The Eternal Question

Well, it’s Super Sunday again.  That means it’s time for the New England Patriots to play for the pro football championship . . . again.  It’s the third straight year the Patriots have kicked the ass of the rest of the AFC and made it to the Super Bowl.  Overall, it’s the eleventh Super Bowl for the Patriots, the most for any team.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns are still sitting on that inglorious goose egg.  Which raises, as it does every time a Super Bowl is played, the seemingly eternal question for we Browns fans:  will the Browns ever play in a Super Bowl — much less win one — in my lifetime?

I was a rosy-cheeked lad of 9 when the first Super Bowl was played, 52 years ago, after the end of the 1966 season.  At that time, the Browns were a very good team.  They’d won the league championship only two years before, at the tail end of the pre-Super Bowl days, and had lost in the championship game the next year.  If you’d asked people then whether the Browns would ever play in a Super Bowl, they might have viewed it as a trick question, because there was a legitimate question of whether the Super Bowl was just a kind of exhibition game or a permanent fixture on the pro football scene.  But if you’d said the Super Bowl would be played 53 times and asked how many times, the Browns would play, no one — absolutely no one — would have guessed that zero would be the right answer.

Yet, here were are.  I’m in my 60s, and the Browns haven’t made it.  They’ve come close — the last time, incidentally, was 30 years ago — but they’ve nevertheless been shut out.  And while this past season was a ray of sunshine after three of the worst seasons in Browns’ history, the goal of a Super Bowl still seems very far away.

So, will the Browns ever make it to a Super Bowl in my lifetime?  I honestly don’t know, but I do know that I’m steadily getting older.

 

Patriots And Parity

We’re only a few days away from the Super Bowl, and I haven’t heard anyone talking about the game.  I had lunch a few days ago with four male friends, and literally not one word was spoken about Super Bowl LI.  Donald Trump and his antics were discussed ad nauseum, but football didn’t come up once.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England PatriotsIt’s not just because of Trump, of course.  It’s also because nobody is particularly excited about this Super Bowl match-up.  This has to be the least buzzworthy Super Bowl since — well, maybe ever.  Who cares about the Atlanta Falcons, and how many times can a person watch the New England Patriots, anyway?

But let’s pause for a moment to at least give a nod to the Patriots, their grumpy and rumpled head coach Bill Belichick, and their quarterback, Tom Brady.  Since Belichick has become the Patriots’ top dog in 2000, they’ve made the NFL playoffs in all but three years.  They haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2008 season.  And, even more impressive, the Patriots, Belichick, and Brady have made it to six Super Bowls during that run, winning four of them.  That’s why it seems like the Patriots are in every Super Bowl as a matter of federal law.

What’s remarkable about all of this is that the NFL is specifically designed to crush any possibility of the kind of dynasty the Patriots have become.  The NFL seeks parity above all else.  Regular-season schedules are set up so the strong play the strong and the weak play the weak, with the league hoping that everybody ends up with an 8-8 record and fans who are hoping for a playoff spot up until the very last game of the season.  And, of course, after every year players who have done well who have become free agents can go to other teams, and assistant coaches can be hired to be head coaches elsewhere, and the playing and coaching talent gets redistributed.

The Patriots, however, refuse to participate in the NFL’s regime of enforced mediocrity.  They lose players and coaches, but under Belichick and Brady they always fill the holes and just keep rolling along.  In a world where everything conspires against them — thereby feeding Belichick’s innate sense of paranoia — the Patriots somehow rise above and just keep winning.  Their run is as remarkable, in a positive way, as the Browns’ record of consistent and crushing futility is on the negative side.

So we’ve got to tip our cap to the New Englanders.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to actually watch them, again, in this Super Bowl.

Tebow, Schmeebow

Tonight Tim Tebow leads the Denver Broncos in an NFL playoff game against the New England Patriots.  I won’t be watching.

