As a new mentor of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, Chad Pennington has advice to share with the No. 1 overall draft pick for almost every situation he'll encounter as a rookie.
But Pennington's main messages boil down to this: Continue to work like an underdog and focus on football instead of building a brand.
Those are the points Pennington, the 18th overall pick of the New York Jets in 2000 who played quarterback in the NFL for 11 seasons, has harped on since he met Mayfield in January at the Senior Bowl.
During the practice week in Mobile, Ala., Pennington served as a resource for prospects as part of the NFL Legends Community's mentorship program. Five weeks later, he worked with Mayfield in the same capacity at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The two have exchanged text messages since then.
Pennington hopes Mayfield, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Oklahoma, will never forget how he became a household name.
"My first piece of advice came from a place of transparency and honesty in saying that, 'Baker, you have to remember who you are, and that is a guy who was a twice walk-on in college, and without your work ethic and your talent, you would probably be a (graduate assistant) somewhere coaching,' " Pennington said in a recent phone interview with the Beacon Journal.
"The conflict is now people are treating him differently than who he knows he really is. And so he has to be able to distinguish the difference between (the two and tell himself), 'This is who people think I am and want to treat me this way because I am the first pick, I am a Heisman Trophy winner, but I, as Baker Mayfield, have to remember that I'm a twice walk-on, and I have to keep that edge about me, or this game and the entertainment value around this game will eat a player up and spit him out.' "
In the buildup to the draft, Mayfield granted Sports Illustrated access for a lengthy behind-the-scenes series written by reporter Robert Klemko and had a film crew following him for a nine-episode documentary, Next Level: Behind Baker, created and produced by Identifi, which describes itself as an innovative sports, talent and media company.
Pennington said "once you believe you're an entertainer, not a football player, your time is going to be limited in this league," and he broached the subject with Mayfield.
"We talked about keeping it strictly about football, eliminating some of those distractions," Pennington said. "I certainly understand the business side of building your brand, but like I tell all the rookies I speak with, your brand is not how many followers you have on Twitter and friends on Facebook. Your brand is how you work and how you treat people, and if your work ethic is right and you treat people right, your brand will be built the correct way.
"(Mayfield) was certainly listening, and I think he does get it. But I still think you have to experience some of it and make some mistakes to truly understand what I was saying. I was the same way, too. I was in the New York media market, and I really had to learn the marketing part of the position and the business side of football. I made some mistakes along the way as well, so it's a learning experience. But I hope that by sharing some of my experiences, maybe I can eliminate some of those obstacles and pitfalls."
Pennington conceded social media has created challenges for professional athletes that he didn't deal with when he played. For example, Klemko reported Mayfield browses Twitter, finds critical comments by media members and saves them.
"You (should) have a healthy perspective on it where you use it as motivation but you don't take it so personal that it completely controls every action and reaction that you have," Pennington said. "... We think that this relationship with the media should be so tense and adversarial. But when I look back upon it, I think most people within the media are good people, a lot of them are closet fans of the team they're reporting on, they just don't want you to know it, and if you treat them with respect and understand they have a job to do and so do you and you keep that healthy and professional, it can be something that bodes well for you."
Patience is vital
Pennington said it'll be crucial for Mayfield to concentrate this offseason on "learning the organization, the system that you're in, learning your teammates, coaches, administrators" because "he is just swallowing information through a fire hose."
Because Mayfield will have so much to absorb as a rookie, Pennington stressed the importance of the Browns sticking to their plan to enter the upcoming season with trade-acquisition Tyrod Taylor as the starting quarterback.
"That's the best plan," said Pennington, who knows Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam well because he was born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., and went to school with their children. "I sat for two years and three games and, for me, it was fantastic. I learned so much and when I got my opportunity my third year, man, I was ready to roll.
"I love the fact that (Mayfield), in his mind, is competing for the job. That's how you want his mindset to be. You just want him to be able to handle it if he doesn't win the job to make sure that he does everything in the quarterback room to help that room be successful. That's most important. When that room is stable, then the team is stable. When that room is not stable, the team is not stable.
"You want it to bother him (if he's not the starter), but not to that point where he is a detriment in the room. As long as he understands that and whomever the starter is — he fully supports him, he's a fan, he does everything to learn from him but also support him on and off the field — that will naturally happen. When it's his time, it will be his time, and everybody will know it, and it will happen organically. You don't have to force it."
Pennington said he believes Mayfield has what it takes to succeed as long as the Browns provide him with stability.
"I really felt like he was probably the purest passer in the draft, that he was very talented," Pennington said. "I don't think people were giving him enough credit for his arm talent and the type of passer that he was.
"There are some guys who may not fit the prototypical mold, but they just know how to play the game, and I think Baker's one of those guys."