Tangelo dream

The team you choose has great power over you. I have a friend who is a New England Patriots fan but he does not like Bill Belichick or Tom Brady. That’s strange, right? When the whole deflated football nonsense bubbled out of control, he and I would have semi-ridiculous and ironic arguments, with each of us playing exactly the wrong person for the situation.

I — as someone who cannot stand the Patriots and who doesn’t like Brady at all and who has issues with Belichick that go back to his Cleveland days — would argue that the deflate thing seemed completely overblown. It was a colossal waste of time, the NFL never cared about how much air was in footballs and was just pretending to care for reasons that remain murky.

My friend — as a lifelong Patriots fans who lives and dies with the team — would disagree and say that the deflation thing was symbolic of the repugnant way the Patriots have long pushed beyond the rules and beyond fair play and that the whole thing makes him a little bit ill.

“Of course,” he said, “I’m still a Patriots fan. That goes without saying. I have always rooted for them to win, and I will continue to root for them to win. This is just part of the deal.”

I was thinking about this Sunday during Game 2 of my return to Cleveland Browns fanhood. See: I do not believe in Johnny Manziel. I do not trust him in the least. I do not like the way he plays football. But if I am going to love my Browns, it seems, I must make peace with the idea that we are now thrown together in a marriage of convenience. Johnny Manziel will have a direct affect on my personal happiness. This would not be my choice. But, that’s the point. There is no choice.

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The Browns wore their orange and white uniforms Sunday for their home game against Tennessee. You have probably heard that the orange in the uniform and on the helmet is just a little bit different from years past. When the Browns made this official announcement, I must admit, I hardly noticed. Orange is orange, right? Technically, the Browns went from Pantone 2026 C to Pantone 2028 C — so, hey, what’s two Pantones among friends, right? The Browns’ color had been Sunbaked Orange or Knockout Orange or just plain Orange, depending on the brand of paint. Now, it is Montana Dust or Poppy or Tangelo. So there you go: From orange to tangelo, really, we’re dealing with the same fruit family. It seemed like a nothing deal. Orange is orange is orange is the new black. It’s all good, no?

No. The answer is very, very much NO. It’s not all good.

After about 40 years of watching the Cleveland Browns play football in the plain orange uniforms and helmets, it turns out the mind creates a pretty strong mental picture of what the team is supposed to look like on the field. And the Browns on Sunday did not look like that. They looked like, well, they looked like some Atlanta Falcons team from the 1970s or some Clemson team playing against Georgia Tech. I DESPISED the new orange. I cannot make the letters in DESPISED large enough. I didn’t notice it much in the first week because the Browns were wearing their ugly brown-brown combo, and that more or less diverted attention from the color change. Now, though, against all white uniforms, those tangelo helmets burned my eyes.

I tried to distract myself from the orange by playing a little guessing game in the first half: How long would it take one of the announcers to say to Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota, “Welcome to the National Football League?”

This is one of my favorite sayings in the NFL. I also like it when a quarterback calls a sudden timeout at the line and the announcer says, “He didn’t like what he saw.” And I like it when a receiver drops a pass and the announcer says, “He tried to run with it before he caught it.” There are many more — these sorts of predictable phrases feel to me like the changing leaves, they offer a connection to autumns past. Anyway, my favorite is the “Welcome to the National Football League” — it has to be spelled out entirely — and that usually happens when a rookie kick returner gets absolutely blasted after not fair-catching a punt or reversing field because that kind of stupid maneuver worked in college.

“Welcome to the National Football League, son,” an announcer would say, sort of the sports version of the “You’re not in Kansas, anymore,” quote that is said in more or less every action movie.

From the start Sunday, it was clear that Mariota was in over his head. He had a miraculous first week — throwing four touchdown passes and having a perfect passer rating against Tampa Bay — but, for one thing, that was Tampa Bay, and for another the NFL adjusts pretty quickly. You may have heard: Coaches watch a lot of film. The Browns’ defense had been embarrassed in Week 1, and there was no doubt they were going to be ready for all the quick-throws and short crossing routes that had made Mariota look so good. They were ready.

