Pondering the worst-case scenario

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Recently I visited Cuba for the first time. Anthony Bourdain once said Havana still looks like you want it to look, and I found that true. Music emanating from every street corner. Couples strolling along the Malecón at sunset. Sipping a mojito on a 90-degree day. It was delightful. (Plus, my girlfriend and I survived our first big trip together. No small feat, if the reactions of friends and family are anything to go by.)

It was not, however, entirely sunshine and rum drinks. We took ill for some 24 hours, misfortune theorized to have resulted from a sandwich bought on the street. For a night and a day we despaired, making hot tags as we swapped places in the bedroom and bathroom. It was your standard short-term stomach ailment, with periods of digestive détente interrupted by sudden salvos of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics.

When calm seemed to have taken hold, our attention turned to the next day’s activities. We had a tour scheduled, one which we weren’t positive we could manage without, how do you say, an incident. I wasn’t positive I could manage, anyway. I was worried.

It was during this time that my girlfriend—my partner, my belle, my traveling companion—provided a crucial bit of perspective. What’s the worst-case scenario, she asked rhetorically. You shit your pants? 

It is through this lens that I am regarding the new, improved, loaded, dangerous, actually contending Cleveland Browns.

I’ll try to explain.

My brand of Browns fandom—like that of many others, I imagine—has long been characterized by an optimism that would make Candide blush. No matter what misfortune has befallen the team, either on the field or in the front office, I’ve done my damnedest to see the sunny side. To find a path forward. To identify the player who might pop, or the draft pick that might pay off, or whatever. The NFL calendar is built to sustain such a mindset: training camp, preseason and the draft are among the markers designed to foster hope.

Are there three teams in the AFC clearly better than the Browns?

At times this hope is nothing more than a parlor game. If the Browns are going to suck royally, the thinking goes, I’m not going to spend my energy getting angry about it. Much more fun can be had making jokes and cracking wise; I would think that’s better for the blood pressure as well. No sense in getting mad at a dachshund because it can’t win the pole vault. For so long this was my default setting because it had to be. Success was scarce. Coping was necessary. Stakes were low.

Now, holy hell. Are there three teams in the AFC clearly better than the Browns? The Patriots belong on top until Brady and Belichick retire or die, whichever comes first. The Chiefs have already been much of what the Browns aspire to be, and Patrick Mahomes threw 50 friggin’ touchdowns last year, so they deserve plenty of kudos. But beyond that, what team brings more to the table than the Browns?

The Colts, Chargers and Texans are playoff teams with capable quarterbacks, so they’re all in the conversation. I’d bet against the Steelers and Ravens being as bad as we hope, but they don’t profile as true contenders. You can always bank on a handful of pleasant surprises in the NFL, but do you really think, like, the Bills are going to make a leap? The opportunity is there.

No more asset-accumulation mode. We’ve jumped forward on the timeline a few stages. Sashi Brown, love him or hate him, harvested plenty of raw material. John Dorsey, love him or worship him, is converting it into increasingly precious metals.

By now the following is canon, but it’s too fun not to revisit: After the 2017 and 2018 drafts, the Browns appeared to have selected blue chip–caliber players at football’s most important positions. In Baker Mayfield they identified a quarterback who is equal parts gunslinger and talisman. In Myles Garrett they found a pass rusher who can not-unreasonably be compared to the likes of Bruce Smith. In Denzel Ward they picked a cornerback capable of, in his NFL debut, intercepting two Ben Roethlisberger passes.

Considering that those two drafts also yielded (in descending order of talent and importance, more or less) Nick Chubb, Larry Ogunjobi, David Njoku, Antonio Callaway and Genard Avery, the arrow was always going to be pointing up.

What I’m still coming to terms with is how sharply that arrow is pointed up. The trade for Odell Beckham Jr.—and, to a lesser extent, the acquisitions of Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson—has slammed open the door of legitimate contention, this year and in years to come. The most reliable path to contention in the NFL is the one we’re seeing the Browns follow: get a good young quarterback on a rookie contract and surround him with all the talent you can before the costs balloon.

They’ve gone from righting the ship to throwing a party on it.

It’s just… it’s really happening, and it has me nervous. If not nervous, then unsure. This is new. This is unfamiliar. It took a while to get used to the idea of the Browns as generally competent. Now they’re aspiring to be more than that. They’ll be flashy. They’ll be popular. They’ll generate buzz. They’ve gone from righting the ship to throwing a party on it.

Most everything I’ve read about the Beckham trade has the Browns winning it in a romp:

On and on they go. The one-sidedness has me uneasy. Can it really be that simple? Was it just a matter of the Browns finding themselves in an advantageous position and capitalizing on it? There’s no trapdoor? No false wall? No other shoe?

My usual optimism has given way to a more defensive posture. Now that the Browns have the trappings of a good team—talent, aggressiveness, expectations—I fear what might lie beyond. Don’t high hopes just lead to a harder fall? How will all that offensive talent be sated when there’s only one ball to play with? Can Freddie Kitchens possibly be ready for all this? What if Baker is a mere mortal? These are still the Browns we’re talking about, right?

This, in a roundabout way, brings me back to Cuba. Namely, my concern about soiling myself there. Upon identifying that particular worst-case scenario, my girlfriend led me through a brief thought exercise that largely consisted of saying, and then what would happen? The point, far as I can tell, is that you go through a mental flow chart and consider the possible outcomes. Along the way you realize something like hey, that’s not so bad. You can guess where said flow chart ended.

And that, if you’ll excuse all the bathroom language, is where I am when considering the downside of the new, exciting, trendy, significant-for-the-right-reasons Cleveland Browns. The potential risks are great, but the potential rewards are greater. Rooting for them, at this moment, is a bit like having the bubble guts in Havana. It’s different. It’s uncomfortable. It could go wrong. But if it doesn’t, you’ll have the experience of a lifetime. And even if it does, it will have been worth it all the same.