Ending With A Thud And A Dud

Looking back from the wreckage of another year of failure and loss, it’s hard to believe that the 2021 season began with great promise for the Browns. The team was picked by many to make it to the Super Bowl, started the year with a close away game loss to defending AFC champions Kansas City, and started the season 3-1 before losing another heartbreaker to San Diego. But the season abruptly turned sour, and the last two months have been unrelentingly brutal. After last night’s dismal performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers–in which the Browns gave up 9 sacks and an injured Baker Mayfield threw two interceptions and completed only 16 of 38 passes–the Browns will officially finish below .500 . . . again.

If the Browns’ 2021 season had a sound track, it would feature a lot of comical tuba music and the thwack of bags of wet cement hitting concrete.

Some Browns Backers will rationalize this pathetic season by saying that the Browns have had to deal with a lot of injuries and bad calls, that the Browns were hit especially hard by COVID protocols and lost two games as a result, that the Browns were one dropped punt snap here and one avoidable mistake there from a better record, etc., etc.–but those are just excuses that have become all-too-familiar to Browns fans. In the NFL, every team has to deal with injuries and calls that didn’t go their way. I think the deeper issue is one of grit and character. Good teams find ways to win games; bad teams don’t. The Browns clearly have some great players, but they just aren’t a good team right now, and when the offseason comes the organization will have to do a lot of soul-searching and thinking about how to right the ship and win games that are in the balance. The Browns will have to decide how to deal with Baker Mayfield–who, in fairness, played hurt for virtually the entire year, and whose performance showed it–but there are a lot of other questions to be answered, too.

This is the most disappointing Cleveland Browns season in decades, as what seemed to be legitimate high hopes of finally moving into the ranks of strong teams and, perhaps, making it to the Browns’ first Super Bowl have been thoroughly crushed. I didn’t watch last night’s game, and I’m glad this sad, sorry season is over. A fan can only be asked to endure so much failure and embarrassment.

Mixed Messaging

This message on the rear windshield of one of the local vehicles in St. Lucia stopped us cold for a bit. You could read it as a warning that the car is full of bad energy and you should avoid it like the plague, which is how I first understood it. But later I realized that you also could read it as a heartfelt request that negative energy please not descend on the car’s owner and occupants.

Or, it could be a consciously ambiguous message, meant to convey both meanings at the same time. I kind of like that reading the best–it is well suited to fans of the Cleveland Browns, like me.

Trying To Reverse The Karma

Today we’re going to try to reverse the karma. End the jinx. Lance the boil. Drain the painful, embarrassing, festering sore of failure and disaster that Browns fans have had to endure since time immemorial–i.e., 1964.

The year was 1986. Kish and I had just moved back to Columbus, and UJ and I decided to get Browns season tickets. The Browns had a fine year, improbably won a heart-stopping playoff game against the New York Jets, and hosted the AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos. With time running out, the Browns held the lead. But then, one of the members of our group made an ill-advised decision to leave his seat to respond to urgent needs. His decision left us aghast, but the damage was done. The rest is history. The karma was shifted, what the became known as The Drive occurred, and the Browns lost.

All of us believe that this action by a lone fan in remote seats in the bowels of Cleveland Stadium had a crucial, defining impact on what happened on the field. And since then, we have suffered with the consequences. The Browns lost again the following year in heart-breaking fashion, never advanced that far again, the original Browns franchise left Cleveland, we went without football for a time, and the new Browns have an unrivalled record of failure. Cleveland still has not made it to a Super Bowl.

But this year, we have decided enough is enough.

How do you shift the bad karma, and end a jinx? One website identifies five steps: (1) identify the pattern; (2) take responsibility for it; (3) learn from it; (4) take positive actions; and (5) forgive yourself and everyone else. According to the website: “You cannot untie the karmic knots in your life without trying to unearth your behavioral patterns that lead to unending bad luck. Take as much time as possible to identify one, two, or even ten things that could be behind the negativity in your life.”

