Cleveland Browns Stadium, Monday, October 13, 2008
Sitting in the best seats I will ever sit in for a sporting event (50 yard-line, club box), sipping on expensive Bass beers, and enjoying the company of my father and his two friends, I witnessed the greatest Cleveland Browns performance of the expansion era. The 1-3 Browns, coming off a bye that-- were it not for an ugly week 4 win over Cincinnati--could have been the end of the line for head coach Romeo Crennel and struggling starting QB Derek Anderson, defeated the defending Super Bowl champions and previously undefeated New York Giants--who also came into the game with an 11-game road winning streak (tied for 2nd longest ever)--35-14. In hindsight, the score is shocking, but even leading up to the game no one would have believed it.
My dad, however, was a believer. He was certain the Browns would win, and after DA led the offense to a field goal on the opening drive, so did the rest of the stadium. For the first time since Bernie Kosar's day (I'm assuming. I was too young to go see Bernie play.), Browns' fans expected to win, and the team not only met those expectations, they exceeded them. This wasn't one of those fluky wins where a superior team just doesn't show up or keeps shooting themselves in the foot. Despite what history leading before and after the game tells us, on October 13, 2008, the Cleveland Browns were simply a better football team than the New York Giants. The offense had an answer for every play the Giants defense made and for every penalty that threatened to stall a scoring drive, while the defense hounded Eli Manning into three interceptions, the last of which was returned for a touchdown by Eric Wright for the game's last score. As soon as Wright snagged the ball out of the air, I began laughing hysterically and joyously Flair-chopping my dad's chest. He had predicted three interceptions by Manning on the nose, which wasn't the only prediction he got right that day. As we filed out of the stadium, basking in the euphoria of a city proud of their football team, my dad turned to me and said, "Enjoy it while you can, son. This is the Browns' Super Bowl. There will be no more reason to celebrate this year." There will be no more reason to celebrate for a long, long time.
The Downward Spiral
Following the Giants game, the Browns actually hovered around the "decently bad" classification for the next few weeks. An awful, ugly loss in Washington was followed by an awful, ugly win in Jacksonville, until the season fell apart at home against Baltimore. After building a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter, the Browns looked to be on their way to righting their season and vanquishing a hated division rival. After the Ravens roared back with 14 unanswered points, however, the score was tied at 27 early in the fourth quarter. On the Browns' first possession following the tying TD, Derek Anderson faced a 3rd-and-7 from his own 23. Out of the shotgun, he zipped a perfect pass deep to a wide open Braylon Edwards. The crowd erupted as a sure go-ahead TD seemed imminent, and then fell into a confused murmur and then loud boos after the ball slipped between Edwards's hands. The game, Derek Anderson's starting gig (which was sealed when he threw an awful interception to Ravens' OLB Terrell Suggs in the backfield that was returned for a touchdown), and the season were over. Brady Quinn took over the QB reins for two-and-a-half weeks, played decently against Denver and Buffalo, and then was lost for the season with a broken finger against Houston, just as DA was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament the next week against Indianapolis. Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradowski combined to play quarterback at the lowest possible level, and the Browns failed to score an offensive touchdown in any of their last 6 games (an NFL record). The offense and quarterback play appeared to be the biggest problems with the team, and after Romeo and GM Phil Savage were fired, owner Randy Lerner had a chance to rectify these problems.
Lerner began the offseason vowing the search to find Romeo and Savage's replacements would be diligent and careful. In reality, Lerner was rushing to hire the first Bill Belichick disciple he could. He interviewed Scott Pioli to take over the general manager's duties, and seemed to have a deal in place with Pioli before things fell apart because Lerner perceived Pioli wanted to much power. If Pioli had been hired, the coach probably would have been Josh McDaniels, who also interviewed very well with Lerner. With Pioli moving on the Kansas City, though, McDaniels instead opted to head to Denver. Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was supposed to be interviewed, but his meeting with Lerner was cancelled due to "scheduling conflicts," but was more-than-likely cancelled due to Eric Mangini's interview. Apparently, Mangini dazzled the socks of Lerner, so much so that the owner allowed his new coach to handpick his general manager, George Kokinis. While Kokinis served as nothing more than a mouth piece, Mangini began to re-make the Browns in his own image, relocating photos of Browns Hall-of-Famers and trading Kellen Winslow for a second round pick. Cleveland hated him by mid-February.
