Jim Brown

I was saddened to read today of the death of Jim Brown. He was an enduring figure for me and for many, both for his legendary exploits on the football field and for his leadership and fearlessness off the field.

In my view, Jim Brown was unquestionably the greatest running back in NFL history, and it isn’t really arguable. He routinely racked up 1,000-yard rushing seasons at a time when the NFL played far fewer regular season games and set the record of 1,863 rushing yards in a single season that endured for years. His career statistics are ridiculous: in only nine years in the league and 118 games, he rushed for 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns and added 2,499 yards and 20 touchdowns as a receiver. His career average of 104.3 rushing yards per game remains an NFL record. With his size, power, and speed, he was perhaps the only player of his era who could play, and dominate, in the modern NFL.

But his achievements on the football field told only part of the story. Jim Brown was a force. In a great book, They Call It A Game, Bernie Parrish, a former Browns player, recounts Jim Brown coming into the room for the team’s breakfast on the morning of the 1964 NFL title game, the last time the Browns won the championship. “Jim Brown entered the room,” Parrish wrote, “and everyone felt his presence.” He had that kind of personal magnetism, and he took no guff from anyone. When the Browns owner insisted Brown come to training camp and leave the filming of The Dirty Dozen, Brown retired–at age 30, and at the peak of his career. Who knows what records he would have set if he had continued to play?

Jim Brown was active and outspoken about civil rights, racial injustice, and other causes, at a time when few athletes took that risk. He formed what would become the Black Economic Union to encourage black entrepreneurs. He wasn’t perfect, and he had a checkered personal life that was marred by accusations of violence against women. That part of his story shouldn’t be sugar-coated, but it also shouldn’t prevent people from admiring the positive contributions he made, on and off the field.

Just as Jim’s Brown presence was felt, his absence will be felt, too. He was 87.

The $6 Billion Team

Yesterday the parties to the transaction announced that a new ownership group would be buying the Washington Commanders, a National Football League team. The announced price tag for the transaction is a staggering $6.05 billion–a new record for the sale of a professional sports team. The proposed deal now goes to NFL owners for approval,

The Commanders have been pretty dismal lately. The team hasn’t won a playoff game in 18 years, and the franchise, and its owners, have been mired in controversy. Nevertheless, the eye-popping $6.05 million price tag for the team blows the previous record for an NFL team–set by the 2022 sale of the Denver Broncos for $4.65 billion–out of the water. If you’re an NFL owner, you’d presumably be highly motivated to approve the proposed sale, if only to establish a new comparable that can be cited when you decide you are ready to cash in and put your team on the market. If an underperforming team like Washington commands that kind of price, just imagine how much might be paid for more successful franchises, like the Kansas City Chiefs or the New England Patriots?

In case you’re interested, the group that is selling the Commanders paid $800 million for the Washington pro football franchise in 1999. In less than 25 years, the market value of their ownership interest has increased by a factor of more than six–and that doesn’t account for any amounts the ownership group has received from TV contracts, ticket sales, and merchandising deals during the period of their ownership. Seeing the market value of an investment increase more than six times is a pretty good return.

It’s not just NFL teams that have been gold mines at the auction block lately, either. The $6.05 billion price tag for the Commanders edges out the prior record for a professional sports team, which was $5.3 billion paid for the Chelsea F.T. club in the English Premier League last year. Billions of dollars also have been paid for teams in the NBA and Major League Baseball over the past few years.

So, there’s no doubt that professional sports teams have been a pretty good investment recently–but you wonder how long this can last, and whether we’re simply witnessing a huge sports franchise bubble, like the crazed spike in home purchases that helped produce the sub-prime mortgage collapse that led to the Great Recession, or the infamous Dutch tulip market bubble in the Netherlands in the 1600s. It’s not as if sports franchises have lots of tangible assets or obvious intrinsic value, and the continued success of the NFL, which has been bedeviled by concerns about concussions and general player safety problems, among other issues, is by no means assured.

