A Sad Case Of Bengals Envy

Today the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. I’m trying to decide whether to watch.

If the Bengals win, they will go to the Super Bowl for second year in a row and for the fourth time overall. That’s four more times, incidentally, than my team, the Cleveland Browns. The poor Browns are one of the tiny fraction of NFL teams that have never made it to the big game in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl.

The Bengals have a great team, led by an admirable, franchise quarterback who happens to be an Ohio boy: Joe Burrow. They have a complete offense and a good defense, and are well coached. And yet, only a few years ago, the Bengals stunk. Somehow, they managed to completely turn things around, accumulate talented players, hire a good coach, and become a dominant team. I can’t look at them without thinking: why, oh why, can’t that happen to the Browns? What weird issue seems to leave the Cleveland Browns seemingly permanently mired in mediocrity–or worse?

So, will I watch the game? Probably, since I’m an American guy and it is what American guys do on Sundays during football season. I’ll probably even find myself casually rooting for the Bengals, knowing that a Cincinnati victory would make friends who are Bengals fans happy. The Bengals are supposed to be the Browns’ AFC North rivals, but the sad reality is that the Browns aren’t really anyone’s rivals these days: we’re just too pathetic and pitiful to be a hated foe. And don’t tell me that I should switch my allegiance, either. I’m not and will never be a fair-weather fan; being a Browns fan is as much part of me as my left arm.

So I guess I’ll watch–knowing it will be a painful reminder of my own team’s record of absolute, mind-boggling, seemingly impossible futility. I’m bracing myself.

Another Lost Season

Another Browns season has ground to a dismal and disappointing halt. Their game today wasn’t broadcast on TV here in Columbus–which tells you something, because typically a divisional matchup of Cleveland versus arch-rival Pittsburgh, both of which have significant fan bases in Columbus, would always be on the air. But the Browns have been out of the NFL playoff race for a while, and the Bengals are ascendant. In the Columbus TV battle ground–as on the football field, this year–the Browns have come up losers. So I listened to the Browns’ season-ending loss to the Steelers on the radio.

In many ways, today’s game was a microcosm of the Browns’ pathetic season as a whole. The Browns had a lot of penalties. They suffered inexplicable defensive breakdowns, and kept giving up big plays in crucial, potential drive-ending situations. They turned the ball over on offense. And in the second half, when the game was in the balance, the Browns didn’t have it, and the Steelers did. Once again, a game slipped through their fingers.

Another playoff-free season is in the books, and the Browns have somehow frittered away another season where they have been blessed by having one of the very best running backs in the NFL in Nick Chubb, but just can’t seem to make the plays needed to be a winner. So teams that have stunk up the joint recently–like Jacksonville, and Miami, and others–have made the playoffs, while the Browns are, as always, on the outside looking in. I listened to today’s game with resignation, but also with a puzzling lack of passion about it. The never-ending futility of the Browns has just ground me down–and I suspect I’m not alone.

Will the Browns keep Kevin Stefanski as a coach after a less-than-mediocre 7-10 season in which the Browns lost multiple games they could and should have won? I’ve argued earlier this year that I’d give Stefanski another season, just to have some stability in the franchise, stop the coaching revolving door, and see whether Stefanski can make the Deshaun Watson experiment work. Now that the season is over, however, I find that I really don’t care one way or another. That’s a sad testament for a loyal fan.

The High Cost Of Cannings

It’s been another disappointing season for the Cleveland Browns this year and, as is always the case in sports, some fans are calling for the coach’s head. That means that Kevin Stefanski is on the hot seat, and the team’s owner will have to make a decision on whether to keep the coach or look to someone else.

ESPN reports that, at owners’ meetings this past week, the NFL presented owners with information about the staggering cost of now-fired coaches, general managers, and other front office executives. The total tab comes to $800 million, which is real money even in the fantasy world of NFL owners and the jaw-dropping pay packages for athletes and coaches. Some teams are shelling out big bucks for multiple firings in recent years; the New York Giants, for example, are paying two prior head coaches along with their current coach. And here’s the thing to keep in mind about those terminated coaches on the spreadsheet that the NFL shared with the owners: every one of them came to their job with great fanfare and with the promise of leading their teams to great success.

