rushing yards and 12 touchdowns; Bradford had 36 and five, respectively, over three years. White, Jones and Nate Hybl all had negative career rushing yards. The 6-1, 220-pound Mayfield has rushed for 772 yards and 17 touchdowns.
And Mayfield’s leadership, insiders say, is simply at another level.
“His passion that he has is by far deeper than anybody I’ve ever been around,” said Cale Gundy, longtime assistant coach (1999-present) and former Sooners quarterback (1990-93). “And it’s the same every single day.”
Like Mayfield, Gundy — brother of OSU coach Mike Gundy — was on the fiery side when he ran the offense in Norman. He said Mayfield’s charisma has been invaluable during the Sooners’ run to consecutive Big 12 championships.
“He has performance and he has attitude and he has charisma,” Gundy said. “He has kind of a little mix of everything, whereas those other guys were leaders, but in a quiet way.”
One thing Mayfield, a senior from Austin, Texas, does not have: a national championship. He led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in 2015, but that ended with a semifinal loss to Clemson.
“When I personally think of a quarterback,” said Jason White, “if I was to say best ever, I’ve got to look at one thing: Did they win a national championship?”
White was the 2003 Heisman Trophy-winner and played in consecutive BCS national championship games in ‘03 and ‘04. Both, however, were Oklahoma losses.
“A lot of people have asked me this question, who’s the best quarterback of the Stoops era?” White said. “I mean, I’ve got to go with Josh Heupel. The guy won a national championship. That’s the biggest honor you can get as a quarterback, to me.
“Although Baker’s still playing and still has a chance to do that, even without one, he’s obviously still up at the top. You can’t doubt him. He’s proven himself over and over.”
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White grew up a Sooner fan in nearby Tuttle, Okla. He suffered two season-ending knee injuries and played six seasons at Oklahoma (1999-2004). And in the last dozen years or so, he has followed Oklahoma quarterbacks as closely as anyone.
“As far as the quarterbacks that I’ve seen in my day, Baker’s obviously up there at the top,” White said. “He does incredible things. He’s an incredible player. But I think his best attribute is his leadership and the way he leads the team. And see, you can’t measure that.”
Paul Thompson won the starting job, got benched and then moved to wide receiver in 2005, but he had the magic and the makeup to come back in 2006 and lead the Sooners to a Big 12 title. For his money, Mayfield is “right up there if not at the top.”
“Poise, you toss in the accuracy, moving in the pocket, making plays with your feet,” Thompson said of Mayfield. “Yeah, you’ve got guys that have a national championship. But whenever I’m looking at those types of things, you’ve got to look at the whole ball of wax: all the positions, the entire team. If you removed one quarterback and place them here, would they excel at that same level with lesser talent around them?
“With that being said, you’ve got to look at Baker as being one of the best.”
Bradford, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2010, is in his eighth NFL season. Jones is in his fifth. Heupel, Hybl and Thompson all had brief stints in the league. White got a call, but his weakened knees forced him to quit.
When it comes to Sooner quarterbacks, Jones had the biggest arm, Bradford the best accuracy, White the most tenacity and Heupel the most smarts. Mayfield doesn’t have Jones’ arm talent, but he can throw it 65 yards. He may lack Bradford’s pinpoint precision, but his completion percentage is better. He hasn’t overcome White’s two ACL injuries, but he did walk on at Texas Tech, transferred to OU, redshirted and then displaced incumbent starter Trevor Knight. And he may not be a coach’s son or future offensive coordinator like Heupel, but he has an innate grasp of every page in Lincoln Riley’s playbook.
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“His trust of our guys has just been a lot higher than it was earlier in the year last year,” Riley said. “He’s done a good job. He hasn’t forced things. He’s hung in there pretty well.”
“I think there’s a lot of guys that were good at maybe one or two of those things,” Thompson said, “but to have it all in one package, the tenacity, the fieriness, playing with an injury, I don’t know if there’s been anybody to that degree that’s played at OU.
“All those skill sets, you’ll see Baker up there on all of them. Baker, he’s not a guy that’s just going to beat you with his arm, although he does beat you with his arm. He’s not a guy that’s just going to beat you with his feet, even though that’s what he does. … Charisma, he’s probably No. 1 there. So yeah, he’d be up there.”
Mayfield acknowledges his weakness: He sometimes tries to do too much. To that end, he wants to get the ball out quicker and be more decisive with his reads.
“There’s a lot, I think, to play at a high level,” Mayfield said. “Not just for my own stats or performance. There’s so much more with chemistry and making sure those guys are on the same page. … Being a great leader and getting the most out of them, for me, is just as important as delivering the ball to them.”
Mayfield plays with an imaginary chip on his shoulder, yet he seems uncomfortable with comparisons to the likes of Heupel, White and Bradford. Still, he’s willing to listen.
“It’s honestly weird to think about,” Mayfield said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that. You talk about Jason White, All-American, Heisman ceremony, you talk about Sam, won the Heisman, you’ve got Heupel, won a national title. You talk about the names up there, that’s impressive. To me, it’s weird to think about.
“But I think if I was to take a step back and look, I’d say, ‘Yeah, I deserve to be in that conversation.’ But I’m not done yet. So we’ll see when that happens.”