At some point, will liability concerns cause regulation of the sport that changes it so significantly that its current broad appeal falls off–and the owners who paid billions to sit in the owners’ box and wear gear with team logos are left with a stadium, some player contracts, and logos for merchandise that no one wants to buy? If that happens, the ownership of the Commanders could end up being like possession of a fistful of costly and unwanted tulip bulbs in Amsterdam centuries ago.

Science And Sports

If, like me, you love football, you can’t help but wonder about the future of the game. With players continuing to get bigger, and faster, and harder-hitting, the game has become increasingly dangerous, and brutal hits and season-ending injuries are common. To cite just one example of the injury plague, the NFL saw an 18 percent increase in concussions, league-wide, in the 2022 season.

Concussions that can have devastating long-term consequences are an especially serious concern, and quarterbacks–the keystone player around whom the offense revolves–often bear the brunt of the injuries. As a result, you need to have a unique kind of mental toughness to play quarterback in the NFL, or in any major college football program.

The NFL has tried to deal with this problem by tinkering with the rules and penalties, but also by turning to science and technology. Yesterday the League announced that it and the NFL Players’ Association had approved the first quarterback-specific helmet, which is designed to provide better protection against the concussions that can occur when a quarterback’s head makes contact with the ground. Laboratory testing showed that the new helmet design performed 7 percent better in reducing impact severity in comparison to other helmets.

The key development, according to an executive for the company that designed the helmet, “is that it has a deformal outer shell, which means when you take an impact in any location on that helmet, it will deform or basically dent in that location to absorb the impact.” This development is just the latest sign of how quickly the science and technology of helmets is changing. The ESPN article linked above notes, for example, that due to the latest round of testing seven helmets that were highly recommended in 2020 have been downgraded to prohibited for 2023.

It will be interesting to see how fans will react to a dented helmet as a visible sign of just how hard a quarterback was walloped. We can also expect continuing changes in the protective gear players wear to protect their knees, ankles, shoulders, and various fragile ligaments and tendons. The reality, however, is that there is only so much you can do, because the human body isn’t designed to repeatedly endure hard hits from 320-pound players moving at top speed. Football is just a dangerous game.

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.

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.

A Football-Free Sunday?

Having watched a terrific college football game last night, my appetite is whetted for more. I’m ready to plop myself down on the couch, crack open a cold one, and watch some NFL football today. I’m ready to hear the pads cracking and revel in the extreme athleticism, speed, and power of oversized human beings racing around on the gridiron.

Except . . . there is no NFL football today. Even though we got a full slate of college ball last night, football fans hungry for another pigskin fix will be hearing crickets over the Labor Day weekend. The NFL regular season doesn’t kick off until Thursday. So what are football fans to do? Watch the U.S. Open, baseball, or golf? Catch up on HBO’s House of the Dragon? When you’ve got a hankering for clashes on the turf, nothing else really satisfies.

What’s up with this sad reality? Can’t the NFL schedulers and the college schedulers get together and declare that the football season is formally here, so fans can get into their normal Saturday college/Sunday pro routine? Getting only the Saturday half of the equation is like getting the yin without the yang.

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.

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.

Tom Brady’s Deal With The Devil

Next Sunday the Kansas City Chiefs will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. But for once, the real story isn’t about the two teams that are playing, or the fact that one of them will win the NFL championship. No, in this particular Super Bowl, the story is that Tom Brady, the ageless wonder, will be playing in his tenth Super Bowl and going for his seventh win — and this year he’s doing it with an entirely new team.

These numbers are staggering–especially when viewed from the perspective of a fan of the Cleveland Browns, which have never appeared in even one Super Bowl. Tom Brady has appeared in more Super Bowls than any other player, by a considerable margin. He’s also got more Super Bowl rings than any other player. And, to put some additional icing on the cake, Brady has also won the Super Bowl MVP trophy four times. Add to that the fact that Brady was drafted into the NFL in April 2000, is now 43 years old, and really doesn’t look all that much different now than he did 5, 10, or 15 years ago, and you’ve got to wonder: seriously, what’s with this guy?

