The Appalling Cruelty Of It All

I watched the first half of the Browns game today, and they sucked — thoroughly and completely.  With the score 27-3 in favor of the hated Steelers, the cause was hopeless.  Rather than waste the day watching a disaster, ranting incoherently at the TV set, I decided to do something else.  So, Kish and I ran an errand.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  I got a tantalizing text from Russell about how the Browns coaching staff had done some good work at halftime.  Hmmm.  Could the Browns at least be making a credible showing in the second half?  We were on the road, so I turned on the radio, and heard that the Browns had closed the gap to 27-17.  We ran our errand, and when I came out the score was 27-20.  Then, as we pulled in to the driveway, the Browns tied it at 27, and Russell sent another text:  “You watching this?”

And that was the decision point, right there.  Watch, and hope?  Or don’t watch, fearing that I would jinx the comeback?  I mentally flipped a coin and decided to watch.  Of course I did!  The evil demons of sports knew I would.  They knew I would invest my soul in hoping for a win, and the chances for tormenting me would be virtually endless.  So once I sat in the chair, the Browns offense basically ground to a halt, and things started to go wrong.  A missed assignment on a fake punt.  A chance to down the ball on the 1 that was muffed.  A last series that saw the Browns lose yards and hand the Steelers great field position.  And then, inevitably, some completions and a game-winning field goal for the Steelers as time ran out, and a final, parting shot of a grinning Ben Roethlisberger.

What could be more cruel?  I wouldn’t have felt more violated if I’d been kicked in the crotch by an angry dwarf.  So, after vowing that I wouldn’t lose my temper, with my insides scourged once again by the results of a game, I raged and cursed and frightened the dogs.  And the demons smiled, knowing that they had done a good day’s work . . . again.

Winning The Must-Win Game

This afternoon the Cleveland Browns had to beat the Baltimore Ravens to stay in contention for a playoff spot.  Somehow, someway, they did it.

This Cleveland Browns team is not pretty.  In fact, they’re about as far from pretty as you can get. It’s a blue-collar team that managed to win today in a blue-collar way — with tough defense, quarterback pressures, and big plays on offense when it counted.

IMG_5321I don’t think Baltimore is very good, but that’s part of the reason why today’s game was crucial.  If you can’t beat the crummy teams, you don’t have a future in the NFL.  Jason Campbell isn’t an all-pro quarterback, but he can make plays that Brandon Weedon can’t, and today it was just good enough.  As long as the offense doesn’t give up turnovers, this Browns defense should be good enough to keep the team in a lot of games.

When it comes to the Browns, my needs are few.  They’ve sucked for years; I don’t expect a sudden conversion to a Super Bowl team.  What I do expect is a team that plays tough defense, doesn’t give the ball away on offense, and makes a few big plays to put some points on the board.  Today, the Browns met those limited goals, and as of week 9 they are still in the hunt.

When you consider that the Browns often have been out of the playoffs by week 9, what this Browns team has delivered is good enough for me.

Send In The Clowns — Don’t Bother, They’re Here

The Browns sucked in their first home game, and they sucked even worse in their second game.  After starting the season 0-2 and scoring precisely one touchdown, the Browns today traded their only legitimate offensive skill player, running back Trent Richardson.

When I heard about the trade on the radio driving home tonight, the announcers acted surprised.  They shouldn’t have been.  Trading Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round draft choice means the Browns have given up on the season after only two games of futility — which is just a little bit earlier than in past seasons.  This week they will start a third-stringer at quarterback, cast-offs and nobodies at running back, and receivers who can’t catch the ball.  They’re clearly aiming to break the Seattle Seahawks’ record for fewest points scored by an NFL team in a 16-game season — 140 points.  Does anyone honestly see this Browns team scoring 140 points?

This Browns organization is laughable, but the real joke is on me, Russell, and the rest of the poor diehard fans and Browns Backers who shelled out for season tickets this year.  What fools we were!  We should have realized what everybody else knows — this franchise is the most inept, dysfunctional, pathetic, mismanaged team in the history of professional sports.  It’s appalling that they’ve taken the money of season ticket holders and given us a product that could well be the worst offensive team in modern NFL history — and then driven home the spike even farther by trading away the one player who gave us a glimmer of hope.