Even though the Drudge Report seems to feature him daily, and others appear to be watching his every move, I really don’t care much one way or the other about Tim Tebow.  I rooted against him when he was part of the Florida team that spanked Ohio State in the national championship game years ago, but now I’m just ambivalent.  I’m not swept up in Tebow Mania, I haven’t “Tebowed,” and I don’t plan to do so.

Tim Tebow isn’t the best quarterback in the NFL, and the Broncos aren’t the best team.  The only reason Tim Tebow is the subject of so much attention is that he is open and demonstrative about his religious faith.  I don’t begrudge him his beliefs, and I don’t doubt that they are heartfelt — but I don’t think they make him a major culture figure.  The fact that Tim Tebow is a devout Christian is about as relevant to evaluating him as an NFL quarterback as a minister’s ability to throw a tight spiral is to determining whether he is a good leader of his flock.

I don’t care whether Denver or New England wins tonight, and I doubt that any higher power does, either.

Passing The Test, In Smashing Fashion

Yesterday I wrote that the Browns’ game against New England would be an “acid test.” Today the Browns passed that test, and in smashing fashion.  They pulverized the Patriots, who came into the game with the best record in the NFL, 34-14.

There was a lot to like about this game.  Offensively, the Browns were aggressive and took the game to the Patriots.  The Browns’ offensive line was stellar.  On running plays they smashed the New England defensive line, and Peyton Hillis — a big back who can deliver a crushing blow at the point of impact, yet who is nimble enough to hurdle a tackler or get far downfield and catch the ball on the wheel route — blew through the Patriots for more than 180 yards and two touchdowns.  (Brady Quinn’s greatest contribution to the Browns was being traded for this guy!)  The line also provided good pass protection, and Colt McCoy played a careful, error-free game that featured a brilliant scrambling run for a touchdown.  On that play, Joshua Cribbs delivered a de-cleating, pancake block.  Cribbs also played a key role in the Browns’ other touchdown, where he handed off from the wildcat formation on a modified fumblerooski play that caught the Patriots totally off-guard.

On defense, the Browns forced key turnovers and also kept Tom Brady and his corps of receivers off their games.  The Browns’ ever-changing and inventive (some might say downright weird) defensive formations and schemes clearly bugged Brady.  Having to deal with no down lineman sets, then three-lineman sets, then corner blitzes, acted on Brady like a combination of itching powder and atomic balm in his jockstrap.  He seemed irritated and frustrated throughout the game.  The Patriots’ offense, one of the better offensive units in the NFL, was never able to get untracked.

Of course, this is just one win for the Browns, who are still only 3-5 — but it is a very satisfying win.  Let’s hope the Browns have found their stride.  Next up is the New York Jets, next Sunday.

Acid Test

Earlier this season I wrote off the Browns and decided to keep my Sundays to myself.  Two weeks ago, however, the Browns limped in to New Orleans with a 1-5 record and somehow came out with an impressive win over the defending Super Bowl champions.  They did it by forcing turnovers, scoring on defense, pounding the ball on the ground, and pulling just about every play imaginable out of the playbook.  The unexpected win has encouraged some Browns fans — who are desperate for good news — to believe that the team has turned a corner.

I saw a bit of the win over the Saints, and the Browns played well, but one game does not a season make.  The Browns had a bye last week, and the banged-up team has had a chance to heal.  This week they have a tough game, at home, against the 6-1 New England Patriots.  If the Browns want to make a statement about where the franchise is headed, this is the week to do it.

If the Browns hope to beat the Patriots, the defense will have to play like it did against the Saints.  It will have to force turnovers and confuse Tom Brady.  It isn’t clear whether Seneca Wallace or Colt McCoy will start at quarterback, but the real key to the Browns offense will be the offensive line and big back Peyton Hillis.  If the line can get a push and Hillis can successfully pound away at the Patriots defense, keeping the Patriots offense off the field, that will be more than half the battle.  Against the Saints the Browns were able to grind away on the ground, racking up crucial first downs and milking the clock.

This week will be an acid test for the Browns.  Was the win against the Saints a fluke?  Or, was it the start of a turnaround?