Superstitious people of days gone by, seeing someone who has enjoyed outlandish success and who doesn’t appear to age like the rest of us, would say Tom Brady has made a deal with the devil. But as an interesting article points out, maybe this is just a case where you have to give the devil his due. Tom Brady hasn’t had success handed to him. He wasn’t the most sought-after star in high school, he wasn’t the big star at Michigan, and he wasn’t drafted until the 199th pick, after every team in the NFL, including the Browns, had passed on him multiple times. I’m surprised a Cleveland writer hasn’t written a book about a scientifically minded Browns fan who invents a time machine just so he could go back into the past to convince the 2000 Browns to draft Tom Brady instead of Spurgeon Wynn.

The reality is that Tom Brady is a great football player, sure — but he’s also someone who has been able to repeatedly motivate himself, over and over again, even after enjoying success to the point of excess. He hasn’t rested on his laurels. He’s stayed hungry and stayed in shape and worked hard to get back to the mountaintop, over and over and over again. And while you can certainly say that Tom Brady has played on some great teams over the years, he’s also made the key plays that allowed those teams to come out on top. Last week’s NFC championship game, where Brady threw a perfect, back-breaking touchdown pass with only seconds remaining in the first half, was vintage Brady.

It’s impossible to argue with the proposition that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback ever, and he’s clearly the greatest winner in NFL history, too. Over the past decade or so, I’ve skipped watching some Super Bowls because it was boring to see Tom Brady and the New England Patriots playing every year. But this year, I’ll be watching because of Tom Brady. When you’ve got a chance to watch the greatest player of all time, you’ve got to seize it.

Vaccine Politics

I was watching TV this week and saw two related stories. One featured a truck delivering the first coronavirus vaccines to Ohio, where a masked Governor DeWine took a look at one box being unloaded, as shown in the photo above. The other was a story saying that the NFL was not going to try to cut in line so that its players and coaches would get the vaccine before others do.

The second story seemed weird to me. I’m sure the NFL thought it was being noble by publicly announcing that it was eschewing any effort to jump the queue for vaccinations. But I had the opposite reaction: why in the world would the NFL even entertain the notion of trying to move up the vaccine priority list? The fact that the NFL apparently considered it, and decided not to try, just shows the risk of political games being played with vaccine distribution and administration.

I suppose this should not be surprising to anyone. The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on our society, our culture, our economy, and individual families who have suffered losses of loved ones. Of course people are going to want to get the vaccine so they can put this whole weird chapter of their lives behind them, and the sooner the better. (Unless, of course, they are anti-vaxxers who aren’t going to get vaccinated at all.) But priorities have to be established so that there’s not a mad scramble for inoculation, and that means there’s a chance that people will try to pull rank, call in favors, apply pressure, and move up the list.

The initial priorities are easy: front-line health care workers and the places where COVID-19 has had the greatest impact — such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities — and that’s how Ohio is going to proceed. But the tougher questions come after those obvious initial candidates are identified. I think there should be some consideration of impact and risk in the distribution decisionmaking. People who work in areas of the economy that have been crushed by shutdown orders, like restaurants and the arts, should have the opportunity to get vaccinated before white-collar workers who have been able to safely continue their jobs from home. And people who have existing health care conditions that increase the impact of the coronavirus should be ahead of healthy people.

I’m happy to wait my turn — hey, if the NFL is doing it, so can I — but I’ll be very interested to see how the vaccine rolls out. I’ll be watching to see when the political types get their shots.

Wednesday Afternoon Football

Yesterday — which was a Wednesday, in case you’ve lost track of the days of the week — an NFL football game was played. The game kicked off at about 3:40 in the afternoon, and it was technically an NBC “Sunday Night Football” game that was broadcast with all of the “SNF” logos and announcers.

More solid evidence of the craziness of 2020: a “Sunday Night Football” game played on a Wednesday afternoon.