Heading into the April draft, Mangini had a lot to prove. His big free agent signings included Robert Royal (Royal Roberts to Brian Billick), David Patten, and Dave Bowens. If you type in "underwhelming" in Wikipedia, these 3 names are listed under the "See Also" heading. Mangini was sending a message: talent matters (a little, I guess), but being a professional matters more.
When the draft rolled around, Browns fans' fear that Michael Crabtree may be selected with the 4th overall pick were mostly assuaged by Mangini's mantra of professionalism over talent. There was the possibility of a lot of movement involving the Browns, though, as strong rumors swirled that both Brady Quinn and Braylon Edwards would be traded for first round picks. While the two players ultimately ended up staying put, Mangini did make some deals, first by trading out of the 4th slot with the Jets for the 17th and 52nd picks and a bunch of professional (if untalented) ex-Mangini favorites (who were probably going to be cut by New York anyway). Having avoided Mark Sanchez or Michael Crabtree, the draft party I was holding started praising "Mangenius" for his shrewd maneuvering, which was actually just beginning. From the 17th slot, the Browns again traded down, this time acquiring the 19th and 191st picks from Tampa Bay, who selected Josh Freeman. Alright, here we go, my friends and I thought as the Browns were on the clock for the third time today. Who's it going to be? Jeremy Maclin? Clay Matthews? Rey Maulaga? As Roger Goddell made his way to the podium, we held our collective breaths. Instead of a player's name, however, Goddell announced yet another trade, this time with Philadelphia* for the 21st and 195th picks. At 21, the Browns finally sated our appetite for excitement by selecting...Alex Mack, a center (not a super-powered teenage girl, as I was hoping). While it wasn't the sexiest pick, we could talk ourselves into it. Hank Fraley sucked. Now maybe we can run inside. Still, we felt a little let down. With three picks in the second round, though, things had to pick back up.
The second round proved to be just as head-scratching as the first, however, as the Browns first two picks were used on WRs Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi, while the third pick was used on Hawaii defensive end David Veikune. Who? After wasting almost three hours of our time, Cleveland patience with Mangini was already wearing thin+.
*Why did Philly trade up to take Jeremy Maclin? Did they really think the new regime in Detroit would have the balls to take another receiver with a first round pick?
+What was the final haul for the pick that selected Mark Sanchez, who might actually be pretty goddamn good? Alex Mack, David Veikune, Cory Francies, James Davis, Abram Elam, Keyon Coleman, and Brett Ratliff. Ratliff looked so bad during the preseason that he was nearly cut, Coleman is old and will be out of the league within two years, and Elam has special teams written all over him. Davis and Francies both looked outstanding in the preseason, but neither has really gotten any opportunities during the regular season. Mack has struggled mightily as the starting center, while I'm not sure Veikune has even seen the field.
Entering training camp with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson still on the roster, Mangini announced that there would be an open competition for the starting QB job that would go until the end of the preseason. I actually liked this idea, as I thought neither quarterback had really separated himself the prior season and liked that it would keep Minnesota off-balance in how they had to game plan for the Browns. My cousin Kenny vehemently disagreed, arguing that the receivers would never develop any rapport with either quarterback and that the team would be leaderless without the beacon of the Starting Quarterback to follow. In hindsight, he may have been on to something.
Throughout the preseason, Brady Quinn looked like the sharper quarterback. Derek Anderson was still able to make the big play, but he struggled mightily on anything intermediate or underneath. Even though Mangini wouldn't say it, everyone knew Quinn would be the opening day starter (even TO, who broke the news on Twitter).
