Fun Times At Nationwide

A group us us went to Nationwide Arena to watch the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Pittsburgh Penguins last night. We had a great time, from the dramatic opening light show pictured above, to the deafening cannon blasts that sounded when the CBJ scored their three goals (one of which, regrettably, was nullified by an offsides penalty), to the point where the cleaning crew politely kicked us out as we lingered after the game. Unfortunately, the Jackets fell to the Pittsburghers, but since the arena included a lot of boisterous Penguin fans, that just made the setting louder.

I don’t know beans about hockey, but Nationwide Arena is a terrific venue and it was fun to be at a live sporting event in a raucous setting. The arena appeared to be full, too—which suggests that my opinion was shared by several thousand others who enjoyed getting out.

Resolution Breakers

Every morning I walk past Snap Fitness, a small workout facility on the street leading to Schiller Park. As is always the case, after the first of the year it was decidedly more crowded than normal, with lots of people using the treadmills. Over the last few days, however, the usage has definitely declined. It’s not clear whether the new users have given up entirely already–that usually doesn’t happen until we get closer to the end of January–but the trend is unmistakable.

What causes people to make resolutions with the best of intentions, and then let them slide away? In thinking about it this morning, I think there are four main causes:

Temptation — As the Dairy Queen sign above reflects, temptation probably plays the biggest role in causing people to break their resolutions. If you’ve resolved to “eat healthier” and you’ve got to drive past a DQ every day on your way to work, or some well-meaning person in the office brings in assorted doughnuts every Friday, it’s going to be just that more difficult to stick to your resolution. In fact, if you think about it, it really should be a federal law that every Dairy Queen in the country must close during the month of January.

Discouragement — Discouragement clearly also plays an important role. Let’s say, for example, that you have resolved to exercise every day by taking a brisk walk. If you then experience a few days of ultra-cold weather or freezing rain, and you therefore logically decide to refrain from following through on that resolution, by day three or four you might figure that you’ve blown it already, and what’s the point? I would guess that the shutdown orders issued in March 2020 drove the last nail into the coffin of multiple 2020 New Year’s resolutions.

Perceived Futility — TV commercials and pop-up ads suggest that people can change their lives on a dime, melt away that stubborn belly fat, and become the person of their dreams by drinking a special concoction or using a particular exercise machine for only minutes a day. If you believe that and find that two weeks of work at the gym don’t seem to be having an effect on the bathroom scales, you may just decide it’s hopeless.

Evil Forces That Simply Conspire Against You To Crush Your Best Intentions — A good example of this situation is if you are a Cleveland Browns fan who resolves to adopt a more positive and cheerful attitude about life.

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!

Sportsgiving

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a pot-luck family gathering at JT’s Pizza, which is closed for the day. That means we get to watch football on JT’s bank of TVs.

It’s not a bad way to celebrate the classic American holiday. My Dad, my Uncle Tony, and my Aunt Bebe would have loved this. Mom and Grandma Webner, on the other hand, would have hated it.

The Angst About The Game

It’s the week of The Game. That’s the football game between Ohio State and That Team Up North, of course. In the Midwest we like to say it’s the greatest rivalry in all of sports (although I suspect that Army and Navy and the Red Sox and the Yankees might disagree with that), and every year this week features its unique, The Game-specific mixture of angst, fear, and loathing. Both members of Buckeye Nation and fans of the Maize and Blue know what I mean because they feel that unsettling mixture of emotions deep in their bones.

The loathing part is obvious: we hate (but nevertheless respect) the opposing team. But the angst and fear part require some explanation.

This is a rivalry game where both fan bases are haunted by memories of past losses and disasters, to the point where we each have sports-related PTSD. No Buckeyes fan who lived through the catastrophic failures of the ’90s will ever be comfortable about any game against TTUN; traumatic experiences have taught us, again and again, that calamity lurks around every corner. Fans of our opponents have the same feelings, only about the more recent games. That’s where the heavy, oppressive sense of angst comes in.

The fear, on the other hand, is that our greatest rival will ruin a fine season, and give bragging rights to the opposing fan base. This year is a good example. As has often been the case with The Game, the Buckeyes and TTUN will be playing for all the marbles: the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship Game and, potentially, the College Football Playoffs. But that’s not all. Every fan of either team knows a number of ardent fans of the opposing team, and we know that if The Game ends with a loss we’ll be hearing about it, in the most pointed, terrible ways imaginable, from now until next year’s contest offers a chance at redemption. We dread that awful possibility.

Angst, fear, and loathing: it’s the holy trinity that dominates our characters during the week of The Game, and it will always be thus. Go Bucks! Beat the Blue!

A Baker’s Dozen

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

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

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

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

When Browns Colors Prevail

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

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

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

Despoiling The Spoilermakers

Yesterday’s game against the Purdue Boilermakers promised to be a challenging match-up. In recent years, Purdue has played Ohio State very tough–beating the Buckeyes on several occasions that still stick in the craw of Buckeye Nation–and the Boilermakers had already beaten two top three-rated teams this year when they knocked off Iowa and Michigan State. That’s why Purdue is now recognized as the “Spoilermakers.”