So today, we’re going to take these affirming steps. We’ve identified the “behavioral pattern” that caused the bad karma. We’ve accepted responsibility for our role in bringing it about, we’ve learned that we need to address it, and we’re taking positive action to reverse it by going up to today’s again (against the Baltimore Ravens, the former Browns franchise that left Cleveland in the dark days after the karma turned sour) and returning to the scene, 35 years after the karmic shift. Forgiving ourselves is harder, but three of us who were there will be there again–and this time we’ll make sure that everyone stays firmly in their seats, come hell or high water.

Go Browns!

A Baker’s Dozen

I’m a Baker Mayfield fan. I think he is a tough guy and a good leader, and in normal circumstances he would be perfectly okay as the starting quarterback of the Browns.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. Mayfield has been hurt so many times this season I’ve lost count. He’s been trying to play, but he’s clearly not even close to 100 percent. And with the kind of running game the Browns have, I’d rather play Baker’s back-up, go to a less wide-open game plan, and rely on the running game to carry the team through while Baker gets healthy.

Today’s game against the winless Detroit Lions is a good example of what can happen if the Browns continue to play Baker in his hobbled state. He had another dismal game, throwing two picks and trying desperately to make plays when he’s just not physically capable of doing so. His quarterback rating for the game was a terrible 53.2, and the Browns scored a measly 13 points–a baker’s dozen–against one of the work teams in the league. Every time he drops back to pass you cringe in anticipation of a bad pass or a seaon-ending injury. The accurate Baker Mayfield that we saw earlier this season is a distant memory.

Kevin Stefanski is a fine coach, and I know that he wants to stick with Mayfield. But with two games against the Ravens coming up, wrapped around a bye week, it’s time to give Baker a break and let him recuperate. Let Case Keenum play next week, give Baker the following week off to heal, and then reassess before the second game against the Ravens. Having Baker continue to play is just not fair to him, or to the rest of the team.

When Browns Colors Prevail

It’s a pretty time of year, in central Ohio, with the trees turning into a blaze of colors and lots of dry rustling leaves to shuffle through on the sidewalks. But it’s an especially grand time of year for Cleveland Browns fans like me, because we see a lot of orange and brown wherever we look. It’s as if the trees in Schiller Park are representing for Cleveland and coming out loud and proud as Browns Backers.

Speaking of the Browns, they’ve got a huge game today against the New England Patriots, with lots of playoff implications. Because nothing ever seems to go the Browns’ way, they’ll be playing without their star running back Nick Chubb, who has been ruled out of the game due to COVID protocols.

Once again, the Browns will have to overcome all kinds of obstacles. That’s why I’m glad to see the trees rooting for Cleveland right now. The Browns need all the help they can get!

Trying To Quantify The Impact Of Bad Calls

Every fan of a football team, college or pro, has complained about officiating and bad calls against their team at some point. Fans of the Cleveland Browns are no different. Many Browns Backers are absolutely convinced that the refs simply don’t call the game fair and square and that the bad calls–or the no-calls, in the case of the stubborn refusal of game officials to call the obvious holds on Myles Garrett–always seem to go against the Browns.

Now a frustrated Browns fan has performed a data-oriented analysis of penalties and, not surprisingly, he has concluded that the Browns have been hurt more than any other team in the NFL by flags. He’s used the information about the number and circumstances of penalties to calculate the impact in terms of EPA, for expected points added, with respect to each penalty assessed against a team. His analysis indicates that the Browns–who have been whistled for 64 penalties, compared to only 45 against the Browns’ opponents–have lost a net of 3.5 EPA per game due to the yellow flags. To make matters worse, the analysis indicates that the team that has benefited the most from penalties is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a positive EPA impact of almost 3.

Does this prove that the striped shirts have it in for the Browns? Not so fast! Some of the penalties against the Browns–like the three lining up offside penalties against the defense in the game against the Bengals–are clearly correct calls, and no one should be heard to complain about those. It’s also possible that the Browns are just undisciplined, and fans can definitely think of times when players lost their cool and made stupid plays. The issue is whether the refs are making more bad calls against the Browns than they do against other NFL teams, and that is really hard to quantify objectively.

