Week 5 turned out to be everything I could have hoped for in my return to Cleveland Browns fandom, and it wasn’t just because Cleveland beat the much-despised Baltimore Ravens in a thrilling overtime game. In fact, that wasn’t even the main reason this week was such a blast.
The main reason is the enduring wonder of Cleveland legend Doug Dieken.
Nothing will make a person sound more ancient than when he or she warbles about how sports used to be. So, get ready for it … in my day …
Yes, in my day we didn’t have every NFL game on television. After the family moved away from Cleveland, I mostly found myself in cities where the Browns were not on television. This led to various agonies that people of my generation will talk about a bit too dramatically. “We had to wait for the network to show UPDATES!” we will say as if describing Depression Era breadlines. But, hey, it is true that those “Let’s go to New York” notifications came more slowly than the Pony Express. The person who updated those scores on the bottom of the screen seemed to fall asleep for periodic two-hour naps. The lack of information tormented us.
So I spent countless Sundays out in the car, desperately trying to capture the radio signal of Browns radio. It was mostly impossible because the Browns’ signal just didn’t carry very far during the day. But every now and again, I would lock in on the station. And when it did lock in, I would be treated to the greatest football color commentator of them all, Doug Dieken.
Dieken was a warrior left tackle for the Browns of my childhood. I had no idea then, nor do I now, if Dieken was a legendary player. I assumed he was. He made a Pro Bowl in 1980 and, as I recollect, it felt like he should have made it every year. Legendary player or not, he was indomitable, he was ever-present. He started 194 consecutive games, every single game from late 1971-84, which more or less covers my entire childhood. I literally did not see or hear a single Browns game without him until I was 18 years old.
Then he went into the radio booth, where he has been for the last 30 years, and if you have never heard Doug Dieken on radio, well, I only hope that these words can capture the economical grandeur of the man. See this weekend, I was away from my Sunday Ticket package and so had no access to the Browns-Ravens game on television. They were showing Tampa Bay-Jacksonville, for crying out loud. So, that meant I had to listen to the game on radio — it meant listening to Doug Dieken for the first time in decades.
It was every bit as wonderful as I could have imagined.
* * *
When I started as sports columnist for the Kansas City Star back in the mid-1990s, the editors had the bright idea of having writers pick the NFL games every week. This made sense for some of the writers, you know, the ones who actually can predict things. But having me do it was a complete waste of time. I am the world’s worst picker, no matter the sport. The only pick I made confidently each week had to do with the Baltimore Ravens. I would pick them to lose 95-0.
This was my protest pick, of course — ’95 was the last year of my childhood Cleveland Browns before Art Modell packed them up in a giant suitcase and moved them to Baltimore. I like Baltimore, always have. I ached with the city when the Colts left. I long for the Orioles to return to the World Series. But I still wanted the Ravens to lose every week, 95-0. And, bluntly, I still do.
Of course, it didn’t go that way. The Ravens instead evolved into the dominant teams I had dreamed about all my life. They played ferocious defense, they ran the ball down opponents’ throats, they won two stinking Super Bowls. And when the Browns returned to Cleveland, the Ravens crushed them to the point of comedy. From 2008 until Sunday’s game, the Ravens and Browns had played 14 times. The Ravens won 13 of them.
In other words: I knew the Browns weren’t going to win on Sunday. True, the Ravens do seem down this year. They came into Sunday’s game 1-3 and they were dead lucky to get that one win. Best I could tell, they had asked the team bus driver, two security guards and Roger Carr to play wide receiver for them because of injuries. But I still knew the Browns were going to lose Sunday because the Browns cannot stop the run. They have the second-worst rush defense in the NFL this year. They had the worst rush defense in the NFL last year. They will have the worst rush defense in the NFL every year from now on forever.
Not being able to stop the run is more than a team flaw — it’s a cosmic nightmare. Every single hope you ever feel as a fan is neutralized and finally revoked because your team can’t stop the run.
“Well, if they can stop ‘em here on third-and-2 — oh, yeah, they can’t stop the run.”
“If they can just get them in third-and-long it would be — oh, yeah, they can’t stop the run.”
“They just need to get a stop and get the ball back and — oh, yeah, they can’t stop the run.”
The Browns have been desperately trying to acquire huge defensive linemen to finally stop the run — this year, they took massive defensive tackle Danny Shelton — but, frankly, I fear that stopping the run doesn’t mean what the Cleveland Browns think it means. So, I decided to quit worrying and just enjoy the football stylings of Doug Dieken.
