SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As a player whose decorated NFL career has been fueled by a turbulent temperament and a boulder on his shoulder, Richard Sherman understands the nature of rivalry and respects the power of a pugnacious pregame persona.
Yet Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers‘ ninth-year cornerback, also views the NFL as a fraternity, and there are certain rituals he considers sacrosanct. When Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns‘ brash second-year quarterback, refused to shake Sherman’s hand at midfield just before the coin toss that preceded Monday night’s game at Levi’s Stadium, it triggered him — and many of his Niners teammates — in a profound way.
It would be an exaggeration to cite Mayfield’s snub of Sherman and fellow captain DeForest Buckner as the driving force behind the 49ers‘ 31-3 beatdown of the Browns in front of 70,042 fans and a Monday Night Football audience, but it was a topic of discussion among the Niners before, during and after the game. And Sherman, who intercepted a Mayfield pass less than two minutes into the first quarter — setting the stage for the quarterback’s long, miserable night — was eager to elaborate when he and I spoke alone at his locker about 20 minutes after the carnage was complete.
“What’s amazing, and annoying, was him not shaking hands at the beginning,” Sherman said. “That’s some college s—. It’s ridiculous. We’re all trying to get psyched up, but shaking hands with your opponent — that’s NFL etiquette. And when you pull bush league stuff, that’s disrespectful to the game. And believe me, that’s gonna get us fired up.”
On a night when San Francisco (4-0) registered its first signature victory of the season, retained its status as the NFC’s lone undefeated team and remained in first place in the NFC West heading into next Sunday’s divisional road clash against the defending conference champion Los Angeles Rams, the Niners’ disdain for Mayfield was palpable.
From rookie pass rusher Nick Bosa‘s mocking gestures (more on that later) to Sherman’s and Buckner’s postgame comments, it was clear that this game felt personal from the start. And the Niners’ defense caused misery for Mayfield (8 for 22, 100 yards) from beginning to end, sacking him four times, causing a pair of fumbles (one of which San Francisco recovered) and intercepting him twice.
To Sherman, Mayfield’s unaccomplished performance reinforced another of the cornerback’s complaints about the handshake snub.
“Respect the game,” Sherman said, referencing Mayfield’s pregame behavior. “You can have rivals, but pay your respect in that moment — especially when you’re young.
“He hasn’t earned anything in this league. How many games has he won? He’s acting like he was the MVP last year. If (Patrick) Mahomes did that, it would be one thing. But he would never do that, because he has too much respect for the game.
“And when you see a guy who doesn’t? You humble him every chance you get. Because eventually, he will have respect for the league — or he’ll be out of it.”
While not as expansive as Sherman, Buckner, a fourth-year defensive tackle playing at an All-Pro level, was similarly put off by Mayfield’s refusal to shake his hand.
“That can rub a lot of people the wrong way,” Buckner told NFL.com. “I guess it’s part of his game. Oh well.”
(For what it’s worth, the third Niners player who participated in the coin toss, star tight end George Kittle, said he got a quick handslap from Mayfield before the game, adding, “Everyone has their own alter ego that they lock into. His is, ‘I’m gonna mess you up.’ I don’t mind it. He’s gone a long way with it.”)
Mayfield’s bravado, of course, was a major reason for the Browns‘ promising 7-8-1 season in 2018, which included a 5-3 mark under interim coach Gregg Williams, who replaced the fired Hue Jackson midway through the campaign. Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick, threw a rookie-record 27 touchdowns despite not starting until the fourth game of the season, and his brazen demeanor helped fire up a team, and a fan base, coping with a long history of futility.
In January, Cleveland hired Freddie Kitchens — the Browns‘ interim offensive coordinator under Williams — leaving no doubt that Mayfield was the franchise’s centerpiece. After Cleveland acquired star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in a March trade with the New York Giants and made some other splashy offseason moves, the hype surrounding the Browns became highly pronounced, and Mayfield became a trendy MVP pick.
On Monday, as with their season-opening shellacking at the hands of the Tennessee Titans, Mayfield and his teammates appeared not ready for primetime. The Browns (2-3), whose next two opponents are the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots, are now immersed in an early season identity crisis, with emotional swings that seem to mirror their young quarterback’s moods.
Are they the team we saw roll to an impressive road victory over the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens last Sunday, or are they the outmatched outfit that had no chance against the Niners eight days later?
That’s to be determined, but we did learn a lot more about the Niners, whose 4-0 start is their first since the 1990 team that was coming off back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs: Namely, with a much-improved defense and a potent running attack that dominated on Monday night, San Francisco is a legitimate playoff contender with a chance to get much, much better as the season progresses.
