Each week between now and the Super Bowl, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious, filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.
Here's this week's briefing:
A Baker Mayfield/Gardner Minshew conspiracy theory
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mere hours after the publishing of this investigation, the JAGUARS ANNOUNCED NICK FOLES AS THEIR STARTER FOR WEEK 11. Clearly an effort to wash their hands of this messy development after we got too close with our gumshoe tactics over the past 48 hours.
The Browns quarterback was all the rage as a rookie, but Mayfield has fizzled out this autumn inside a Cleveland offense that appears bedeviled and disoriented on a weekly basis.
ITEM: Could this have something to do with the unlikely rise of a mustachioed icon-in-the-making nearly 900 miles to the south in Jacksonville, Florida?
Not unlike the centuries-old concept of a spirit-double, doppelgangers are generally considered omens of ill luck -- even impending doom -- while often serving as a "mischievous presence," with "the copy causing mayhem for the copied."
A resemblance between the two hipster-tinged signal-callers can be detected by a child, but I'm more concerned with the energy-suck experienced by Mayfield ever since Minshew hit the scene.
Mayfield trapped in a Minshew-initiated energy black hole?
Let's examine Minshew's entry point into the collective consciousness of pro football followers.
The rookie, a sixth-round draft pick, was propelled into Jacksonville's lineup after starter Nick Foles was hit and broke his left clavicletossing a 35-yard touchdown to D.J. Chark in the first quarter of the club's Week 1 loss to Kansas City. Just as Chark hauled in the pigskin, the CBS ticker told a different tale from Cleveland, one of Mayfield opening his season a clean 5-of-6 passing for 72 yards, with the Browns holding a 6-3 lead over Tennessee thanks to a juicy, Mayfield-authored, eight-play, 73-yard touchdown march (including a missed PAT try).
Then it happened: Minshew entered the game moments later in Jacksonville and immediately turned heads by hitting 22 of 25 throws for a bunch of yardage and a pair of scores.
With Minshew, the newcomer, stealing the show, Mayfield became an entirely different player up in Cleveland, in all the wrong ways. Manchurian Candidate vibes beamed off the previously electric passer as Baker tossed a trio of ugly picks and looked increasingly discombobulated in a 43-13 loss to the Titans, who have yet to score more than 27 points in a game since.
Mayfield, meanwhile, has guided a lost Browns attack that refuses to equal the sum of its parts while floating in a hazy netherworld of the senses. After setting a rookie record for touchdowns in 2018, the former No. 1 overall pick -- post-Minshew -- sits tied atop the NFL with an untoward 12 picks beside a measly seven touchdown lobs.
Yes, Minshew struggled Sunday in London with a pair of interceptions, but the vibrant scene at Wembley tells us more than his performance. NFL Network cameras bounced around all game showing the amped-up throng -- men, women, toddlers, drunken aunts -- decked out as headband-wearing, mustachioed doubles celebrating the societal juggernaut of Minshew Mania.
Hours later, in Denver, Mayfield -- last year's headwear-with-scruff sensation -- drew less attention for his play in a 24-19 loss to the Broncos (27 of 42 for 273 yards, one TD and a passer rating of 90.7) and more for a curious act of ongoing facial-hair alterations that saw him rotate from a pregame beard to an in-game Fu Manchu to a post-loss cropped mustache:
My unscientific theory: The Mayfield in this third photo -- appearing downtrodden, exhausted and almost shrouded in a disguise of sorts -- is the hallmark of a human being plagued by an active body double. Mayfield's energy has been drained by his OTHER. The effect is cumulative, and the cost for Mayfield has compiled over nine draining weeks of NFL action.
Abraham Lincoln once suffered a troubling run-in with a doppelganger of his own. In the tome Washington in Lincoln's Time, author Noah Brooks notes the 16th president arrived home one evening in 1860 and peered into a chamber-room mirror to find himself reflected as a double image. Lincoln described himself as "nearly at full length; but my face had two separate and distinct images," with one "a little paler -- say five shades -- than the other."
The president's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was alarmed by the encounter and deeply worried the mirrored, sickly double was an omen of bad fortune.
For Mayfield, though, a harbinger of hope has appeared.
The figure of kindly/pure Nick Foles as an acid test
Shortly after the publishing of this investigation, the team announced Foles would return to the job.
Chuckle at the concept of a doppelganger, but Minshew's benching serves as a tangible energy shift, with Foles once again taking center stage, Mayfield toiling Minshew-free -- and Gardner returning to the shadows.
Sideways theories aside, tell me I'm wrong about this: Whether you prefer Minshew or Mayfield, something about the collective Minshew Experience over the past nine weeks pulled life-force energy away from the freshness of Mayfield.
Baker's own play did much of the work, but it still feels like a lookalike younger brother entering high school and becoming a much bigger persona than the older brother, still wandering the halls as a senior and wondering what happened.
Sure, a billion 20-something dudes have been marching around town with Chevron mustaches, Hogan Fu's and ornately groomed beards made to look unkempt -- the whole drill -- but it goes beyond styling choices for me: Minshew strode in and stole a dash of the playful, swashbuckling aura Baker harnessed as a rookie. The same brand of devil-may-care joie de vivre that made Mayfield an instant hit in Cleveland one season ago.
Those feel-good days have dried up, capping a Browns swoon that began seconds after Foles disappeared in the rear-view mirror in favor of Gardner Flint Minshew II running the Jacksonville motherboard.
You had better believe I'm monitoring this closely as November turns wavy green fields into so much scorched earth.