Signs of life

Before we get into the pure genius that the Cleveland Browns have for losing football games, let’s focus on one of the most common issues of fanhood, something you might call: Announcer hallucination.

If there is one thing football fans want to believe, it is this: Our team’s players are good. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to believe that Browns middle linebacker Dick Ambrose was a star. Was he a star? I have no idea. He never made a Pro Bowl. He was never named to the All-Pro team. This would suggest that he was not a star. But he was the only middle linebacker the Browns had, and he was a Clevelander, and they called him “Bam Bam,” and he made a lot of tackles, and he was a brilliant guy who later became an attorney and a judge.

But was he good? Well, announcers told us that he was. Every week, whatever announcer happened to be calling the Cleveland game talked about how Ambrose was one of the best linebackers in the NFL, right there with Jack Lambert and Jack Ham and those guys. I believed them. I believed in Dick Ambrose. And to this day, I still do.

I bring this up because, in the opening five minutes of the Browns-Ravens catastrophe, the announcers — mainly CBS’ Chris Simms — told us that:

1. Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor is a “freak of nature” and a “legit No. 1 NFL receiver”

2. Andrew Hawkins is one of the quickest slot receivers in the NFL.

3. Quarterback Josh McCown is a “big talent” because he’s big, can run and has a big arm.

4. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is one of the best in the NFL.

Now, you could argue, if you so chose, that Pryor has caught 16 passes in his four-year NFL career and has been released or traded four different times, including once by the Browns.

You could argue that Hawkins is a 30-year-old, 5-foot-7 receiver who the Browns didn’t even TRY to throw the ball to in Week 1.

You could argue that McCown is a 37-year-old quarterback on his eighth team, if you count his time with the Hartford Colonials.

And you could argue that Horton, before his second stint in Cleveland, has been defensive coordinator for three different teams (Arizona, Cleveland and Tennessee) and, at each stop, the head coach was fired in his first two years. This might be a coincidence, of course, but his last three defenses have finished 23rd or worse in points allowed.

This is not meant to knock Pryor, Hawkins, McCown or Horton. I’d prefer to believe the announcer hallucination version of them. If I was a kid, I WOULD believe the announcer hallucination version. And I’d keep wondering: With players and coaches this good, why do the Browns keep losing?

* * *

We will have to get to the game at some point, I know, but first: You probably know that this will be the 14th straight year that the Cleveland Browns do not make the playoffs. You also probably know that this is not the longest streak in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills likely will make it 17 straight years without a playoff bid. In a league that prides itself on parity, this seems all-but-impossible.

But the truth is: There are actually a bunch of long, active no-playoff streaks going.

— Buffalo Bills, 16 straight years without making the playoffs.

— Oakland Raiders, 13 straight

— Cleveland Browns, 13 straight

— Los Angeles Rams, 11 straight

— Jacksonville Jaguars, eight straight

— Tampa Bay Buccaneers, eight straight

— Miami Dolphins, seven straight

— Tennessee Titans, seven straight

Look at that — one quarter of the league has not made the playoffs this decade. I would not have guessed that. By the way, the longest no-playoff streak of the Super Bowl era belongs to New Orleans. The Saints did not make the playoffs from 1967 to 1986 — 20 seasons. Football was different then, though. What Buffalo (and Oakland and Cleveland) is doing in this era of expanded playoffs and multiple wild cards is much more/less impressive.

* * *

OK, one more stall before getting to the game: The Browns unveiled a statue of Jim Brown on Sunday. In the same week, he won Syracuse University’s “George Arents” award for individuals who have made outstanding contributions in their chosen field.

It seems pretty amazing that it took the Browns 52 years and Syracuse even longer to give those honors to the most dominant football player ever and an undeniable social force. But so it goes. Jim Brown is 80 years old now, and he obviously slowed down. But there’s still an aura about the man, a fear and admiration he naturally inspires. Sometimes, you meet a former great athlete and you find it hard to imagine them in their prime, hard to envision what exactly made them so great. Not Jim Brown. If you sit with the man, if you ask him a question or two, if you listen to him speak or watch him move, you just know: This man was impossible to tackle.

He still is.

* * *

Fine. The game. There is always something a little bit more at stake when the Browns play the Ravens. It is certainly not Baltimore’s fault — and I certainly do not hold it against any of their fans — that the Ravens only exist because Art Modell yanked the Browns out of Cleveland. It happened a long time ago, and the new Browns are not so new anymore, and it’s time to move on. But for the old-timers, there’s still a little bit extra that goes into this game, especially because the Browns ALMOST NEVER win.

So you could say there was just a little bit of joy when the Browns jumped to a 20-0 lead. The Browns’ first touchdown was perfect in every way, a 31-yard bomb from McCown to rookie Corey Coleman. What made it so awesome? Two things:

1. Corey Coleman is the most exciting Browns player in a while. As a Browns fan you get so used to first-round busts that, after a while, you start to despise the draft and despise the players the Browns pick before they even can prove themselves to be busts. Coleman looks to be a real star, so that’s fun.

2. The Browns scored the touchdown, in part, because nobody in America wants to watch the Browns-Ravens game. The game was so unimportant in the grand scheme of things that (I feel certain) they sent only a handful of cameras to the game. Because of this, they did not have a good camera angle on the touchdown. Because of this, the referees could not overturn the touchdown even though it’s all but certain that Coleman did not get his second foot in-bounds.

The Ravens punted. Then, Isaiah Crowell busted an 85-yard touchdown run*.

There is another thing announcers do that is kind of funny: They tend to hold onto things much longer than they should. For instance, the announcers here seemed convinced that this Ravens defense is great like all Ravens defenses in perpetuity. But it just ain’t so. The Ravens’ defense was 24th in the league last year in points allowed. Pro Football Focus, in its preview, ranked their front-seven 19th in the NFL and their secondary 24th. Ray Lewis is gone.