The EPA analysis is interesting, but I don’t think it proves that the refs are biased against the Browns–although some Browns fans clearly will argue that it does. In my view what it does show is that the Browns need to specifically focus on avoiding the dumb penalties and the undisciplined penalties, because the number of penalties they are racking up are really hurting them. If they can do that, I’ll take my chances on a bad call now and then.

Ending With A Whimper And A Drop

When the Cleveland Browns acquired Odell Beckham Jr. in a trade with the New York Giants several years ago, it was viewed as an absolute game-changer for the beleaguered Browns franchise. The speedy receiver, who had the reputation of being able to catch any ball that was thrown in his direction, was supposed to be the dangerous deep threat that the Browns could deploy to take their offense to the next level.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out. With the exception of one game–last year against the Dallas Cowboys–OBJ didn’t really show much game-changing ability as a member of the Browns. Instead, his tenure was marked with lots of drama and endless commentator chatter about whether he had “chemistry” with Browns QB Baker Mayfield, whether OBJ was being properly utilized, whether OBJ was getting enough “targets,” and every other form of pointless “analysis” you can imagine.

On the field, OBJ was pretty average, frankly, and for a guy who was supposed to be the glue-fingered receiver, he sure had a lot of drops and non-catches–many of which came at crucial moments. Off the field, OBJ became an ongoing distraction, which culminated in a weird incident this week where OBJ’s Dad criticized Baker Mayfield for not throwing to OBJ enough. (It’s strange to think that a professional athlete’s Dad’s comments would be the subject of a new story, but that’s the weird world we live in, and it is symptomatic of the never-ending OBJ circus.)

Apparently the Browns have had enough. According to ESPN, the Browns are finalizing the process of releasing OBJ and ending the constant drama. I don’t wish OBJ ill; he fought to recover from a serious injury and, unlike some prima donna receivers, was willing to block downfield when the play required it. But the soap opera aspects of having him on the team just weren’t worth it in view of the very limited production the Browns got out of him. I hope he signs on with another team and finds a way to recapture some of the magic he once had, but I think the Browns made the right decision.

The OBJ tale is a good example of why fans shouldn’t get too caught up in a player’s press clippings, or assume that everything is going to fit together perfectly. The Cleveland Browns’ OBJ experiment is over, and it ended with a whimper, not a bang.

That Old Jelling Magic

Before yesterday, the Browns defense had not looked like world-beaters. In the opener, the defense got gashed by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs–which has happened to a lot of teams over the past few years, of course–but it also gave up a lot of yards to second- and third-string quarterbacks in a second-game win against the Houston Texans.

After the Texans game, some Browns Backers wondered whether the defense was going to be a persistent weak spot for a team that has very high hopes. Other, more patient fans noted that the defense included a lot of new players and argued that everyone needed to take a deep breath and give the D some time to “jell.”

(If, like me, you are a word geek and wonder whether the correct word is “gel” or “jell,” wonder no longer: The Grammarist website says that “gel,” used as a verb, means to form something into a gel, whereas “jell” can be used to describe something becoming firmer or the process of a group of people coming together to work in harmony. “Jell” therefore is the more apt choice in this context, although neither word seems like a great choice to describe a stout NFL defense that would prefer to be seen as a stone wall, as opposed to gelatin or jelly.)

Yesterday the Browns D took a big step forward in the jelling department in a 26-6 win over the Chicago Bears. The Browns had nine sacks, with Myles Garrett alone getting a franchise-record 4 1/2, never let the Bears’ rookie quarterback Justin Fields catch his breath, and held Chicago to 68 yards passing (1 total yard, if you subtract the sack yards) and 46 yards rushing. Chicago scored only because the Browns gave them the ball in great field position and due to a sketchy pass interference call, but in both instances the defense stiffened and held the Bears to two field goals. In the meantime, the Browns offense wore down the tough Chicago defense and put up enough points to get a very nice win.

