The ‘J’ word

Are the Browns jinxed, or are they just bad?

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The overwhelming question for Week 4 of my return to Browns fanhood: Can a team (or a city) really be jinxed? Sure, jinxes are part of the fabric of professional sports, and no city has felt the sting of the jinx more than Cleveland. You know the facts: No Cleveland team has won a championship since 1964. The city’s sports landscape is inescapably linked with heartbreak, with a fumble, an interception, a blown save, a decision, a John Elway Drive, a Michael Jordan shot, 10-cent beer night and the Art Modell betrayal.

But is Cleveland really jinxed or is that something that we Clevelanders just tell ourselves to make it all seem a little more romantic? Seen another way, the Indians did put together one of the great hitting teams in baseball history and got to a couple of World Series in the 1990s. LeBron James has twice taken the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals — once when he was just a kid and once more after he returned home. Even the perpetually doomed Browns have been to three championship games, something that Detroit Lions fans would take in a heartbeat. They all just fell short.

And the bad teams? Were they really jinxed? Take this Browns team. They’re bad. But jinxed? Sunday seemed a good day to find out. The Browns played the San Diego Chargers in one of those classic NFL battles of which team wants to lose more. The Chargers are never to be underestimated in such battles; they have proven over the years to be highly proficient in the art of losing, ever capable of stealing defeat from the jaws of victory. Anyone who follows former David Letterman head writer Eric Stangel on Twitter knows this; Stangel is the 140-character doyen of San Diego Charger suffering. This team can beat itself with the best of them.

And on this Sunday you could add in that the Chargers were so beat up they were asking people in the crowd to play offensive line. And you can always throw in the perpetual rumors that the Chargers might move to Los Angeles any day now. Yes, this game would be like a great jinx-off between the Browns and Chargers.

Then, it should be added: It’s kind of hard to take San Diego seriously as a jinxed team. Hey, I’m sure Chargers fans feel the pain of losing just as much as anyone else but, you know, that pain might be mitigated just a little bit when you then go surfing or snorkeling or hang out on the beach. After witnessing numerous Chargers losses in person, I’ve always gotten the distinct feeling that the exiting crowd of people felt crushed for a few moments and then remembered, “Oh yeah, we still live in San Diego.”

* * *

Dwayne Bowe. If you had to pick just two words to describe the sheer exasperation of being a Cleveland Browns fan, you couldn’t do much better than to just say, “Dwayne Bowe.”

Sorry, we’ll get back to the game in a minute, but first we need a lengthy discussion about Dwayne Bowe and the the Cleveland Browns’ feelings about wide receivers. It’s important. I mean, it might not be Global Warming important but, then again, it might be:

If you look at the Browns’ roster, you might notice something about three of their top four receivers:

— Travis Benjamin (fourth rounder, 5-foot-10)

— Taylor Gabriel (undrafted, 5-foot-8)

— Andrew Hawkins (undrafted, 5-foot-7)

— Brian Hartline (4th rounder, 6-foot-2)

Yes, that’s right, other than Hartline, they’re tiny. And none of the four was drafted in the top three rounds. There’s a specific reason for this: The Browns do not care about wide receivers. Browns general manager Ray Farmer has been outspoken about this. “I know everyone says I’m stubborn or I’m going to be obstinate about this wide receiver position, but I just think that, at the end of the day, an offensive line affects every single play of the game. A wide receiver may touch the ball 10 times if he’s having a great day. So I just like the idea of ‘Let’s get the guys that affect the game all the time.’”

Well, instead of getting into an argument about the value of A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Brandon Marshall, Randall Cobb, Demaryius Thomas and so on, let’s just say: This is the Browns’ conviction and it predates Farmer. It has led them down a very dark path. In 2011, before Farmer joined Cleveland, the Browns had the sixth pick in the draft. It just so happened that there was a perfect guy to take with that pick, Alabama’s 6-foot-4 wide receiver Julio Jones. But that’s if you believe in wide receivers, you know, and the Browns don’t. So they traded the pick to Atlanta, who foolishly decided they were OK taking a guy who might only touch the ball 10 times, if he’s having a great day. And it’s worked out just that way — he’s caught 38 passes in four games, fewer than 10 per game. How’s THAT working out for them? Suckers.

Meanwhile, the Browns got a boatload of draft picks which they were not about to waste on silly wide receivers. No, they traded up instead to get defensive tackle Phil Taylor (since released), vacating the spot the Chiefs used to draft last year’s sack leader, Justin Houston. They also traded up to get running back Trent Richardson, who was such a fiasco they pawned him off a year later. And they drafted quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round and cut him less than two years later.

They couldn’t have just drafted Julio Jones, could they?

No. They couldn’t. The following year, the Browns spent a second-round pick in the supplemental draft on Josh Gordon, a receiver who was kicked off his college team for a drug arrest. For his first two years, Gordon looked like a reasonable copy of Jones. He even led the league in receiving yards and scored nine touchdowns as a second-year player. Since then, his career has descended into a tunnel of substance abuse; he played five games near the end of last season and is currently sitting out the season on a one-year suspension. Gordon was originally scheduled to be a free agent after this season, but due to missed time during his suspensions, he will remain under team control at least through next season.

Aside from the pick they used on Gordon, the Browns have drafted one wide receiver in the last three drafts. One. And that one receiver was a doozy: In the fourth round this year, the Browns took someone named Vince Mayle out of Washington State. He dropped so many passes during the preseason that the Browns not only cut him, they did not even offer him a spot on the practice squad. In other words, they could have drafted me and gotten just as much value.