The Browns organization and front office could not have done more to completely crush the hopes and aspirations of Browns fans than making the trade they did today.  They clearly are counting on the loyalty of Browns fans, who have patiently endured season after season of train wrecks and stuck with the team because it’s in their orange-and-brown blood.  I’m one of those poor, hopelessly hooked fans, and in the past I’ve shook my head and laughed off the blunders and the mishaps and cursed bad luck.  But not today.

The trade today reveals a team that doesn’t give a shit about its fans, or the money they’ve spent.  The way this team is treating its loyal fans is unconscionable.  The Cleveland Browns organization just sucks.

Betting On The Browns

The last time the Cleveland Browns were legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl, UJ and I had season tickets.

IMG_3708We sat in the upper deck of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium during the late ’80s and early ’90s.  We watched as the Denver Broncos and John Elway — may he rot forever in hell — broke our hearts with The Drive, and the next year we watched the great team that eventually fell, again, to Denver thanks to The Fumble.  (It’s all part of the immense burden of failure lugged around by Cleveland sports fans, most recently recounted by this piece in the New York Times.)  It was fun going to the games and great to watch good football, but eventually we gave up our tickets as the Browns jacked up prices and other obligations intervened.

But now Russell will be returning to the Midwest.  He loves the Browns, and from the Cranbrook campus in the suburban Detroit area he’ll be within a reasonable drive from Cleveland.  So, we talked about it during Russell’s Mother’s Day visit, and we decided to pull the trigger.  Once again, I’ll be a season ticket holder, taking in the NFL in all its spectacle and wretched excess with Russell as we watch from our seats in Section 536 of Cleveland Browns Stadium.

I don’t think the Browns will be very good this year, but you never know . . . and sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is.  This season, we’re betting on the Browns.

Who Do I Hate The Most?

Surprisingly, the Cleveland Browns won’t be competing in the NFL playoffs this year.  Instead, the other three teams in the Browns’ division — the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Pittsburgh Steelers — will be vying for the coveted division title and playoff spots.  These three teams are division rivals we play twice a year, so we hate all of them.  But a legitimate question for Browns fans is:  which of these teams do I hate the most?  For me, the answer is easy.

https://i1.wp.com/cdn2.sbnation.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/331699/128804917_standard_1349004141_352.jpgIt’s not the Bengals.  Sure, the upstart Cincinnati team shares the same state and stole the Browns’ colors when the Bengals franchise starts more than 40 years ago, but to be honest the Bengals really aren’t worthy of being despised.  For much of their history, the Bengals have been even more inept than the Browns, and that’s saying something.  Sure, the Bengals have been to two Super Bowls and the Browns have never been to even one (sob!), but the Bengals always come across as pass-happy, gimmicky glory boys rather than tough guys willing to slug it out in the AFC’s most rugged division.  The fact that the Bengals fans consist largely of front-runners who don’t bother with going to games when the team stinks makes the Bengals more worthy of contempt than hatred.

It’s not the Steelers, either.  You’d think Browns fans would hate the Steelers with every fiber of their being, given the Steelers’ many Super Bowl wins.  Many Browns fans give the pretense of hating the Steelers — but scratch that outward enmity and underneath you’re likely to find a deep reservoir of grudging respect.  It’s hard to hate those whom you’d like to emulate.  Browns fans want the Browns to be the Steelers, because in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s the Browns were the Steelers — they were the stable franchise, well managed and thoughtfully run, that found great players, ran a great scheme, and regularly appeared in championship games and brought banners back to Municipal Stadium.  The Steelers stole that mantle in the ’70s and have kept it since, and the Browns fans want it back.  In the meantime, we’ll secretly root for the Steelers because we all feel that they play football the way it should be played.

http://www.trbimg.com/img-50805de6/turbine/la-sp-sn-baltimore-ravens-ray-lewis-20121018-001/600That leaves the Ravens, and they are truly the team that I hate the most.  I hate them because, of course, they used to be the Browns, before the despicable Art Modell took the team away from the city and the fans that loved it — all for the sake of money.  I hate them because their new name sucks, they’ve had success in Baltimore, and they’ve won a Super Bowl that should rightfully have been Cleveland’s.  I hate their loudmouth, show-boating players who mug for the cameras and have forsaken the quiet classiness that used to define professional athletes.  The Ravens’ consistent winning ways confirms that no benevolent, sports-loving deity intervenes in games to reward goodness or promote fairness; instead, only capricious and mean-spirited gods could possibly favor the awful Ravens.  I despise the Ravens, and I rail at the fates that conspire to put them in the playoffs year after year, while the Browns wallow in seasons of embarrassment, failure, and futility.