I’m not ready to say that the Browns are an elite defensive unit; the Bears offensive line isn’t very good, and the Browns were facing a rookie QB starting his first game. Nevertheless, the indicators yesterday were very positive. Garrett is always a handful, but Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the defensive line was in the Bears offensive backfield all day long, too. In the NFL, getting pressure on the quarterback is an essential element of defensive success. Another positive sign was the play of two rookies, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Greg Newsome II. O-K, who was drafted to bring speed to the defense, was all over the field and had four tackles, a half sack, and two pass break-ups, and Newsome, who was the Browns’ top pick, had three tackles and a nice play on a pass. When your rookies appear to be getting the scheme and making contributions, that’s a big step in the jelling department.

Jell on, Browns! And let’s see where the jelling process takes us.

The Browns Via Radio

Our TV and internet connection at our German Village house is on the fritz, so yesterday I needed to find an alternative way to follow the Browns game against the Houston Texans yesterday. I decided to try catching the game on radio by tapping into the Browns radio network on the internet and listening through my phone. The feed was pretty good, and the Browns won, so I’d call the whole experiment a success.

Listening to a football game on the radio is a different experience, and in this case it brought back some memories, too. When UJ and I were kids growing up in Akron, the Browns home games were routinely blacked out, so we would listen to them on the radio. We listened to Indians games on the radio, too, because they were never on TV, either. And every kid of the pre-ESPN era remembers coming up with ways to illicitly listen to the radio and follow the World Series games, which were always played during in-school hours. The radio was how Americans got most of their sports in those days.

Sports on the radio requires some imagination, and you’ve really got to pay attention, because there are no replays. Unfortunately, my radio imagination is pretty rusty, so I couldn’t really quickly picture the guys going in motion, or the formations being described. But the crowd seems like much more active participant in the game on radio, where you can tell by the surge in noise, or the sudden silence, whether a play went well for the hometown boys. And the excitement in Jim Donovan’s voice as he describes a Nick Chubb TD burst definitely adds something to the game experience. Doug Dieken, the long-time color analyst, is pretty entertaining, too.

I’m hoping to get our bundled internet and TV fixed this week, so I can watch the Browns on TV from here on out. But if they aren’t on—Columbus stations often have to choose between showing the Browns and the Bengals—it’s nice to know that old reliable radio remains an option.

A Sad Day In Browns Town

I was saddened to read today about the death of Marty Schottenheimer, at age 77, of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease — a condition he and his family dealt with for six years. Schottenheimer coached for a number of NFL teams, including the Chiefs, the Washington Football Club, and the Chargers, and compiled a record that included 205 wins, putting him eighth on the NFL all-time wins list.

Of course, those of us who are Cleveland Browns fans will always associate Marty Schottenheimer with the Browns. He ascended to the head coaching position in 1984, after Sam Rutigliano was fired, and never had a losing season with the Browns. It was clear from the get-go that the Browns had a keeper in Schottenheimer, and in his first full season he guided the Browns to the playoffs, where they almost knocked off the heavily favored Miami Dolphins. When UJ and I watched that game, we decided the Browns were on the upswing and we should buy season tickets to the Browns games for the following year. Thanks to Schottenheimer and the team he led, we saw some great games and lots of wins. Unfortunately, Schottenheimer had a falling out with owner Art Modell after the 1989 season, when Modell insisted that Schottenheimer hire an offensive coordinator and stop calling plays. He refused and quit, and the Schottenheimer era abruptly ended.

That era was brief but glorious. It would have been more glorious still if bad luck and cursed fates hadn’t caused the Browns to lose two AFC championship games, in 1986 and 1987, that denied a talented, deserving team a chance to finally play in the Super Bowl. But The Drive and The Fumble went against the men in orange and brown and their tough, hard-nosed coach — who, in the aftermath of The Fumble, went to hug Earnest Byner, the player who had the ball stripped just as he seemed to be crossing the goal line to cap an amazing Browns’ comeback. That showed you what kind of person Marty Schottenheimer was. He was a players’ coach, not an owner’s coach. And while it often seems that the football gods have it in for the Browns, I don’t know of a Browns fan who doesn’t appreciate what Marty Schottenheimer did for the team and the fans and for the community. We were lucky — for once — to have Marty Schottenheimer as our coach.

Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease that robs the afflicted individual of what defines them, and robs the individual’s family of their loved one. It says something enormously positive about Marty Schottenheimer and his family that they were open about his condition and his years-long battle, and tried to make something positive out of a devastating prognosis.

Marty Schottenheimer was a great coach and a great man. It’s a sad day in Browns Town.

The Curse Of Obscenity

Yesterday was another frustrating day for Cleveland Browns fans. The Browns went on the road against a very good Kansas City Chiefs team, fought hard to overcome some bad breaks, and mounted a comeback that put them in position to win and make it to the AFC Championship game — but fell just short. Again. The hopes of Browns fans everywhere were raised, only to be dashed. Again.

As the final seconds ticked away, meaning that yet another season has passed without the Browns making it to their elusive first Super Bowl, I felt the frustration well up inside me, and I unleashed a colorful torrent of the crudest imaginable obscenity at the TV set. It was a brutal, uncontrolled, red-faced verbal tirade against the fickle fates and the capricious sports gods that surged out with a vehemence that surprised even me.

I hate it when this happens. It’s embarrassing, and I keep hoping as the decades roll by that I’ve matured to the point where I can rationally accept disappointments that occur in my corner of the sports world without hurling vulgar epithets or screaming like a lunatic, but yesterday shows I’ve still got a lot of work to do in that area. I sometimes wish I never learned about cussing. Knowing obscenities really is a kind of curse.

Temporary Alliances

The world of the sports fan is a world of temporary alliances. It’s like Europe of days gone by, when secret negotiations, confidential ententes, and treaties named after obscure towns could abruptly and unexpectedly tip the balance of power.

For most football fans, on any given game day they will be strongly supporting (1) their favorite team, and (2) whichever random team happens to be playing their favorite team’s hated rival or most challenging future opponent.

Today will provide a good example of this reality. The Cleveland Browns will be taking the field versus the Kansas City Chiefs. I’m guessing that the viewership for the game in Buffalo, New York will be off the charts, with all of the Bills fans rooting hard for the Browns to somehow upset the highly favored Chiefs.

Why? Not because Cleveland and Buffalo are fellow cities on the shores of Lake Erie that once were linked by an eponymously named steamship line, as shown in the picture above. (And the ship that sailed Lake Erie between the two cities was called the SeaandBee. Get it?) No, it’s because the Buffalo Bills throttled the Baltimore Ravens yesterday and will play whichever team wins the Browns-Chiefs tilt. Buffalo fans have got to feel that the Bills have a better chance of beating the Browns than the awesome Chiefs, and if the Browns could prevail over Patrick Mahomes and his offensive fireworks show, the Bills would have a home game against the Browns in Buffalo — with a slot in the Super Bowl at stake.

Put those two considerations together, and you’re not likely to find a more ardent set of fans for the Cleveland Browns in today’s game than the good folks of Buffalo, New York. And if the Browns do somehow find a way to topple the mighty Chiefs, and will be traveling to Buffalo for the AFC championship game next weekend, Bills fans won’t have a second thought about immediately reversing allegiances and hating the Browns with a deadly, all-consuming passion.

Machiavelli would be proud.

The Power Of Positive Thinking

In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book called The Power of Positive Thinking. The book used anecdotes to argue that maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude actually helps people to achieve their goals and feel better about themselves. One of the core messages of the book was that if you are pessimistic about what you can do, you’re heading for defeat before the contest has even started. Critics were dubious of the notion that a simple change in mental attitude could have a big impact on anyone’s life, but the book was a hit and resonated with people who thought there was a lot of common sense in what Dr. Peale was saying. I remember seeing it on Grandma and Grandpa Neal’s bookshelf.

It’s a huge step from believing that your own attitude can affect what happens in your own life to believing that your attitude can influence what other people are doing. Of course, that’s exactly what many committed sports fans do believe — deep down in their hearts, even if they wouldn’t admit it to others. They may not be sitting in the stadium or arena cheering on their team, but they believe that what they wear, what they eat, where they sit, and what they say and do on Game Day can have a crucial, outcome-determinative impact. The Dr. Pepper Fansville commercials definitely nail that aspect of the whole sports fan experience.