On Monday, taking away quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo‘s kneeldowns, the Niners ran 36 times for 278 yards. The onslaught began on their first play from scrimmage, when Matt Breida (11 carries, 114 yards) burst through the line, bounced to his left and raced 83 yards for the first of his two touchdowns. Later, Tevin Coleman (16 carries, 97 yards) — who’d missed the previous two games with a high ankle sprain — found the end zone as well.
The only bummer came late in the third quarter, when standout fullback Kyle Juszczyk was carted off with a left leg injury. That was especially significant given that the three-headed brainchild of the Niners’ running game — third-year head coach Kyle Shanahan, run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel and offensive line coach John Benton — relies heavily on Juszczyk’s precision and blocking ability to help spring runners, and that was especially true on Monday.
“McDaniel and John Benton — they gameplan it very well,” Shanahan said as he left the locker room. “They put a lot of stress on our players to do it a certain way, and it’s not easy, but we’ve got the right guys to execute it at a high level.”
In layman’s terms, the Niners’ plan against the Browns exploited the Cleveland linebackers’ penchant for overplaying fullback motion. The frequent motioning of Juszczyk to his right — a deployment sold by having the fullback look to his right before and during the shift — helped displace the Browns‘ backers, to whom “eye discipline” had been stressed by coaches in the days leading up to the game.
The Niners’ schematic edge on the other side of the ball was equally significant, with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh implementing a plan designed to keep Mayfield in the pocket, but brute force also played a role. And the man causing the most havoc up front was Bosa, who sacked Mayfield twice, hurried him on five other occasions, recovered a fumble (after Buckner’s first-quarter sack), forced another after a third-quarter takedown of Mayfield (which the Browns recovered) and taunted the quarterback with words and deeds.
In Bosa’s case, it was personal — and it had nothing to do with the quarterback’s refusal to shake hands before the game (though the rookie did roll his eyes at that). Two years ago, after Mayfield led Oklahoma to an upset victory at Ohio State, he’d celebrated by waving a Sooners flag and planting it at midfield on the “O” logo. Bosa, who played for the Buckeyes, was in the locker room with the rest of his teammates when that happened, later seething as he saw videos of the flag-plant on social media.
“I’ve been mad for two years,” he told me after the game. “And I was gonna get him back tonight.”
Late in the first half, after pressuring Mayfield into an intentional grounding penalty, Bosa taunted the quarterback by miming the flag wave and plant. After the game, he waved and planted an actual 49ers flag in the end zone.
During the game, Bosa let Mayfield know all about it, chanting “Ba-ker, Ba-ker,” and barking out, “Come on — pick it up. I want a challenge.”
As Bosa told reporters after the game at his locker: “I don’t know how anybody thought he’d be able do see over Arik (Armstead) and Buck. But he was panicking, rolling back and forth, double-clutching all game… We’ve been rattling all the quarterbacks we play. I just knew he would hold onto it and we’d get to take some shots.”
And when Mayfield took shots downfield, the Niners were also ready. On his second pass of the game, on the Browns‘ first possession following Brieda’s long touchdown run, Mayfield unleashed a throw under heavy pressure from Bosa over the middle that was intended for receiver Antonio Callaway, but Sherman jumped the route and came up with an acrobatic interception.
“He was getting sacked, and he should have just eaten the ball,” Sherman said afterward. “He’s throwing as he’s falling, and I’ve already broken on the ball, so there’s no reason to chuck it. That’s youth. You’ve got to eat that play and get to the next one. And he’s throwing it to Callaway — it’s one thing if he puts it up for Odell or (Jarvis Landry), because those guys are so good they might be able to make a play. But no, he shouldn’t have thrown it.”
Not that Sherman was complaining. In discussing the pregame handshake snub, he cited numerous instances in which he felt the young quarterback had been out of line in criticizing others, from Mayfield’s comment that it “blows my mind” that the New York Giants drafted quarterback Daniel Jones sixth overall, to his reproachful stance toward then-teammate Duke Johnson when the running back was unhappy about his role over the offseason, to last season’s harsh words for and on-field taunting of Jackson, who’d taken a job as a special assistant for the Cincinnati Bengals after his firing by the Browns.
“There’s no reason for him to say and do those things, especially given how little he’s accomplished,” Sherman said of Mayfield. “That’s where he’s gonna have to grow up. He might get there, but he has a long way to go.”
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.