The Pre-Feast Feast

We’re having the extended Webner clan over for Thanksgiving dinner today, about 15 people in all.

NFL football is on, the beers have been iced down and the wine bottles are opened, and we’ll be eating at about 4 p.m.  Today’s Thanksgiving dinner will feature turducken and traditional turkey, soup and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and rolls and cranberry sauce.

But since we aren’t eating until 4 p.m. or so, we need something to tide us over until then.  So we’ve got a light, pre-feast, nibble-worthy repast laid out on the kitchen table, with a little fire to it — wasabi peas, almonds, cold baby carrots, tiny tomatoes, wedges of iced raisin bread, and cheese, liver pate, and crackers.  We don’t want anyone keeling over from hunger — or for that matter too many beers — before the real meal begins.

Girding Loins In Browns Town

The King James Bible speaks often of biblical figures girding their loins.  Jeremiah 1:17, for example, reads:  “Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise . . . ”

We don’t know precisely how loins were girded, of course.  Some people think the long skirts men wore in those days were rolled up and tucked in somewhere, so that you didn’t trip on them.  I suspect, however, that there was a bit more emphasis on . . . protection than that.  In the old days of single combat, where a kid with a sling might be hurling stones at your most tender areas, you obviously wanted to make sure that your loins were well girded, indeed.  Nothing like a flying chunk of rock in the groin (or the forehead) to take the wind out of your sails and lead to your prompt beheading.

We Browns fans are used to girding our loins.  We’ve taken so many painful shots to the psychic privates, the mental loin-girding process has become second nature.  Sound the clarion call of pessimism, keep your expectations absurdly low, and brush away any brimming feelings of hope.  Only then will your inner loins be fully girded and you will be prepared for the series of gridiron catastrophes that are sure to be visited upon you and the rest of the Browns faithful.

I hope Browns fans will be paying special attention to the girding process this year, because I fear we are going to need all the girding we can get.  With a rookie quarterback, a rookie tailback, a motley crew of receivers, and a defense that stands up against opposing rushing attacks like a cheesecloth curtain, playing in the most rugged division in professional football, the Browns and their fans are going to be taking a lot of shots to the solar plexus this season.

As was said in Job 38:3:  “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.”  Take heed, Browns fans!  Let the loin-girding begin!

The High Cost Of Sports Stardom

The New York Times has an interesting article about a number of lawsuits filed by former players against the National Football League and helmet manufacturers.

The lawsuits deal with whether the NFL knew, or should have known, about the effects of repeated blows to the head on athletes.  The article quotes one of the lawyers for the players as arguing that the consequences of multiple concussions — including dementia, disorientation, memory loss, and anger control issues — were well documented.  Counsel for the NFL responds that the League makes player safety a priority and has never misled players.

I never played competitive football, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to have one concussion, much less several.  And if you know anyone who played high-level football, you’ve likely seen the general bodily wear and tear the game imposes — from gimpy walks to scarred legs to gnarled, misshapen fingers.  Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuits should remind everyone that those crushing hits that we cheer on Sundays come at a cost for the human beings inside the uniforms.

The Most Popular Game In Town

In the current “fall season” — to the extent such a thing even exists anymore — 13 of the 14 most-watched TV shows have been NFL games.  The only non-NFL program that makes the top 15 is Two and a Half Men.

Why is the NFL so popular?  For one thing, it’s the perfect American game.  The NFL emphasizes speed, color, and violence — lots of violence — with a few cheerleaders thrown in.  It’s an exciting game (at least it is if you aren’t watching the Browns), filled with crackling big hits and spinning runs and tremendous athleticism that get the blood pounding.  And lately the NFL has gotten savvier.  It’s marketed to men and women, and to every demographic type.  I’m sure the marketing effort has contributed to the popularity of pro football, too.

