What Can Browns Do For You?

A love story, in the end

When Brian Hoyer or Brandon Weeden or Jason Campbell or Colt McCoy or Johnny Manziel or Josh McCown or whoever the heck is playing quarterback for the Cleveland Browns these days began his furious rush toward the end zone in the first quarter of the Jets game Sunday — his whole body displaying genuine will, strength and speed oozing out of every step, NFL Films music playing in the background of my mind — there was only one thought that buzzed through:

Oh, man, this is going to end very badly.

Of course it would end badly. There was no other possibility. Josh Weeden or Colt Hoyer or Seneca Quinn or whoever made it to about the 3-yard line. Then Brady Frye decided to leap into the end zone. It was a gutsy move for Derek Manziel, only slightly mitigated by the fact that someone had already knocked the ball out of his hands.

Still, because of gravity, the play went on, and Spergon Couch Gradkowski McCown was in mid-air when someone from the New York Jets crashed into him, sending him into an awkward but visually pleasing helicopter spin. It’s not entirely clear if Trent Holcomb Detmer Shaw or whoever the heck is playing quarterback for the Browns got the concussion on the first hit, the second hit or when his head bounced off the turf after the fall. It is clear that the football, with the impeccable comedic timing of a Marx Brother, waited for him to hit the ground before landing on his head and then bouncing into the arms of a Jets player.

A Browns player then whacked that Jets player because the one thing the play lacked was a 15-yard penalty.

I made myself a football promise this year: I would, for the sake of my hometown and the promise of my own youth, try to care deeply about the Cleveland Browns again. The reasons for this are quite personal and relate, as most things do these days, to my getting older. I turn 49 in January, which means I turn 50 soon after that, which means that pain in my hip isn’t going away. Our oldest daughter is a year away from high school. Time, it seems, is serious about this exasperating moving forward bit.

When I was a kid, the Cleveland Browns were my life or, in the words of my daughter, they were my BAE.*

* You probably know about this word “BAE,” (I don’t really know if it’s supposed to be all caps — probably not). I guess it stands for “Before Anyone Else” and can be used (if my daughter is using it right) to refer to actors, actresses, types of food, songs, movies, sports teams, superhero villains and certain brands of clothes. I also guess BAE has been around for a while. I’m just learning about it. I’m old.

The Browns meant absolutely everything to me. I could not overstate this if I tried. I would be embarrassed to list off even half the times that the Browns caused me problems at school and at various jobs, cost me potential dates, broke up friendships and so on. When I first read Nick Hornby’s magnificent, “Fever Pitch,” I knew nothing about soccer, and I did not recognize almost any of the names or events listed, and I didn’t get any of the British references. I still felt like it was an autobiography because that was how absurdly passionate I was about the Browns. When they lost, I didn’t eat. When they lost a playoff game, I didn’t sleep. When they won, I flew. When they drafted, I skipped school. When they played, I didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t too healthy.

When I first started as a sportswriter, I was still smitten. I was 20 then, still in college, and somehow convinced The Charlotte Observer to let me go to Atlanta for a Browns-Falcons preseason game so I could write a story on Browns’ rookie linebacker Mike Junkin, Well, that’s not exactly right. I was going to the game anyway as a fan. The Observer helped me get a credential, so I could write something about Junkin, who had gone to Duke.

The experience turned out to be a nightmare. Over the years, I’ve told it dozens of times, and it occurs to me as a more mature human being that I haven’t always been fair to Junkin in the telling. He was only a couple of years older than I was, and he was a rookie with a huge amount of pressure on him. Huge. He had been the fifth-overall pick in the draft, and Browns had traded away a star linebacker, Chip Banks, to get him. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had compared Junkin’s style of play to a “mad dog in a meat market.” I’m sure he was under a lot of strain.

Then again, so was I. I watched the game from the stands with a friend, and when the game ended, I had no idea how to get to the locker room. By the time I got there, everyone was gone. Some kind person said I might still catch Junkin as he was getting on the bus. I raced outside and there he was; Junkin was talking to someone I assume was his girlfriend or wife. She saw me waiting there and said, not unkindly, “Oh, it’s OK, he will give you an autograph.” I guess I looked like the fanboy I was.

“Um, no, actually I work for a newspaper,” I said unconvincingly. “I was hoping to just ask a couple of quick questions if that’s OK.”