But Ohio State fans needn’t have worried. The Buckeye offense roared back to life and quickly put Purdue into a deep hole, thanks to big plays and some mistakes by Purdue that gave the Buckeyes short fields. The halftime score had Ohio State up 45-17–after the game, Ohio State Coach Ryan Day called that, with admirable understatement, “a heck of a score”–and the Buckeyes went on to win 59-31.

Ohio State’s offensive numbers were ridiculously gaudy across the board. C.J. Stroud was 31 of 38 for 361 yards and five touchdowns. Ohio State ran the ball 31 times for 263 yards, averaging an absurd 8.5 yards a carry. Garrett Wilson had a 51-yard touchdown run and caught three touchdown passes. With numbers like that against a solid team, you’re going to win most games, even if your defense gives up 390 yards through the air, as the Buckeyes did yesterday.

As Russell and I watched the game, it came home to me again and again how Ohio State now plays a kind of football that past generations of scarlet and gray-clad fans wouldn’t recognize. Those of us who became members of Buckeye Nation during the Woody Hayes “old buttoned shoe” era of full-house backfields and run-dominated offenses can still hear his inner voice counseling in favor of constant runs when you’ve got the lead, but the college game has changed. You’re not going to score 45 points in a half with grind-it-out football, and you’re not going to attract the highly rated “skill position” recruits with that scheme, either. The reality is that Ohio State has morphed into a quarterback and wide receiver oriented offense that has great running backs, too, and when everything is clicking, as it was yesterday, their offense is both fun to watch and hard to stop.

But even if Coach Hayes might shake his head at what Ohio State’s offense has become, he would understand the schedule. Ohio State has two of the toughest games of the season yet to go, against Michigan State and its powerhouse running game, and then up in Ann Arbor against That Team Up North. Both of the Michigan squads are 9-1 on the season and harbor hopes of knocking off the Buckeyes and going to the Big Ten championship game and perhaps, the College Football Playoff.

Woody would tell you that, whatever happens with the Ohio State offense, the defense will need to play better to bring home victories in those two games–and he would be right.

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.

A “Holy Buckeye” Anniversary

You could argue endlessly about which specific play is the greatest single play in the long and storied history of Ohio State football–Zeke Elliott’s run through the Alabama defense would be right up there, as would Joey Bosa’s scoop and score against Wisconsin, among many others–but no one would question that “Holy Buckeye” is in the conversation. Craig Krenzel’s perfect fourth down throw to Malcolm Jenkins for a touchdown to put Ohio State up on Purdue kept the Buckeyes in the mix for a spot in the National Championship game after the 2002 season–a championship game that the Men of the Scarlet and Gray later won against the supposedly unbeatable Miami Hurricanes.

I love the “Holy Buckeye” play not just because of Brent Musberger’s terrific call, but because it refutes all of the conventional wisdom about Jim Tressel’s supposedly conservative play-calling. When the game was on the line and all of the marbles were in play, Coach Tressel made a gutsy call that the team executed perfectly.

“Holy Buckeye” happened 19 years ago today. For members of Buckeye Nation like me, watching it never gets old.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Ohio State has won two tough, physical games in the last two weeks. By winning at Lincoln, Nebraska today the Buckeyes stay atop the Big Ten East and remain in the mix for the College Football Playoff.

And yet, if you go to Ohio State message boards today, you would think the sky is falling.

Here’s some news for the spoiled, irrational members of Buckeye Nation: winning football games against big-time programs is hard. Winning on the road is hard. Winning with a freshman quarterback is hard.

And yet, Ohio State is doing it.

I’m not saying the Buckeyes will win it all. But expecting the team is win every game by 60 points is simply self-defeating, and ridiculous.

Me? I’ll take the win and move on.

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.

Guardians Versus Guardians

The Cleveland Indians are no more, as of the end of their mediocre 2021 season. The new name for the baseball club, announced with some fanfare earlier this year, is supposed to be the Cleveland Guardians, apparently named after the titanic “guardian” figures, one of which is shown in the photo above, that are found on one of the bridges spanning the Cuyahoga River.

Now it’s not clear whether the former Cleveland Indians will be called the Cleveland Guardians after all. It turns out that the Cleveland roller derby team also is called the Guardians, and it had the name first. The Guardians roller derby team has sued the Guardians professional baseball franchise in federal court, arguing that the baseball team should be blocked from using the name and asserting claims under trademark, unfair competition, and deceptive trade practices laws.

I had no idea that roller derby, with its blockers and jammers, still existed as a sport, much less that there was a roller derby team in Cleveland named the Guardians. The lawsuit alleges, however, that the baseball team did know about the roller derby Guardians and chose that name anyway. So now Cleveland will get to watch as the Guardians fight it out with the Guardians in court while the real guardians on the bridge bear silent witness to the whole sorry spectacle.

That’s Cleveland sports for you in a nutshell. Nothing is ever easy.