On September 13, Brady Quinn became the seventh different opening day starter for the Browns in the eleven seasons since they've returned to the NFL. After leading the Browns to a field goal on an opening possession that began at the Cleveland 49, a feeling of unease crept over me. Shouldn't the Browns have been a little more aggressive with such good field position? Shouldn't Brady have looked down the field more? As the game went on, the unease became full-blown disgust, as Quinn made Tim Couch--one of the great check-down QBs ever (and I mean that in the worst possible way)--look like Kurt Warner (even though I don't have the stats on this, I can't imagine there are many quarterbacks in history who have thrown as many passes as Warner with such a low percentage of those passes going to tight ends or running backs not named Marshall Faulk). At least Couch would lock on to Kevin Johnson for stretches at a time; the only thing Brady seems to lock onto is the area five yards in front of and to the sides of him.
Beyond his inability to look further than 12 yards down the field, Quinn's body language and mechanics were all wrong, as well. Whenever the ball was snapped to him, his shoulders slouched, and the ball rested around his nut sack. He walked around with the look of someone who doesn't want anyone to know he doesn't know what he's doing, and never once did I feel like he had command of the huddle. As the Vikings pulled away in the second half, the Browns season already looked to be teetering near the edge of collapse.
The Tipping Point
The next week in Denver, the Browns put on one of their worst performances since the Chris Palmer era, losing 27-6 in embarrassing fashion. I didn't see the game, but to hear my buddy Russ, who is probably the most die-hard Browns fan I know, talk about how much he hates this team afterwards is enough to give me an idea for how shitty it truly was. For Russ, the tipping point came two weeks ago in Denver.
For me, the tipping point came on the Brady Quinn first down QB sneak. Terry Pluto has since explained that Quinn didn't know the Browns had already gotten the first down (even though Jerome Harrison had run for 17 YARDS on the previous play), but that really just makes it worse to me. It was obvious that Quinn had no idea what was going on in the game, or what was expected of him running the no huddle. The Brady Quinn experience is a bust, and the Browns really have no idea where to go next. This week, they're going to give Derek Anderson another shot, but we all know how this will turn out. For my friend Chad, this is his tipping point.
For our old friend MattyWill, the entire 2009 season is a tipping point. Earlier tonight I asked him what he thought of the Browns season, and he explained it like this:
" They are like a DVD that skips/pauses. you keep watching because your too fucking lazy to stop the damn thing hoping it will work itself out, but then you end up wasting a great amount of time."
In Cleveland (I'm there in spirit), we all have our tipping points. Even though I haven't talked to him, I'm sure my former cohort in the carpet industry James Bond (real name) has taken another step to further himself from the Browns, having already cancelled his season tickets two years ago and passing up free tickets on several occasions last season. The point is, Cleveland Browns fans have never had a tipping point. No matter how dire things looked, or how shitty the team actually was, we could always talk ourselves into something positive about the team. This year, three games in, we're all done. So what do we do for the rest of the 2009 season?
The Case For Cincinnati
We hop on the Bengals bandwagon. I know this may come off as blasphemous, but hear me out. The 2009 Bengals are everything the 2009 Browns could have been. They have a former Pro Bowl quarterback coming back from injury. Their megalomaniac star wide receiver is trying to redeem his reputation after a down season. They have been embarrassed by the Steelers for most of this decade, and desperately need a win over them to legitimize any hopes they have of contending. Their running back is trying to prove he isn't washed up, and their defense is trying to be decent for the first time this decade. The difference, of course, is that Cincinnati is actually making these storylines a reality, while Cleveland is just falling flat on their faces. The Bengals are also in Cleveland this weekend, so just imagine the message it would send if 70,000 fans show up wearing tiger stripes and cheering for the visitors. Randy Lerner would have to take a step back and really consider blowing this thing up all over again. And if all else fails and the Bengals end up sucking like they should, we'll all have a first row seat to their misery, and as we all know, if your team can't win, the next best thing is enjoying somebody else losing, too.