* * *
I don’t trust people who dislike like their longtime hometown sports announcer. Yes, if a new announcer comes to town, there should a trial period, and if things don’t match up, they don’t match up. But once that’s over, the announcer becomes a part of the city’s landscape, kind of like the city’s pizza or barbecue or chili. I remember the way people in Cincinnati would fight ANYONE who had a bad word to say about baseball announcer Joe Nuxhall, and I loved that. Objectively, Nuxie wasn’t exactly Vin Scully. But he was Cincinnati through and through, the biggest man in town, and people would take him over Vin Scully or anyone else.
This is how I feel about Doug Dieken. His broadcasting style is, shall we say, sparse. Here would be a fairly typical exchange.
Play-by-play man Jim Donovan: “Well Doug, now you have the ball with one timeout left and just 39 seconds on the clock …
Donovan: “First down and 10 at the 20 …”
See: Doug Dieken speaks when there is something to say. He is the original Ron Swanson. He’s is one of those silent-but-deadly cowboys from the old movies. He’s thoroughly uninterested in small talk or pointless chatter or faux insights.
“The Browns are hoping to get a turnover here,” is something Dieken says.
“No one’s open,” is something Doug Dieken says.
“That was a real tight window, and he overthrew it,” is something Doug Dieken says.
“You can’t stop an offense if you can’t stop the run,” is something Doug Dieken says.
It’s frugal beauty. Dieken has this flat Illinois accent so that he sounds almost exactly like the late, great James Gammon — who played the manager Lou Brown in the movie “Major League.” And he won’t hit you with overwrought dramatics, he won’t spew an endless stream of cliches, he doesn’t throw a lot of technobabble to make it sound like he knows more than you do. When the Browns’ Josh McCown completes a long pass to receiver Taylor Gabriel in the fourth quarter, Dieken says, “That’s one of those, ‘You go deep and I’ll throw it to ya.’” And he doesn’t say any more.
Dieken also has this wonderful habit of ending his sentences abruptly so that it SEEMS like he’s going to say something else. I think Jim Donovan still falls for this even though he has been working with Dieken for years … there’s usually an extra beat of silence after Dieken fiinishes his sentences. Donovan apparently doesn’t want to say anything just in case Doug Dieken decides at the last minute to throw an extra “And one more thing,” in there.
He should know: Doug Dieken never, ever has one more thing to say. He already said what needed to be said.
* * *
I was so thoroughly enjoying listening to Doug Dieken again that, I have to admit, I sort of missed the fact that the Browns came back in the game. The Ravens kept plotzing around and refused to put away the game even though they were gashing the Browns for like seven yards every time they ran the ball. Still, it didn’t seem like the Browns would actually make a game of it.
Then they did. I imagine it’s no secret, with the whole world playing fantasy football, but Josh McCown suddenly and inexplicably has turned into Dan Marino. He is the first Browns quarterback ever to throw for 300 yard in three straight games, which is kind of shocking to me — I would have liberally bet that Brian Sipe or Bernie Kosar had done it. Sipe had several back-to-back 300-yard games but never three in a row. Kosar never even had a two-game streak of 300 yards passing.
Anyway, McCown is 36 years old now, he is on his seventh team, he went 1-10 as a starter for Tampa Bay last year and, best I can tell, almost nobody in Cleveland really gets why he’s starting over Johnny Manziel, who might not be any better but is at least younger. In other words, the guy has his coach Mike Pettine and the McCown family behind him. So you have to admire what he’s doing against those odds. Last three games, his passer rating is 104. Sunday, he ended up throwing for 457 yards and two touchdowns, and he somehow kept the Browns in a game that had long seemed out of reach.
“They’re just hanging around, Doug,” Jim Donovan said.
“Yes they are,” Dieken said.
The Browns actually took a three-point lead with a little more than three minutes left. The Ravens seemed likely to just drive the ball into the end zone to get the win, but these Ravens don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore. They plotzed around again and kicked the game-tying field goal.
The Browns actually came close to winning in regulation — there was a little timeout confusion in there — and then they did end up winning the game in overtime, McCown playing the hero. It was their biggest win in a while, and it was fantastic. There are no allusions about this Browns team. They still can’t stop the run. The Josh McCown Experience probably won’t last forever. Their schedule takes a nasty turn.
But in the NFL, you take the victories and enjoy the week that follows. As Doug Dieken says, “A great win.” That’s all that really needed to be said.