And Mariota looked pretty well lost. His offensive line was in complete disarray, which never helps. And he was asked to make more downfield throws, which is not yet in Mariota’s portfolio. He fumbled three or four times (depends on your definition of “fumble”), missed some open targets, made a few poor decisions and so on. There was no doubt that the “Welcome to the National Football League” line was coming.

As it turned out, it happened in the second quarter after a freaked-out Mariota had panicked in the pocket, started running, mistakenly brushed the football against one of his offensive lineman’s butts and lost it. The ball was recovered by the Browns. As it turned out, this wasn’t an official fumble — the beleaguered Mariota and the Titans had committed a delay of game penalty BEFORE the play even began. Still, announcer Adam Archuleta pulled out the phrase, “Welcome to the National Football League.” I was happy.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Browns were up 14-0 at the time. Which brings us back to Manziel. I don’t believe in him. It’s not a personality thing, though obviously Manziel has had a hard time growing up. It’s his game that drives me nuts. He plays that wild, silly, run around and then wing the ball downfield style that’s kind of delightful in high school and college but usually gets stepped on in the NFL. Every now and again, even in the NFL, Manziel will  make a fun play, but it feels to me like an illusion, like the moment when the slot machine comes up sevens and you get a nice payout and you think you’re a winner — completely forgetting just how much you’re really behind.

MORE: Learning to love the Cleveland Browns (again)

Manziel had one of his triple-seven plays right away Sunday. He dropped back and threw the ball deep down the middle to Travis Benjamin for a 60-yard touchdown. It was pretty spectacular, though I will admit having absolutely no idea what defense the Titans were in to allow Benjamin to run down the center of the field without an escort or two. Assuming the Titans coaches watch film, they were probably aware that Benjamin is fast.

Anyway, that was a great play. The Browns scored again a few minutes later after the Titans fumbled. Manziel made a couple of nice throws, Isaiah Crowell scored on an 11-yard run. Before the end of the half, that guy Benjamin had a spectacular 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. More on Benjamin in a little bit, but he is a one-time college sprinter who blew out his knee a couple of years ago and at least one Browns observer thought he would get cut before the regular season even started. Sunday, man, he looked like Gale Sayers.

Anyway, the Browns led 21-0, and Manziel looked good, and the Browns looked good (except for that stupid tangelo color) and there was absolutely no doubt that it would all change in the second half. This is how it goes for teams like the Browns; they rarely play TWO good halves of football.

And they did not play two good halves Sunday. On the Browns’ first three possessions of the second half, Manziel missed all of his passes, got sacked twice, fumbled twice and looked entirely out of his depth. This is what I mean: The Manziel slot machine had gone dry. Fortunately, the two fumbles were recovered by the Browns, and passes that could have been intercepted were not. This is what passes for a good Johnny Football Day, when his big mistakes don’t cost you. It reminds me of that great line in the movie Arthur: 

“Have you ever seen her face when the light catches it just right? She’s really quite beautiful. Of course, you can’t depend on that light.”

Mariota did not exactly turn things around, but he did get sea legs eventually. He led the Titans on back-to-back touchdown drives to make it 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter. It was looking kind of bleak again for Cleveland, and I was beginning to feel that familiar acidy Cleveland Browns feeling in my stomach.

To interrupt briefly: This year apparently marks the 30th anniversary of the “Dawg Pound,” and in honor of the moment, some place in Cleveland is selling dog biscuits made out of baloney. I so love my hometown.