So, what about Stefanski? The record is decidedly mixed for the third-year coach. He took the Browns to the playoffs and won a playoff game in his first year, suffered through a bad 2021, and stands at 6-8, with a very remote chance at the playoffs, with three games to go this year. But here’s a statistic that should give Browns’ fans some pause: with the team’s win over the Ravens last Saturday, Stefanski is the winningest Browns coach since the team came back into the league in 1999. That’s because the Browns have had a ludicrous number of different head coaches during that period–ten head coaches and two additional interim head coaches. The Cleveland head coaching carousel is outpaced only by the number of quarterbacks that have started games for the Browns since the team returned to the league.

I’m in favor of keeping Stefanski, although I reserve full judgment until we get to the end of the season. The team still seems to be playing for him, I think his run-oriented approach is well-suited to a team that will play a number of foul weather games every year, and I believe his stolid demeanor is well-suited to Cleveland, too. This season has been a strange one, in view of the Deshaun Watson situation and the need to start a career back-up for most of the season. Even so, the Browns could be in the thick of the playoff race this year, but for the kinds of mishaps that seem to happen only to the Browns.

If there is one thing the Browns could use, it is stability. Assuming the team still plays hard during the next three games, I hope Cleveland’s ownership learns from that $800 million spreadsheet and decides to keep Stefanski.

The Long, Dark Night Of The Soul

If you are a Cleveland Browns fan, you know how I feel. If you are not a Cleveland Browns fan, imagine every happy thought, every sunny day, every warm, decent feeling you’ve ever experienced, ripped painfully away as you are thrown headlong into the blackest pits of unending despair.

The Browns continue to find new, unimaginable, impossible ways to lose. Today was, perhaps, the most ridiculous yet. And each time they do, their cadre of loyal, ever-hopeful fans go with them, thrust into hellish depths of failure. Even armored with the most resolute pessimism, Browns fans allow themselves to experience a glimmer of hope and a brief taste of potential victory, and inevitably, again, and again, and again, find their hopes crushed.

What can you say? It’s the Browns. The Browns are the dark side of sports fandom.

The Elf, Himself

I was on the road yesterday and happened to catch some sports talk radio hosts making fun of the Cleveland Browns’ new midfield logo, shown above. They were laughing at the idea that a football team would feature a giant elf on the field. They compared Brownie the Elf unfavorably to one of the old Rice Krispies elves, arguing that he looks angrier and somewhat disturbed. And they professed not to understand why an elf would be associated with the Cleveland Browns, arguing that a logo of a dog–due to the Dawg Pound section of fans in the stadium–would be a much better logo. .

The sports radio hosts are not alone in dissing Brownie the Elf and the Browns’ field. One article even suggests that the Browns specifically picked the elf logo to gin up controversy and distract from the team’s on-field problems last year and its dubious off-season decision to go all in for Deshaun Watson, the quarterback who was obviously facing a long suspension due to multiple claims of sexual misconduct.

I’m a supporter of Brownie the Elf, and evidently so are lots of other Browns fans–which is why the running elf won the poll the Browns ran to select their new midfield logo. And while I wouldn’t expect sports radio hosts or sportswriters to actually do any research before voicing their ill-informed opinions, I think Brownie is a great choice. Why an elf? It’s obvious: the team has long been known to fans as the Brownies, and a brownie is a synonym for an elf–just like pixie and sprite. The elf has been associated with the franchise for decades, much longer than the Dawg Pound, which didn’t really start until the 1980s. And the elf is showing fierce determination because he’s running the football and getting ready to give a devastating elfin stiff-arm to a would-be tackler.

I also like the elf choice because it says a lot about Cleveland, which has always gone its own way and marched to the beat of a different drummer. Lots of people have disparaged Cleveland over the years, but in reality it’s a great city with a lot of heart, a blue-collar mentality, and a quirky sense of humor, besides. Picking an elf for the field is just another way for Cleveland to show those qualities for all to see and reaffirm that the Best Location in the Nation isn’t worried about the tender sensibilities of sports talk show hosts or the conventional, boring, market-driven decisions of other NFL teams. And the fact that the running elf goes back to the days when the Browns were regularly competing for, and frequently winning, the NFL championship, doesn’t hurt, either. Given the Browns’ struggles since they came back to the league in 1999, why not pick a logo that harkens back to the team’s glory days?

