“I can’t stand losing,” Cleveland Brown cornerback Joe Haden said recently, tears welling in his eyes, after being beaten on the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute. "It hurts. I go out there and put my heart out there every time. And we end up coming up short.”
This was two weeks ago, after a 32–28 loss at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that had opened the season 0–9. Adding insult to injury – which is as common to Clevelanders as adding rock salt to Interstate 480 in January – the decisive touchdown catch was made by the Jaguars’ Cecil Shorts, a Cleveland native and lifelong Browns fan.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Shorts.
Shorts and dreams coming true: two things with which Clevelanders are completely unfamiliar in the dying days of autumn. For years – decades actually – Cleveland’s beloved Browns have consistently finished south of ordinary and just north of the Buffalo Bills. In so doing, they have committed the most unpardonable sin in all of professional sports. Being god-awful? No. Much worse: Being less than newsworthy.
Cleveland is not just a flyover city; it’s a flyover franchise. A few years back, the Detroit Lions, the only other NFL team that existed before the Super Bowl era and has yet to advance to the almighty game, went 0–16. They were so bad football fans all over the country talked about them. The Bills have a longer playoff victory drought than do the Browns (and what’s with the high concentration of miserable NFL franchises in the proximity of the Great Lakes?), but at least they had the panache to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.
The Dallas Cowboys are a perennial hot mess – in the past 15 years the Jerry-atrics have amassed no more playoff victories than have the Browns (one), yet they merit Kardashian-level scrutiny. Do you know how often the Cowboys have appeared on NBC’s Sunday Night Football since its 2006 debut? Twenty-seven times, more than any other franchise.
The Browns? Once.
Does America simply find Cleveland as dull as its namesake uniform color or are the Browns worthy of our – excuse me, whom were we discussing again? They last appeared on Monday Night Football four years ago and were shut out. That lone SNF appearance I mentioned? They collected two field goals in a loss.
It’s a hard-knock life on the southern shore of Lake Erie, but not a Hard Knocks life. The Browns’ Ohio neighbors to the south, the Cincinnati Bengals, have, like the Browns, never won a Super Bowl. Unlike the Browns, the Bengals have appeared twice on the Emmy-award winning HBO series. Other NFL franchises have turned down the show’s request to infiltrate their training camp. The Browns have never been asked.
For decades the Browns have been a study in the spectacularly unspectacular. Their lone NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year was Chip Banks, in 1982. They have never had an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Their lone NFL Most Valuable Player since the retirement of Jim Brown who, granted, was one of the two or three best players in league history, was quarterback Brian Sipe, in 1980.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Browns. The Browns are my bros. I love the Dawg Pound; I love that they don the same uniform they wore when Nixon was vice president; I love that that they play outdoors and on grass, and I love that their founder, their best player ever, and they themselves all have the same surname: Brown (Paul, Jim and Cleveland, in case you needed an assist).
But – is it just me? – it feels as if the Browns gave John Elway and the Denver Broncos the ball on their own two-yard line in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, said, “Here, take your best shot!” and they did. And we haven’t heard from the Browns since. The Broncos won and went to the Super Bowl (which they lost) and Cleveland entered the NFL’s witness-protection program. You can tell NFL fans that the Browns did not even exist during the 1995–1999 seasons and they say, “Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.”
In nine of the past 10 seasons, Cleveland has won between four and six games. They’ve never been the worst team in the AFC during the decade, much less the NFL, but they have never qualified for the playoffs, either. In 2007, in inimitable Cleveland Browns fashion, they finished tied for the AFC Central division crown with a 10–6 record – and still failed to make the postseason.
And yes, I just used Cleveland Browns and fashion in the same sentence.
Currently the Browns are 4–9, which means they’d need to win their final three games just to escape the four-to six-win doldrums. Which is unlikely.
Last Sunday, one week after that loss to the Jaguars, Cleveland led the New England Patriots, 21st century NFL royalty, 26–14 in Foxboro with under three minutes to play. (Let’s take a timeout here to reflect that Bill Belichick, who has won four Super Bowls as the Pats’ coach, was canned by the Browns; even he couldn’t win there.) Anyway, the Browns led by 12 with 2:39 to play and… they lost, 28–26.
"You're going to come with the same questions every week, and we're going to give you the same answers," Haden said after the Jaguars loss, but he could just as easily have been speaking about Sunday’s defeat. “ ‘We're gonna get better next week. We're gonna get better next week.’ Until we do it, then there's nothing else to talk about.”
That’s the problem in Cleveland. There’s been nothing to talk about for far too long.