The Dawg Pound was invented in 1985 for the strangest reason: The Browns had a good cornerback named Hanford Dixon who decided to call the Browns the “Dawg Defense.” Apparently Dixon and others on the team seemed to think of the quarterback as a cat, meaning the defenders had to be dogs. It’s sort of convoluted. Anyway, the Browns defenders would start barking after sacks, and you didn’t have to give Browns fans an excuse to join in. The end zone section of old Cleveland Stadium were filled with people who barked and wore dog masks and threw dog biscuits on the field and so on. I used to sit in the apartment where we had moved to in North Carolina, and I would point at the television screen and shout “Woof Woof Woof Woof Woof Woof!” For a while, I had an inflatable dog biscuit that I would throw at the television. I am not sure why I am admitting this to you. 

I think the reason I love the Dawg Pound concept so much, other than its sheer absurdity, is that the name “Browns” doesn’t mean anything. If you are a Lions fan or an Eagles fan or a Raiders fan, there is pretty good imagery for you to work with. But the Browns? They were named after Paul Brown, who founded the team. Were we supposed to wear fedoras and underpay players? The Browns’ early logo of Brownie the Elf was no more helpful — Brownie wore a crown and proudly carried a football and was apparently based on some sort of folklore character who would do chores in exchange for food. It wasn’t much to work with. The Dawg Pound is better.

Anyway: I’d like one of those baloney dog biscuits. And yes, by the way, I know the meat version is technically spelled “bologna” and that “baloney” is defined as nonsense. But I strongly believe both should be spelled baloney. I associate the word with my Dad, who would eat baloney daily and who would always tell us that our excuses were ‘bunch of baloney.” They are one in the same.

Back to the Browns game on Sunday. The Browns led by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and it was clear that they had no intention of letting Manziel mess it up. They ran the ball six straight times, powering through that Tennessee defense and pushing the ball all the way to midfield. It was third-and-6. Then Tennessee called timeout and — I give Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo a lot of credit for this — Cleveland decided it was exactly the right time to spin the Manziel slot machine one last time.

Johnny Football did what he does: He caught the shotgun snap, took a step back, sensed that someone was closing in on him, did a Tarkenton spin and ended up running like mad to his left. There is a whole wheel of possibilities when Manziel goes into this mode; it’s like watching the Wheel of Fortune slow down around “Bankrupt” and “Lose a Turn” and “Feed Contestant to Sharks.” This time, though, Manziel stopped at the Cleveland 40 and flung the ball down the field. That man Travis Benjamin had broken away from his defender again, he was wide open, the ball was on time, Benjamin caught it and ran into the end zone and the Browns won the game. Manziel had come up Triple Sevens one more time.

Now, I’m more than happy to give Manziel his share of the credit, but in the aftermath there was a whole lot of “Manziel won the game,” stuff, which is ridiculous. No one person wins a football game — it was, after all, the Browns’ defense that made the big difference. But if you are going to give one offensive person the credit it would definitely be Travis Benjamin. I mean, he scored three long touchdowns. The Titans had absolutely no idea what to do with him. They couldn’t cover him. They couldn’t tackle him. Manziel made two good throws. But Benjamin was pretty wide open on both of them. And he added that sensational punt return.

This tendency to over-credit quarterbacks reminds me of a playoff game between Denver and Cleveland in 1988 when John Elway dropped back to throw. He bumped into one of his own offensive linemen, kind of ran around confused, and then he half-heartedly sidearmed a short pass to Mark Jackson. At that point, Jackson broke the tackle of Cleveland’s Mark Harper, embarrassed safety Felix Wright with a few jiggles, sprinted by safety Ray Ellis (who for some reason was wearing shoulder pads the size of suitcases) and ran 80 yards for the touchdown. Jackson’s run was as spectacular as anything you will ever see a receiver do.

“What a play by John Elway!” Dick Enberg said.

Sigh. I suppose it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. The Browns are 1-1 now, and even though the new orange sends chills down my spine and even though I am an agnostic in the Church of Johnny Football, a win does pump the heart. I don’t know about getting a Johnny Manziel jersey just yet. But a Travis Benjamin jersey might be in the cards.

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