It wasn’t OK. Let’s leave it at that. That painful exchange with Mike Junkin left quite a few scars, some which I still carry around with me. But, for the purposes of this piece, the point is, I stopped being a crazy Cleveland Browns fan on that exact day. Oh, I remained a Browns fan. While standing in the red cloud of embarrassment after being dressed down by Mike Junkin, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life: Browns tight end and legend Ozzie Newsome had seen the exchange, and he kindly walked over to answer any questions I might have. This is only one of the many reasons that Ozzie Newsome is of the five greatest human beings of the 20th Century.

* Albert Einstein. Winston Churchill. Ozzie Newsome. Mahatma Gandhi. Helen Keller.

But I became a different kind of fan. I realized after the Junkin beatdown that, if I really wanted to write sports for a living, I couldn’t be that obsessive and delusional kid anymore. It was time to grow up a little. And slowly I did. I still cared about the Browns, but less and less every year. When I moved to Cincinnati to be columnist at The Cincinnati Post — hallowed be its name — I still wanted the Browns to win, but I spent much more of my time and energy trying to figure out the Cincinnati Bengals — a full-time job, to say the least. I thought about the Browns every now and again. I thought about Dave Shula more or less every waking hour.

And then, the second break: I was in Cleveland for the last home game of my Cleveland Browns. It was one of the most emotional days of my life. I walked the field for a long time after that, looking at the all the stuff people had thrown on to the turf. I looked into the end zone where Brian Sipe had thrown the interception that haunted my childhood. I walked the 98 yards that John Elway had traversed in the famous drive. I stared into the end-zone section of the stadium that had become the Dawg Pound, and I saw the ghosts of all the construction workers and factory workers and auto mechanics and hard-core Clevelanders who stood up there, who huddled against the cold, who stamped their feet and drank peach schnapps from flasks and barked madly with the wind behind them.

The Browns died for me the day of the last game. They moved to Baltimore a few days later. And a year later, I moved to Kansas City, where my old hero and former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer was already waiting for me. One day, he called me to his office and, on a chalkboard, drew up The Fumble (his point being that the mistake was not made by Ernest Byner, who fumbled, but by receiver Webster Slaughter, who missed a block) and that was about the last I thought about the Browns.

I began to write about a good and star-crossed Chiefs team with a fascinating group of players and a fervent collection of fans who wore red, showed up early, smoked barbecue in the parking lot, and loved their Chiefs with every bit of the passion I had once felt for my Browns. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had around football. I came to know Priest Holmes and Trent Green and Will Shields and Tony Gonzalez and Gunther Cunningham and Dick Vermeil, and I liked them, and I wanted to see them get their Super Bowl. When a new team called the Browns returned to Cleveland — a team I have come to know as the Modern Browns, not unlike the Modern Pentathlon — I meant to care about them again. I did. I also meant to learn Spanish.

Oh, I kept up with the Browns. The history is too deep for me to ever abandon the team; I see those brown-and-orange uniforms and something triggers inside, much in the way red brings out something in the bull. But, for the most part, I watched from a safe distance.

And it was a good thing, too. The Browns I grew up with were heartbreakers but these Modern Browns were something much more troubling. They were ridiculous. The first owner was Al Lerner — the Browns to Baltimore deal was supposedly signed on his private jet. The Browns’ first draft pick was a tall quarterback I had watched play in high school named Tim Couch; he would turn out to be an even bigger disappointment than Mike Junkin. The Browns lost their first game, 43-0, to Pittsburgh. And it began.

I mention Tim Couch — he’s one of the most famous draft busts in NFL history. In a random Google search I just did, he showed up in different “NFL Draft Bust” lists and the the No. 2 overall bust, the No. 5 bust, the No. 20 bust and so on. So here’s something you probably did not know: Tim Couch has started more games than any other Browns quarterback in the new era. BY FAR. I keep a current list of Modern Browns starting quarterbacks in my computer — I can tell you at a glance that there have been 23 of them, alphabetically from Derek Anderson to Spergon Wynn. The Browns are one of two proud NFL franchises who have started BOTH McCown brothers (the Tampa Bay Bucs being the other). They are the only one, so far, to give a start to Connor Shaw.

Anyway, Tim Couch started 59 of the new Browns 257 games. Derek Anderson, with 34, is the only Browns quarterback who has started even half as many.