But it gets better. The game had been rescheduled multiple times due to COVID testing and the NFL’s oft-cited coronavirus “protocols.” (“Protocols” is a pretty deft word choice by the NFL, isn’t it? It makes the rules they’ve come up sound very scientific and technical and officially sanctioned.) And the Ravens ended up playing with a bunch of guys who apparently just joined the team this week. It was reminiscent of the NFL strike year, where your team fielded a bunch of previously unknown players wearing the familiar uniforms. Not surprisingly, it was a pretty sloppy game that the Steelers won.

The NFL is getting increasingly weird as the pandemic drags on. There are no non-cardboard fans in the stands, crowd noise is piped in, and you might just be watching a game where one team has to use a running back or wide receiver as a quarterback because all of the quarterbacks have violated the “protocols.” There’s no certainty about whether games will be played as scheduled, or when they might be rescheduled.

In short, we’ve reached the point where the NFL is kind of like a Las Vegas casino: time and calendar days have no real meaning, and anything might be happening at any moment of the day or night. The NFL’s old mantra about how anything could happen on “any given Sunday” is out the window. From here on out, rescheduled games, featuring unknown players, could be played on any day of the week, and at any hour, in a mad rush to get the season completed. You’ll just have to check your local listings and ESPN app to try to stay on top of things.

Is the quality of the football up to what you would want? Who knows? But you have to step back and admire the weirdness of it all.

Cleaning Out The Kitchens

The Cleveland Browns fired head coach Freddie Kitchens yesterday, after the Browns dropped a game to the woeful Cincinnati Bengals and finished the year with a 6-10 record.  It was another dismal showing for the Browns and capped off a farcical year — a year which began, amazingly, with at least one pundit picking the Browns to go to the Super Bowl.  Instead, they chalked up another losing season.

freddie-kitchens-browns-head-coachKitchens had to go, really.  He was picked to be head coach because he was supposed to be some kind of offensive mastermind who would be able to fit together all of the offensive talent on the roster into a point-scoring powerhouse — but the Browns ended up decidedly mediocre on the offensive side of the ball, finishing 22nd in the NFL in points and yards per game.  The red zone offense was terrible, the team’s performance was wracked with crucial penalties and turnovers, and Kitchens’ game management decisions were consistently wrong-headed, causing the Browns to give away games they could easily have won.  Add in a total lack of discipline on the team — highlighted by an embarrassing brawl against the Pittsburgh Steelers that cost the team its best defensive lineman — and you’ve got a simple story of a rumpled guy who was overwhelmed by a job that clearly was far beyond his capabilities.

The best argument for keeping Kitchens is that the Browns coaching carousel has to stop if the team is ever going to succeed, so . . . why not keep Kitchens and see if he can learn on the job?  It’s not much of an argument for a coach, but it has a kernel of reality to it.  Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 — only 20 years ago — they’ve had 11 head coaches, including Kitchens.  There is no hope for long-term success if a team needs to constantly deal with new coaches and coaching staffs, learn new offensive and defensive schemes, and adjust to new playbooks and play-calling.  From a continuity standpoint, the Browns are like a pee-wee football team compared to perennial contenders like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So, now the Browns look for another new savior to come in and turn a disastrous franchise around.  Already people are speculating about the recently fired NFL head coaches, hot NFL assistant coaches, and college head coaches who might be candidates — including former Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer.  Since 1999, the Browns have tried hiring head coaches from each of those categories, and they’ve all been canned after short periods.  Maybe this time the Browns will make the right decision and find a coach who can meld the team into a disciplined unit that plays smart, tough football and can figure out how to win big games.  I’m confident Urban Meyer, who has a clear coaching philosophy and proven track record in many different programs, could do that — but would he want to coach for a franchise that has been so dysfunctional?

Given the Browns’ track record, good things probably aren’t going to happen — but if you’re a Browns fan, hope springs eternal.  In fact, hope is just about all the Browns Backers have.