How old are you? Old enough to remember the Cleveland Browns?
I am. I’m 38 years old, turning 39 next year. I was 16 years old when the Browns left. I was 7 years old for the drive, 8 years old for the fumble, and 10 years old for the last AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos. I was young then, and I certainly didn’t understand sports the way I do today, but I still remember all of those games. I remember where I was for them, the feelings I experienced when they happened.
More than remembering the heartbreak, though, I remember the pride and the importance. The Cleveland Browns meant something very different to me back then. The Browns came back in 1999, but in many ways, it’s never really been the same.
A few years ago, I wrote about LeBron’s return to Cleveland and how rooting for him a second time was weird. I compared it to the Jim and Pam exchange on the office when Jim is back at the Scranton branch and he remarks how “even though I came back, I just feel like I never really… came back.” To which Pam replies, “Well I wish you would.”
Rooting for LeBron in that first season was like rooting for a memory. He looked mostly the same, he sounded the same, played the same. But it was still different. Obviously, that all changed later in that first season and especially in that second season when the team finally seemed to all click together (thanks in some perhaps-not-so-small part to Richard Jefferson’s “Lil Kev” antics). That was when LeBron finally came back to Cleveland. In many ways, though, I’m still waiting for the Browns to come back to Cleveland.
When I was a kid, all I knew was the Browns as this monolithic entity in my life. In all Cleveland sports fans’ lives, really. The Browns mattered in a way I’m not sure I’ve really ever experienced before in professional sports. My friends and I would talk about the Browns all day at school. At recess, we would play football and fight over who got to be Bernie Kosar and Ozzie Newsome and Webster Slaughter and Kevin Mack. There were songs about Bernie Kosar. When McDonald’s would run a cross-promotion with the Browns, I would beg my parents to go to McDonald’s. When the drive happened and the refs said Rich Karlis’ FG attempt was good (Even though he clearly missed, right? 7-year-old me was sure that kick missed left over the top of the field goal post), I cried my eyes out.
I have to wonder, though. Were those just my reactions to the team as a kid? How did adults feel about the Browns back then? Do they remember the same connection to the team in their daily lives? Do kids growing up today feel the same way about these Browns as I did back then? Or is it truly different today?
There are obvious reasons why feelings would be genuinely different today, not the least of which is just the sheer volume of losses since 1999. The New England Patriots went 16-0 a few years back. The Browns haven’t won 16 games in the last five seasons combined. It’s easy to see how a general lack of passion and interest would seep into the fanbase. The Cleveland Browns went away for three seasons and came back something very different from the thing that was taken away from us. The colors were the same, but that’s about it.
I say all of this because I currently find myself feeling bemused at how I am currently feeling a stronger connection to the Cleveland Browns than I have in a very long time. It’s funny because this is a team coming off a 0-16 season, and a 1-31 record in the last two years. Joe Thomas, far and away the greatest Cleveland Browns player since their return, retired in the offseason. So why I am so excited about the Cleveland Browns? Why do I care so much about this team now?
There are a few reasons. I think Hard Knocks and the Building The Browns series are a big part of it. From a PR perspective, these have been great for the franchise. It allows us to see the faces and sounds of a team not content to be 0-16. It’s not some nameless, faceless void into which he cast all our frustrations.
I think John Dorsey is part of it. I was unquestionably excited about the Browns going all-in on analytics a few years ago. I was super eager to see what an NFL team could do by giving the reins to a front office so heavily engaged with the metrics of the sport. Unfortunately, Sashi Brown tore things down a little too much and fans and ownership quickly lost the stomach for what they were doing. With no clear plan in place1, the Browns let Sashi go and brought in Dorsey to clean things up. Dorsey wasted no time in dramatically upgrading the level of talent on the roster. From a personality standpoint, I also really like Dorsey. He’s a fun guy to root for right now for someone like myself.
I think the QB situation is part of it. There are still a lot of unknowns here, but I don’t recall the last time I felt this good about the QB situation in Cleveland. Even when the Browns had Derek Anderson with Brady Quinn waiting in the wings, a situation that seemed great at the time, I wasn’t sold on it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching the manner in which Tyrod Taylor has handled himself and this team. He’s showing a lot of natural leadership and he’s not letting himself get caught up in any drama with Baker Mayfield. Tyrod’s been through this before, he’s probably not rattled too much by competition. And Baker Mayfield was the player I was hoping the Browns would draft. I’m excited to watch his development this preseason and eventually I’ll be excited to see if he can become the franchise QB we’ve been waiting for.
There are so many other things I like and am excited about with this team. Denzel Ward is a player I loved watching at Ohio State. I’m excited to watch him play for the Browns. I love seeing Christian Kirksey continue to grow as a leader on this team and the passion he has for the Browns. I love Jarvis Landry’s fire and the edge with which he plays the game.
I’m sure a few months from now I’ll back and feel foolish about this post. As a Cleveland fan, that’s how it usually goes. But I don’t care. I can only be honest about how I feel, and I am quite excited about this Browns season. I don’t expect much. Making the playoffs would be a ridiculous expectation. Five or six wins would be pretty great. But it’s not just the wins and losses for me. It’s about the path and where it’s leading. I want the Browns to matter again. I want kids to grow up feeling the same way I did as a kid about this team. I want the Browns to finally come all the way back.