But there is one other thing that has given pro football a big edge over the regular network programming.  The programming wizards at CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox have to worry about competition from HBO, Showtime, TNT, AMC, and many other cable channels that produce original sitcoms and dramas and reality shows — precisely the kind of programming that you used to be able to see only on network TV.  The NFL, by contrast, has no competition.

HBO isn’t going to out out and create a new pro football league to compete with Monday Night Football.  If you want to watch pro football — and millions of Americans crave it every autumn weekend — the NFL is the only game in town, regardless of which channel it is broadcast on.

A Make-Or-Break Game For The Browns

Today’s home game against the resurgent Seattle Seahawks is a make-or-break game for the Browns.  Although the season is only five games old, the Browns are in a sickeningly familiar position — in last place in their division, losing contact with the leading teams, struggling to win games at home, and playing uninspired and uninspiring football.

The Browns are a team that needs to find itself.  Offensively, they seem to have no identity and no soul.  Are they a running team, or a West Coast offense passing team?  Is Peyton Hillis hurt, or in the coach’s doghouse for some reason?  Quarterback Colt McCoy doesn’t seem to be picking up the new offense, and the Browns’ wide receivers have been close to invisible.  The Browns clearly don’t have a big-play threat, so why not get back to using Hillis as the every-down back and focusing on running the ball with a few passes mixed in?  They’ve used that scheme before with some success, and the pounding seems to wear down defenses until Hillis breaks a big run.

Defensively, the Browns have been pretty good — but any defense gets gassed, and then gashed, if they are on the field virtually every down.  If the Browns could score on offense, the defense could take a few more chances and, perhaps, become a bit more of a big-play unit.  It’s hard to do that, however, when it looks like any score you give up will be insurmountable for your inept offense.

Already the Browns are two full games behind the Ravens, and a game and a half behind both the Steelers and the Bengals.  Another loss today, and the Browns may as well hang it up for the season — and it’s not even the end of October.

Edited to Add:  Well, it was brutal to watch, but the Browns got it done, 6-3.  Credit the defense and Phil Dawson’s long-distance accuracy for the win and keeping the Browns (slightly) in contention.

Things That Are More Enjoyable Than Watching The Browns

Things that are more enjoyable than watching the Browns:

Getting your tooth reduced to powder by a smoking, whining drill without novocaine

Getting kneed in the groin repeatedly by an angry circus clown

Sitting next to a screaming, bratty three-year-old for a transcontinental plane flight

Having sharp, red hot spikes driven into your eyes by a sledgehammer

Listening to unattended car alarms for hours while you try to deal with the worst hangover of your life.

Yeah, it’s like that.

Trying To Establish A Home Field Advantage

Today the Cleveland Browns play the Miami Dolphins in Cleveland Browns Stadium.  The Browns are trying to get to 2-1 and a record above .500 for the first time in a very long time.  Equally important, the Browns are trying to win at home and establish the kind of home field advantage that other NFL teams routinely enjoy.

Since their return to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been awful at home.  In the 1999 season, they went 0-8 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, and that has set the tone.  Overall, the Browns have been 34-63 at home, a record that includes this year’s initial loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.  The Browns have had exactly one season where they had a winning record at home: in 2007 they were 7-1 at Cleveland Browns Stadium.  Otherwise, the record is one of pathetic futility and the dashed hopes of countless Browns fans.

This should not be the case.  The Browns have among the most rabid fans in the NFL.  The Dawg Pound is a legendary collection of face-painting, costume-wearing screamers and brawlers who can make a lot of noise and hurl a lot of verbal invective and intimidation at opposing players.  It’s time for the Browns and their fans to make Cleveland Browns Stadium one of the toughest venues in the NFL — one that opposing players and coaches dread to visit and are happy to leave.

Today’s game against the Dolphins, who are 0-2, would be a good place to start.

The Perfect Tailgate Food

This morning in America, as the first rays of dawn sweep across the vast and fruited plain, countless college football fans are preparing to tailgate.  Tomorrow, with the NFL season beginning in earnest, professional football fans will engage in the same careful pre-game preparation.  I am here to advise them all that the perfect tailgate food is the Scotch Egg.