I’m glad the Browns picked Brownie the Elf to grace the field. Now let’s just hope that this season we can celebrate what happens on the field, too.

Check The Weather Forecast . . . .

If the Cleveland Browns have won their first game, it can only mean that Hell has frozen over, dogs and cats are living together, and mass hysteria.

And speaking of hysteria, who wins a game by kicking a 58-yard field gold after a dismal fourth quarter collapse? Only the Browns! Their kicker, rookie phenom Cade York, will never have to buy his own dinner in Cleveland again.

Singing The Sad-Eyed First Game Blues

The first full day of the NFL season is here. For fans of the Cleveland Browns, like me, that means bracing yourself for another first-game loss to kick off the season. Every such loss, and every new season of failure, moves this once-storied franchise farther away from the glory days of Otto Graham, Jimmy Brown, Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar, and other members of gritty, always competitive teams. Browns fans hope for the best, but fully expect the worst, because we’ve been so conditioned by futility we can’t have confidence about anything. And every year, we inevitably find ourselves singing the sad-eyed first game blues.

The Browns’ opening day record since they returned to the NFL in 1999 is mind-boggling. Their ineptitude in the first game is historic; no other NFL team even comes close. The Browns are a seemingly impossible 1-21-1. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll do so for as long as first-game losses continue to mount, because perhaps nothing better captures the sense of doom and defeat that Browns fans must endure. You would think that, over a period of more than two decades, a favorable bounce or some other good break might turn the tide in a game, but it never happens. We Browns fans are trapped in a repeating loop of disaster, absorbing gut punch after gut punch, and there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

How will the Browns fare this season? Preseason tells us nothing, because most of the Browns’ best players didn’t play a snap. That’s makes it hard to draw any conclusions– which might be a good thing, because the team that did play looked pretty mediocre. I feel like the Browns have some talent, but I know from past experience that dumb plays, stupid penalties, and freakish occurrences have caused losses that shouldn’t have happened. The fact that the Browns will play their first game against their former quarterback Baker Mayfield also produces the kind of story line that seems tailor-made for another dismal Browns loss.

And yet . . . I continue to hope. Being a Browns fan is embedded deep in the core fibers of my being, and I just can’t help myself. I’m like the guy in the old joke who repeatedly slams his forehead into a wall, and when someone asks him why he is doing it, he says: “Because it feels so good when I stop.” Maybe, just maybe, this is the year it will stop.

Super Ambivalent

I hope the Cincinnati Bengals win Super Bowl LVI. Many of my good friends and colleagues are serious Bengals fans who have suffered through some bad seasons, and I know that a Bengals win will make them very happy. And the Bengals also have a lot of former Ohio State Buckeyes on their roster, and it would be nice to see so many graduates of my alma mater win an NFL championship.

I don’t think I am going to be able to bring myself to actually root for the Bengals, however. Bengals fans should be overjoyed to hear this, because the NFL team I root for has never even made it to a Super Bowl, much less won one. If I were a Bengals fan, I wouldn’t want hapless Browns fans like me to jump on the Bengals bandwagon,, potentially ruining the good karma by deploying their obviously immense jinxing powers.

Plus, the Bengals are a rival of the Browns, playing in the same division and the same state. Browns fans may not hate the Bengals in the same way we despise the Steelers or the Ravens, but we still want to beat them senseless every time we play them. Suddenly rooting for a team that you hoped to destroy a few weeks ago just isn’t in my DNA.

And, if I’m being honest, there’s another, ugly emotion lurking here that contributes to my ambivalence: jealousy. I’m jealous that the Cincinnati Bengals have now made it to three Super Bowls and the Cleveland Browns haven’t been to even one. (The Browns are one of only four NFL teams, along with the Lions, the Jaguars, and the Texans, that have that dismal and dubious history–and the Jaguars and Texans are expansion teams.) And this year started with the Browns Backers hoping that the Browns would finally break through and be where the Bengals are now–but of course the Browns’ season ended in disaster and failure . . . again. Every time we’ll see the Super Bowl logo and its Roman numerals tonight, Browns fans will be reminded that the Browns’ Super dry spell is now LVI years long. It’s painful and embarrassing. Detroit Lions fans no doubt understand this.

And that’s why hoping the Bengals win tonight so my Bengals fan friends will be happy is as far as I can go.

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.

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.