After the touchdown, Joe Flacco threw a dreadful interception, and Coleman caught his second touchdown pass. It was 20-0 barely 10 minutes into the game.

And I will admit I kind of knew it would not last. I remember something my old friend Gerry Faust said. He took over Notre Dame after years as a successful high school coach. In his first game, his team beat LSU and moved up to No. 1 in America. It didn’t go well after that. “I should have just taken a photo of the scoreboard,” Faust said, “and retired.”

I should have just taken a screenshot of 20-0 and gone bowling or something.

Instead, I watched as Patrick Murray’s extra point was blocked, and Baltimore’s Tavon Young ran it back for two points. Every Browns fan knew they would lose. Every football fan knew it would happen. The only question was: How?

* * *

The Ravens gave it their best to lose this game — you have to give that to them. Normally when teams, even bad teams, play the Browns, they realize fairly early on that there is no way for them to match Cleveland’s almost-mythical talent for losing football games. And so they just accept that, yes, they’re going to win.

But the Ravens gave it their all. They did come back impressively, cutting the score to 20-12 by halftime, helped immeasurably by an ill-advised interception from Josh McCown. The Ravens made it 20-19 on the first drive of the second half. It should have been easy from there.

Instead what followed was a classic battle between two teams determined to lose. The Ravens drove the ball to the Cleveland 29-yard line when Flacco threw a dreadful interception. The Browns then hit a huge completion to Coleman, but it was nullified because he stepped out of bounds BEFORE he caught the ball. The Ravens faltered. Then the Browns hit another big pass to Coleman and were at the Baltimore 16-yard line and in position to put the game away. Needless to say, they did not put the game away. They had one of those classic Cleveland series:

First-and-10 from Baltimore 16: Crowell runs right and loses five yards. Browns tight end Randall Telfer hurt on the play.

Second-and-15 from Baltimore 21: Crowell runs for two yards, but Coleman is called for an unsportsmanlike conduct. He and cornerback Jimmy Smith exchanged some sort of physical frustration, and I don’t know who really started it. It doesn’t matter. The rookie gets the penalty.

Third-and-28 from Baltimore 34: McCown throws an incomplete pass.

Fourth-and-28 from Baltimore 34: Murray’s 52-yard field goal looks as if it is shot out of the sky and falls harmlessly wide and short.

Sigh. So the Ravens naturally drive for a field goal to take the lead. The Browns then hit a ridiculous 25-yard deflection pass to put themselves in business except, yeah, that’s also invalidated because the Browns were called for an illegal-man-downfield penalty. The man who got called?

Center Cameron Erving.

Ah, yes: Cam Erving.

You might remember Cam Erving last year from the worst block in NFL history. Or you might remember him from other follies. At training camp this year, he expressed his anger at the criticism and said it fueled him to prove everyone wrong, something that would be marvelous. Then in Week 1, he snapped the ball over the quarterback’s head for a safety and committed an assortment of mistakes resulting in varying pain.

But this one was something else. McCown escaped the pocket and Erving, assuming he would run, took off downfield to block someone. It was admirable enthusiasm except for this: There was NO WAY JOSH MCCOWN WAS RUNNING. He’s 37 years old. He probably separated his left shoulder early in the game (he might have separated it twice). It was third-and-long. There was not a chance in the world that he was going to start running, and so when Erving took off and canceled out what could have been the biggest play of the game, well, let’s just say it was not great.

Later, Erving would hurt himself by smashing his face into the ground while completely whiffing on a block. It was that sort of day.

All of this happened, and the Browns STILL had a chance to win the game. The Ravens, not being all that good themselves, staggered around a bit at the end and ran out of bounds for no reason. The Browns got the ball down only five with 2:53 left.

And then McCown slowly, haltingly moved the Browns down the field. A quick pass to Duke Johnson. Another to Gary Barnidge. Another to Hawkins. The Browns improbably moved the ball to the Baltimore 30-yard line with a half-minute remaining, and then McCown hit freak-of-nature Terrelle Pryor with a 20-yard pass to put the Browns in the shadow of the end zone. A flag came flying in, but that was clearly on Baltimore and so victory seemed …

And then, suddenly, another flag flew high in the air.

I’m not exactly sure how to describe the taunting penalty called on Pryor, one that nullified the play and cost the Browns any realistic chance of winning. My best effort is to say that Pryor, after catching the ball, held it out and tried to flip it to the referee. Instead it sort of slipped out of his hand and plopped on the shoulder of Ravens defender Ladarius Webb, who was standing up at the time. That was it. That was the whole play.

They called that taunting. They called THAT taunting.

“We have to do a better job getting the ball to the referee,” Browns coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the game, a spectacular dodge that makes me feel even better about Jackson as coach. He could have complained, ranted, raged, drawn a huge fine. But he knows: There is so much dark magic entangling the Cleveland Browns right now that you can’t get bogged down by bad luck and bad calls.

Yes, it’s true, the Browns could have won the game on Sunday. But the real problems — the general awfulness, the stupid penalties and plays, the overriding sense of doom everyone in Cleveland feels — these things will take time and a lot of positive energy to solve.

And there were some good signs. Coleman looks to be for real (he made another dazzling catch and run for the sideline that set up the almost comeback). Crowell and Johnson were good. The defense, at times, played with energy. Joe Haden picked off two passes and looked healthy.

They’re the Browns so they lost — on Twitter I called them the Lin Manuel-Miranda of losing — but there are a few signs of life. This is what this season is about. Yes, as the song goes, I may not live to see their glory. But I will gladly join the fight.

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