And then, finally, inevitably, there’s Dwayne Bowe. He was a gifted but contentious player in Kansas City for years. The problem with him then was that he could be unstoppable or he could be invisible and there was no way to guess which guy you were getting that day. Bowe’s skills as a receiver were hard to define. He wasn’t fast. His route-running seemed sloppy. He would drop passes that hit him in the chest. He was not always the hardest worker (this used to frustrate his teammate Tony Gonzalez to no end).

So what exactly could he do? Well, one thing: He could make amazing catches, time after time, with defenders hanging all over him. Kansas City quarterbacks began to figure out that you didn’t wait for Bowe to get open because he didn’t get open. Just throw him the ball, and at his best, he would find a way to catch it. Three times, he had 1,000 yards in receiving and in 2010, he led the NFL in touchdown catches. He was like the crane technique in The Karate Kid. When done right, there was no defense.

But, he hadn’t been right in the three years BEFORE Kansas City released him, so 2015 seemed a strange year for Ray Farmer to fall in love with Bowe. He did anyway. The man who doesn’t like receivers because they don’t affect enough plays gave NINE MILLION GUARANTEED DOLLARS to a 31-year-old Dwayne Bowe. What followed was inevitable. He practiced terribly, got a little bit nicked up, was inactive for Week 1, was on the field for eight plays Week 2, was inactive Week 3 and then, Sunday, it was announced that Bowe was activated because he’d had a good practice or something.

Best I can tell, he got in for one play (Ed. Note: Four plays). The Browns’ Josh McCown threw to him on third down. He wasn’t open. He didn’t catch it. He probably won’t be active next week. The Browns aren’t cutting him because, I think, they just don’t want to add to the embarrassment.

I’m not sure it’s fair to call a team that makes decisions like Dwayne Bowe “jinxed.”

* * *

Back to Sunday’s game: The Browns came out ready to fail, like usual. Quarterback of the moment Josh McCown fumbled for the sixth time in his last seven games. The Browns committed 12 penalties, many of them spectacularly dumb and costly. The Browns’ defense couldn’t make a dent in the Chargers’ offensive line even though three of the five starters were injured.

But, as mentioned, you should not underestimate San Diego’s will to lose.The Chargers committed a few dumb penalties of their own, they refused to run outside the tackles — where the Browns have been the worst run defense in the NFL for years now — and they decided not to cover Browns running back Duke Johnson.

So, in the fourth quarter, the game was still close. Then the Browns drove the length of the field — helped in part by a spectacular juggling catch from tight end Gary Barnidge — and scored a touchdown. They added the two-point conversion that tied the game at 27. This drive showed again why Browns coach Mike Pettine insists on using quarterback Josh McCown rather than Johnny Manziel. McCown was efficient on Sunday and steady in that last drive. He’s a veteran. He will make fewer mistakes. This is what coaches like Mike Pettine want.

In other words: Josh McCown is just good enough for the Browns to lose with.

When McCown threw the game-tying touchdown, there was 2:09 left in the game. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Browns would lose. It was such an obvious setup that a part of me wanted to just turn off the television — when you KNOW the ear scene in “Reservoir Dogs” is coming, why watch it? But I watched anyway. Big kickoff return? Check. Phillip Rivers to Ladarius Green for 17 yards? Check. Danny Woodhead through the worst rush defense in the NFL for 19 yards? Check again.

The Chargers were in easy field goal range so fast that the only question left was how the Browns were going to blow their timeouts to make the game longer. After Woodhead’s run, the Chargers had first down at the 41 with 48 seconds — and Pettine called a timeout.

“Good timeout,” the announcer said.

How was that a good timeout? How? The Browns had three timeouts left, which meant they could stop the clock, stop it again after the first down play and stop it again after the second down play. But that was it. They couldn’t stop it after the third down play. The couldn’t get the ball back. I mean, hey, they might as well use the timeouts — you can’t save them — and who knows? Maybe the Chargers would fumble the ball if you made them snap it three times. But good timeout? No. There was nothing good about any of this. With two seconds left, San Diego kicker Josh Lambo set up for the easy 34-yard field goal to win the game. Lambo, the announcers pointed out, used to be a professional soccer player. Good information. Lambo set up for the game winner, and one more time I was reminded: You should not underestimate the San Diego Chargers’ will to lose.

His kick was up and … it faded wide right.

Holy cow! Did that really happen? He missed a chippie! The Browns … impossibly … had a chance to … oh … wait … hold the phone …

“Offsides, defense, No. 22,” the referee said. “Five yard penalty. Rekick.”

No. 22 for Cleveland is Tramon Williams, a nine-year veteran who had three postseason interceptions for Green Bay in the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run. “I guess I was a little too aggressive,” he would say. To be fair, he couldn’t have expected Lambo to miss a 34-yard kick — he felt like he had to take a chance to go for the block. But, you know, like most Browns things, it didn’t quite work out. Lambo promptly made the follow-up 29-yard field goal to win the game, and then the Browns and Chargers players were hugging and shaking hands, congratulating each other.

Can a team (or a city) really be jinxed? I don’t know. In the end, I guess I believe that you make your own luck. The Browns are starting a 36-year-old longtime backup quarterback, mini-me wide receivers and a defense that cannot stop the run. The Browns have had a series of general managers who have had spectacularly bad drafts and a current general manager who doesn’t want a big-time wide receiver. They have a coach who was not even on their original list of candidates. As a fan, you don’t get to choose how your team does business. You just have to live with the consequences.