Standing Ovation

David Richard/AP Photo

It occurred to me sometime late in the game, maybe during the fourth quarter, maybe overtime: Win, lose or, as it turned out in a most unsatisfying way, tie, I am proud of these Cleveland Browns.

Genuinely. Not just as a defense mechanism. Not just because I’ve been conditioned to. Because the Browns, our beloved, hapless, Charlie-Brown-incarnate franchise, came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They didn’t win, no, but they gave us reason to be interested. Reason to cheer. Reason to believe. For that, they deserve a standing ovation.

More than a few fans headed toward the gates after Tyrod Taylor’s fourth-down pass missed Jarvis Landry midway through the fourth quarter. The Browns were down two touchdowns. If the Steelers weren’t going to add one more humiliating score, then at least they were going to grind the clock to bits and put the game on ice. Of course they were. That’s what they do.

But they didn’t, and they didn’t. Myles Garrett forced a James Conner fumble, which was immediately converted into a Carlos Hyde touchdown. On the very next series, Garrett knocked the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger’s grubby hands. Joe Schobert pounced on it, keeping the game within striking distance. Smash cut to the two-minute warning, when Josh Gordon ripped the pigskin away from a Pittsburgh defender and tapped his toes along the end zone sideline for a touchdown. The Browns wouldn’t let themselves lose. They wouldn’t let the fans leave.

It was frustrating as hell after that, and Zane Gonzalez’s game-winning field goal attempt being blocked* was particularly heartbreaking. I completely understand anyone who is upset with tying the Steelers—kissing your sister and all that—but I cannot be upset with this team after that game. Quite the contrary. If I’m not thrilled, then I’m something close to it.

*T.J. Watt is such a great Steeler. I hate him so much.

The Browns should have won given their plus-five turnover margin, no doubt about it. (This stat is almost too Brownsy to believe.) The defense did everything that could be asked of it and more. On the other side of the ball, Tyrod Taylor was unspectacular, the offensive line was inconsistent and the playcalling was occasionally suspect. There are plenty of nits to pick if you want them.

The Browns played a leading role in a legitimate, competitive NFL game.

What I keep coming back to, however, is not that the tie should have been a win. It’s this: The Browns played a leading role in a legitimate, competitive NFL game. A watchable game. An exciting game. One with highlights. One that will merit more than a token discussion on the national studio shows. This is some defeatist-ass thinking, sure. But how often do the Browns do that?

The sneaky-worst part of being a Browns fan isn’t the all the losses. It’s all the games that aren’t even close. It’s spending three hours watching a contest that is never in question. When I watch other teams play, I often get upset by how good the games are and how they come down to the last possession. I envy the fans who get to see their star players making big plays in big moments. I wonder what it’s like to feel confidence that your best guys will come through when it matters.

We had that on Sunday, and in a big way. Denzel Ward had as impressive a rookie debut as I can remember, intercepting two Roethlisberger passes, breaking up three others, and more than holding his own when matched up against Antonio Brown. Jarvis Landry went for over a hundred yards and brought some much-needed antagonism to this would-be rivalry. I wish Gordon would have been more involved, but his one reception was as thrilling and impactful as could be.

The player worthy of the most praise, the most attention, the most everything, is Myles Garrett. He was the one who made a victory possible when it appeared to be the opposite. He made dinosaur-sized plays at the most urgent of times. He came through on his promise to bring down Big Ben. He played like the blue chipper that he is. He led a defense worthy of the beloved Dawg moniker. As much as anything, he gave us hope.

Hope only goes so far, of course. If the Saints hang 40 on the Browns next week, all this good feeling and talk of moral victory will fade worse than James Conner’s haircut. But this game marked undeniable progress, progress that could be seen instead of merely speculated about. Now it’s up to the team to build on it.

Think back to the fourth quarter and overtime. What was your body language like? How did you feel? Were you like me? Could you feel your heart pumping? Did you have to remind yourself to breathe? To unclench your fists? To allow your muscles to relax? That was a welcome change for me, a far cry from the slump of resignation that tends to accompany a game’s final act. It was different.

I felt the weight of the uncertain outcome. I felt real tension. I felt like this team was worth being invested in. I felt like they could actually beat the Steelers. I felt something, which to me is more important than even victory when watching sports. The Browns, if only for one Sunday afternoon, made it happen. And that, tie be damned, is why they deserve a standing ovation.