Tim O’Connor is a special guest writer to WFNY from Strongsville, Ohio. You can find some of his other work at the online literary magazine newpoplit.com titled with a fictional piece called The Baler.
There are few things in the National Football League that can motivate a team when all hope for a postseason has been vacated. We see it every year: franchise players execute a glorified walk-through before cementing themselves on an aluminum bench under the soothing glow of place heaters, if they ever bother playing at all. Teams that should not be evenly matched play to a close score dictated by lackluster motivation and dreams of eighteen holes instead of four quarters of damage from some of the hardest hitters on earth. At this level, the goal is simple. Each 32 teams play to hoist a Lombardi Trophy. There is no substitute. There is no ulterior motive. When this is taken away we see grown men wilt. We see figures which have been championed as terrors of the gridiron turn into practice squad journeymen without the scrap of an underdog.
I think back to Saturday when the Tennessee Titans topped the Washington Redskins and lowered the guillotine on the Cleveland Browns playoff chances. I could not deter the onslaught of flashbacks from the continually shortened seasons we as Clevelanders have endured for over a decade and a half. Here I am haunted by a mutating ghost that holds the resemblance of Butch Davis, Brandon Weeden, and Corey Coleman letting a perfectly thrown football pass uninterrupted through his $11.5 million dollar hands.
I am awakened from this nightmare to find something pleasant in its place. My ears, which are typically filled with the deafness of defeat at this point in December pick up the harsh cackle of something new: Gregg Williams speaking to his players before practice. He is telling them that Sunday’s game means something. Dare I say what I heard? Did he use the illusive P-word as well? Are the players responding and agreeing that this impending game against the Baltimore Ravens is their version of the playoffs?
I revert to my childhood in Strongsville. Each friendly neighbor around the cul-de-sac a more passionate Brownie than the last. Every Sunday these fanatics would gather around a basement television, crunching peanuts and chasing them with cheap beer. Here they prayed and worshiped at the alter hand carved by legends of their earliest memory. They gabbed and conversed about their lives for four hours in what could be described as a middle age man’s version of the Yah-Yah Sisterhood, carefully turning up the thermostat each week as Canadian cold fronts increasingly flowed southward off the water of Lake Erie.
They huddled in this domain like early Christians fearing persecution for their beliefs, exercising their fandom like an ashamed kid brother who was not invited to play touch football with the other neighborhood children. I can smell the beer. I can smell the snacks. Most importantly, I can hear each of them grasping for topics of discussion in the hope of avoiding the tragic opera playing out on the tube in front of them.
I have since–luckily–moved away from this basement and begun my own journey through the throngs of weekend misery. However, I find a pound of sadness lifted from my shoulders each week. I see hope on the horizon, coupled with the execution of a young core of developing players and a front office which has not shown one concrete mistake since their genesis in January. For Browns fans, this is not only unexpected, it is miraculous. I see veterans standing closer to the sidelines to catch a glimpse at the workings of the other side of the ball. I have seen Gregg Williams screaming for players to get back so they will not incur a penalty. Think about this for a moment. The coach of this once stymied franchise is worried about inducing a penalty not for slovenly play or miscues born out of bad communication. He is concerned about stifling a level of excitement that has risen so high it borders on becoming, with your forgiveness, dangerous.
This is not your normal company of professionals, but a group which has ascended to the accomplishment of finding reasons to be motivated when dreams of confetti have long passed out of their subconscious. There will be no Lombardi trophy this year, nor long awaited (winning) parade to encircle Public Square, but there will be motivation and something we have not seen often in our lifetimes: a trending playoff team fearful of the Cleveland Browns entering their stadium and competing.
It would be senseless to spill out some long diatribe of what it would mean to this city if Cleveland were to deny the franchise Art Modell stole a chance at the postseason. I will spare you thus. But allow me to offer a thought as we close in on another offseason in Northeast Ohio. I imagine that the people huddled together in their basements wearing the brown and orange are having a much easier time generating topics of conversation. I would bet that the lingering smells of Budweiser and Chex mix are less obvious to their senses. They are preoccupied in this place, as we all are. The Browns are believers again, and we are all watching to find out what happens next.