Can fans sitting in their living rooms watching on TV affect a game played far away? Can their thoughts and actions create eddies in the prevailing karma that can ripple out to the players and coaches and give them extra energy and mental focus and make a difference in their performance? Given life’s many mysteries, we’ll never know for sure — but we all believe it does, in some mysterious way, so why not be positive about it?t

Today, once again, I’m going to be positive about the prospects for the Cleveland Browns, and I’m hoping to enlist other fans in my positive thinking crusade. The Browns will be going on the road to Pittsburgh to play in their first playoff game in 18 years. They’re lacking a number of their coaches, including their head coach and ultimate play-caller, and some of their best players thanks to the coronavirus. For that same reason, they only got to practice once before their most important game in two decades. These aren’t the things you want to have happen when you’re the underdog in the first place.

Clearly, the odds are powerfully stacked against the outmanned Cleveland squad. They need all the help they can get. Who knows? Positive thinking by the legions of Browns Backers could well tip the balance in some inexplicable yet meaningful way.

Whatever happens tonight, I’m going to stay positive about this team and its chances for an astonishing victory, and concentrate on sending positive, optimistic vibes through the cosmic ether to the Browns’ players and coaches. Will you join me?

Ohio Against The World (II)

And speaking of Ohio Against The World, the Cleveland Browns punched their ticket for the NFL playoffs yesterday. The Browns somehow managed to hold on to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers despite having a slew of their players unavailable due to NFL COVID protocols. Fittingly, the game was finally secured when Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield kept the ball for a single wing scamper and picked up a crucial first down that allowed the Browns to run out the clock.

Next weekend the Browns will participate in the NFL playoffs for the first time since the 2002 NFL season — the only time the Browns made the playoffs since coming back into the League. The Browns lost in heartbreaking fashion in that one playoff appearance, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This time, 18 years later, they’ll be playing the Steelers again in the first round of the playoffs.

Eighteen years is a very long time, and in 2002 the world was a very different place. No one in 2002 would have forecast that it would take the Browns 18 years to return to the playoffs, but here they are. Will they advance? Given the impact of the coronavirus on the Browns this year, and the number of players who have been disqualified from games, we’ll have to see who even gets to play. But it’s nice to know that the long drought is ended.

In The Cable TV Tug Of War

This afternoon the Cleveland Browns will play what is easily their most important game in a decade. (That’s not saying much given the Browns’ dismal recent record . . . , but still.) the 8-3 Browns travel to Tennessee to play the 8-3 Titans in a game that features two of the best rushing teams in the NFL and lots of playoff implications.

Alas! We won’t be able to watch the game on our TV, because of some financial tug of war between TEGNA, the owner of the local CBS channel that will broadcast the contest, and AT&T U-verse, our cable provider. If you go to the channel that will broadcast the game, you see the message above that blames TEGNA. And before TEGNA took the channel off our cable, it ran annoying banners on the channel during last week’s Browns game urging viewers to contact AT&T to make sure it does what is necessary to keep the channel on the cable system.

So today we central Ohio Browns fans who are on the AT&T U-verse system are trapped in the middle, peons in this dispute between two corporations that really don’t care about anything but the bottom line. They know people will be upset because they won’t be able to watch this game. Each side wants us viewers to put pressure on the other side to knuckle under, but I’m not going to do that. Other than NFL football games, I don’t watch any CBS programming, so I really don’t give a crap about getting TEGNA’s channel. And I’m sure not going to carry water for a cable TV provider.

And here’s what is really appalling — I have the sneaking suspicion each side might have factored the COVID pandemic into their decision to enter into this corporate game of chicken. In normal times, if this happened you could go to the local sports bar, order a cold one, and watch the game on the direct network satellite feed, but with the pandemic that’s not an option. That means the ability to use an NFL football game as a pressure point in negotiations is increased by orders of magnitude.

So I say, a pox on both their houses. We’ll figure out how to follow the Browns game, somehow. but I won’t forget the ugly willingness of these two companies to ruin the simple pleasure of watching a big game on the TV.