Bear with me on this.  A Scotch Egg, for those who have not sampled this awesome culinary masterpiece, consists of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, coated in bread crumbs, and deep fried.  Properly prepared, a Scotch Egg looks to the lucky consumer like a ball of meat.  You squirt some mustard on it, take a bite, and your mouth is filled with a hearty, perfectly proportioned mixture of egg, sausage, bread crumbs, and mustard.  It’s like a ball of pure breakfast.  You eat one, and you are properly fortified for the game.  You eat two, and you could sit through the coldest conditions at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and still be warmed to your core.

The real beauty of a Scotch Egg at a tailgate is its portability.  Because — unlike a sandwich, or ribs, or most of the more high-falutin’ tailgate fare — it only requires one hand to consume, it leaves the other hand completely free to hold a frosty adult beverage and lift it repeatedly to your thirsty lips.  Consumption of Scotch Eggs therefore bears a direct cause-and-effect relationship to overall tailgate enjoyment and mounting game readiness.  And the Scotch Egg is environmentally friendly.  It doesn’t require a baggie, or a toothpick, or anything else that would end up as discarded tailgate debris.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the perfect tailgate food — the Scotch Egg.

It’s Time For The Browns To Win Their Season Opener

Since the Browns came back into the NFL in 1999, their record in the first game of the season has been stunningly awful.

In 12 years, the Browns have won their season opener precisely once — beating Baltimore 20-3 in 2004.  In the other years, they’ve lost in every conceivable way.  They’ve lost to good teams and bad teams.  They’ve gotten creamed and they’ve lost 9-6 defensive battles.  They even lost when Dwayne Rudd was penalized for removing his helmet on the last play of the game.  With astonishing, soul-deadening consistency, the old Browns and new Browns have produced the same result.  The season starts with a dispiriting 0-1 record, the team is in a hole, and they never seem to be able to fully claw their way out of it.  It’s no wonder the team has made the playoffs only once in those 12 years.

This year, the Browns need to find a way to somehow win their first game, against the Cincinnati Bengals.  Beating the Bengals is not an impossible dream.  In fact, if the Browns really are heading in the right direction, the game against the Bengals is a game that they should — really, they must — win.

With Mike Holmgren fully  at the helm of the franchise, a new head coach in Pat Shurmur and a new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes, exciting players like Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy, and Josh Cribbs, and a roster stocked with younger players, it is time for the Browns to start slaying the ghosts and demons that have tormented this star-crossed franchise since its return to the league.  It can be done.  For years, the Browns could not win at Three Rivers Stadium — until suddenly, under Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar, they could.  On Sunday, it is time for this Browns team, too, to start turning things around.

Time To End The Brownian Motion

“Brownian motion” is a familiar concept for physics students.  It refers to a random movement of microscopic particles suspended in liquids or gases resulting from the impact of molecules of the liquids or gases.

Of course, “Brownian motion” could also describe the sad performance of the Cleveland Browns since they returned to the NFL.  For more than a decade, the team has lurched about with spastic grace and has only rarely approached competitiveness.  Offensively, the team has played pass-oriented schemes, power running schemes, mobile quarterback schemes, pocket-passing schemes, and virtually every other hot offensive approach this side of the single wing.  The defensive game plans have been similarly varied, with the only constant being the Browns’ inability to put consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback.

So, I was glad to read that new head coach Pat Shurmur has a “clear vision” of the direction in which this battered franchise should move.  He says the Browns should (1) try to win the AFC North and then (2) compete in and win the Super Bowl.  He says there should be “new excitement” because it’s “a new direction with systems and plans that have won multiple Super Bowls.”

I groan when I read this kind of pointless coach-speak.  I’m quite sure that I could look through the news archives and find similarly meaningless comments from prior Browns’ head coaches.  Of course they are trying to win the AFC North and make the Super Bowl.  What other goals would a Browns’ coach have?

It looks like Coach Shurmur will have his chance to pursue this “new direction” soon enough; reports are that a deal has been struck between the owners and the players and the NFL lockout is ending.  As a long-suffering Browns fan, I’ll be rooting for the Browns to get on track and build on the positives from last season.  I ask only that Coach Shurmur keep the insulting coach-speak to a minimum, and let the team’s performance do the talking.