I’m going to open this column with full disclosure: I am a born and raised Cleveland sports fan.
I was born during the peak of the 1980’s Cleveland Browns era, in which the team, led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, played in three AFC Championship games. While I don’t fully recall heart-breaking moments like “The Drive” or “The Fumble,” I was certainly lucky enough to witness my favorite football team being relocated to another city and watching them win a Super Bowl five years later.
While the former Browns and now-Baltimore Ravens have enjoyed more success than failure since their move, myself and other diehard Cleveland fans have dealt with something else entirely. Since returning as an expansion team in 1999, the Browns have been to the playoffs one time. They’ve had a winning record just two times. More than 20 quarterbacks have started for the team, and unfortunately the most successful might be Tim Couch.
However, despite all of this, the Cleveland fans keep coming back. The stadium is sold out more often than not, even though the supporters who fill those seats almost always see wretched results. It seems like a sadistic practice, continuing to show nonstop devotion to a consistently faulty product, but this is essentially the key aspect of being a Cleveland fan. The loyalty the city shows towards its sports teams is unbreakable.
Based on the past few days, it seems the Browns are hell-bent on testing the strength of said dedication.
On Monday, it was announced quarterback Johnny Manziel, a rookie who was celebrated the second his name was called at the NFL Draft only to flame out like there was no tomorrow, has entered rehab. On Tuesday, receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for “at least” the entire 2015 season thanks to yet another failed substance test, his third in the past two years.
And yet, before Cleveland fans could scream “uncle,” the Browns decided to go all out.
Reports surfaced yesterday claiming that, not only is GM Ray Farmer under fire for texting coaches during games – an offense which could result in the loss of draft picks for a team which has two first rounders next year – but owner Jimmy Haslam is quite possibly interfering in all aspects of the franchise. The words “toxic,” “smoldering” and “chaotic” were tossed around as these scathing stories were read.
Oh, and this comes one week after the Browns decided to raise season ticket prices for the first time in seven years. Because this is what you do when you finally win more than four or five games in a season.
Many football fans around the country are speechless after reading about the dumpster fire that is the Browns organization; shocked things could be this bad. I’m not. This is business as usual, just the rinse and repeat nature of this franchise.
And you know what? This lack of surprise, this “eh, that figures” response is more alarming than anything else. Browns fans show diehard devotion to their favorite franchise, and yet the only reward they receive is the pleasure of reading about the catastrophic nature in which it’s being run. And it’s an absolute shame.
It seems like its common nature to, at least once or twice a year, look at yourself as a Browns fan and wonder “what did we do to deserve this?” How is there never a day that goes by without something, anything negative happening with this franchise? Most importantly, how can a team be this consistently terrible, both on the field and off it, for this long without eventually stumbling into some semblance of stability?
What’s worse is the fact things actually looked to be trending up with the Browns at one point this year. The first round of the draft, at surface level, looked like a coup. Cleveland ended the day with the top cornerback on the board in Justin Gilbert, a flashy quarterback prospect who immediately made the Browns relevant before touching the field, and the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 first-round pick.
Today, this looks like a flaming pile of garbage. Gilbert struggled all season and was berated by his fellow defensive players for his lack of maturity. Manziel, well, what else can you say that hasn’t already been covered? And the team could lose the one of their two first-round picks due to the texting habits of their GM.
Unfortunately, all of this is a microcosm of the last 16 years of Cleveland football. This is nothing new.
The draft has always been a disaster for the Browns. When asked to name the best first-round picks this team has made since returning, I can give you three, tops. Beyond Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Joe Haden, it’s been year after year of swings and misses.
If there’s anything uglier than the team’s draft results, it’s the front office. Supporters have pinned their hopes on names like Phil Savage and Mike Holmgren, only to see the former curse out fans via email and the latter show up at 10 AM every morning to sift through whatever the kitchen was offering and then bail.
Of course, nothing topped the excitement the fans felt when Haslam bought the team. He seemed charismatic, sincerely invested in the team’s success. Replacing Randy Lerner, an owner who made public appearances about as frequently as Halley’s Comet sightings, Haslam appeared to be the perfect candidate to inject life into a moribund franchise.
But, this is never how the story ends for Browns fans. No, instead, they get an owner who was under federal investigation for business fraud. Who goes through front offices and coaching staffs like paper towels. Who meddles in areas he has no knowledge or expertise in. And, by all accounts from yesterday’s reports, is already gearing up to clean house again at the end of next season unless the team makes the playoffs.
Yes, a team with nothing close to a solution at quarterback, with its best offensive weapon is banned for a year, with a front office making decisions they aren’t qualified to make or texting critiques to coaches during a game, must make the playoffs or else.
I can’t say I love the odds here.
So, fans can once again expect to hear the words “fired,” “new regime,” and “rebuild.” These terms have already been beaten into the psyches of Cleveland sports fans, what’s another year of it going to do to change anything? Haslam isn’t going anywhere, and if the current staff can’t overcome the near unachievable task laid in front of them, well, he’ll just get rid of them and try again.
I want to be able to offer some sort of positive to Browns fans everywhere. I want to be able to say, “you know what, just hang in there a little longer, this team has to turn the corner eventually.” I want to finally say “there’s always next year” with sincerity, not sarcasm.
But I can’t. Not after reading about how things in the team’s front office are, unfortunately, status quo. Not after I hear about an owner who balked at the idea these were the “same ol’ Browns” last winter when he fired coach Rob Chudzinski after one year of service, and then continued driving the franchise further into the ground.
What I can say to the fans, though, is the owner isn’t going to think anything is wrong if he cleans house on a yearly basis only to see a packed stadium on game day. Haslam can read about the miserable environment he’s building, hear about the coaches and players alike who want to flee the Browns with the urgency of someone trying to avoid the plague, but it won’t matter as long as he knows tickets are still being sold.
So, stop going. Stop lining Haslam’s pockets. Stop complaining on social media right before you re-up your season ticket package. No message is going to get across like empty seats.
Of course, I say all of this knowing full-well it’s not as easy as it sounds. Some sort of positive will happen, maybe a solid report about Manziel’s time in rehab or a newsworthy signing in free agency. Something relatively small in the grand scheme of things will make fans second-guess their doomsayer diagnoses and wonder if maybe the team turns it around this season.
And then, likely nine or ten months later, the wheels will come off the bus yet again. Sourced stories will continue to surface about how bad things are going with the Browns. Losses pile up on the field while the owner starts printing up the pink slips he intends on giving his latest regime. As I said, rinse and repeat.
Cleveland fans deserve better than this. They deserve to be rewarded for their allegiance towards a team who’s tried its hardest to convince them said faithfulness is a bad idea.
However, once again the Browns are a walking disaster from the top down. Since it’s been this way more often than not since ‘99, you have to wonder if it’s ever going to change, if these diehard fans will ever have something to be proud of.