Of course, it hasn’t just been quarterback comedy. In the same file, I keep a list of Modern Browns general managers (seven), head coaches (eight), defensive coordinators (nine) and offensive coordinators (thirteen if you count Rob Chudzinski twice and the two head coaches who decided it would be a good idea to also be offensive coordinators). Get this: Since they landed in Cleveland in 1999, the Modern Browns have changed the GM, the coach or one of the two coordinators EVERY SINGLE YEAR. That’s stability for you.

As I said, I have mostly stayed at safe remove, but in 2009 I dug in. The Browns hired Eric Mangini after he’d had a less-than-stellar stretch with the New York Jets, and I somewhat unkindly wrote that it was the worst hire in NFL history. In retrospect, that was an unexpected burst of emotion. Mangini was a dreadful hire, yes, and he went 10-22 in the two years he lasted, and he made a whole bunch of missteps and nothing good came out of the experience. But “worst hire in NFL history” is a pretty high threshold. The Browns promptly hired Pat Shurmur, who was more or less the same thing. Then they hired Rob Chudzinski, who was also pretty much the same thing.

So, anyway, I checked back out of again. These just were not my Browns. When I’d go back to Cleveland, I’d visit friends and almost be surprised by how invested they were in the Browns. “This is the year,” they would say. “The defense is top notch. The offensive line is strong. Spergon Gradkowski Holcomb Manziel is going to improve the quarterback position. Things are turning around.”

“Really?” I thought. I couldn’t see anything turning. I guess I’d stopped seeing the Browns with my heart.

Then came this year and a decision: I decided to start caring about the Browns again. I’m not sure you can just “decide” to start caring, but I figure that I’ll give it a shot. The NFL season has lost so much of its thrill for me the last few years. Part of it is that is for obvious reasons: I despise the way they run the league, I believe the sport is too dangerous and it breaks my heart to see what becomes of so many of the players after they have given their bodies and minds to entertain us.

But, I have to admit: Part of it is that I’ve been getting older. I enjoy writing about the NFL, and I want the Chiefs to do well for Kansas City, and I want the Bengals to do well for Cincinnati and my friend Chardon Jimmy, and I want the Bills to do well because I love Buffalo, and the Chargers and Seahawks to do well because, as a sportswriter, I’d rather go there in January than Buffalo, and I want the Browns to do well because that’s still inside me.

But I just don’t feel as passionately about the Browns or pro football as I once did. And I don’t like that. I don’t want to feel less passionately about things, whether it’s football or music or more important things. I found that when people asked me, “What NFL team do you like?” I would say, “Well, I used to be a big Browns fan, I kind of still like them.” That’s no answer. Yes, I am put off by a cynical league and the stupid “Gate” suffix and this pathetic thing that had become of my childhood team. But I don’t want to stop caring.

So I said: That’s it. I’m going to be a hardcore Browns fan again. I bought a couple of Browns shirts. I started talking Browns football with some friends. I got a couple of football magazines just like I did when I was a kid, and I read and re-read the Browns previews. This is it. I was in.

And then I sat in front of the television on Sunday, and I tried to feel all those feelings I felt as a kid before games: Nerves, fear, excitement, faith. I can’t tell you I got all the way there, but I can tell you that as McCoy or one of the McCowns or whoever was the starting quarterback led the Browns on a long, long, long drive in the first quarter, I started to feel a little bit of nostalgia. The Browns were wearing brown jerseys and orange pants, and that was what the Browns wore when I was a kid.* They were sort of moving the football. Hey, I could feel again.

*Yes, the uniforms were hideous then, too.

And then the quarterback of the moment charged toward the end zone, kamikaze style, nothing was going to stop him — nothing, as it turned out, except a fumble and an amusing conk of the head from the football and a not-amusing concussion and probably a drop in the stock market. Later, the Browns — through a series of Browns-like maneuvers — managed to set up and then kick the longest extra point in the NFL history, so that was something. Later still, Tashaun Gipson intercepted the ball and in one smooth motion had it wrenched away from him by New York’s Brandon Marshall, an exchange so seamless it looked like they had been working on it together for weeks. And finally the new quarterback, the artist formerly known as Johnny Football, fumbled a couple of times and threw an interception and looked entirely over his head like he has more or less his entire pro career. The Browns lost 31-10 to a Jets team that, early indications suggest, might not be going to the Super Bowl.

So, no, it isn’t easy coming back. Well, comebacks are never easy. All you can do it try again next week. Maybe a quarterback change would help.