Bill Simmons has long been an idol of mine. The way he wrote1 inhabited my brain in a way that very few things have. To me, I’ve basically been cosplaying as Simmons Lite for the entirety of my writing career. His ability to weave pop culture references and nuance into sports was creative, exciting, and honestly, a little moving. He showed how you can have a toe in both worlds to me, something I hadn’t thought of before and something I try to do now in almost everything I put forth on this site.2
While Simmons has fallen off a cliff lately with a lot of his sports takes,3 he has a few mantras that he has created/utilized/identified that are actually relevant. There’s the Ewing Theory, where a star and/or well-known player leaves a team without having won a title or even gotten close and the media writes off the team after they leave via free agency, trade, retirement, prompting the team to band together and come out on top.4 But the one I love more than anything is the “Nobody Believes In Us” team. As implied, this is when an underdog or pseudo-underdog team cries that nobody was covering them all year, that nobody predicted them winning anything, and the vibe pumped in by the front office, coaching staff, the entire roster, is that nobody believed they could do it, even as they did it.5
What makes “Nobody Believes In Us” teams great is that they have that chip on their shoulder all year. The great ones are able to recreate it even when it seems impossible anymore, ala Tom Brady and the Pats despite literally everyone expecting them to make it. You’ll see it this winter: some team, maybe the Buffalo Bills, maybe the 49ers, maybe the Titans, will make the playoffs and then make some noise once invited to the Big Show. It is born from teams that got little to no publicity in the offseason despite growing efforts of change and rebuilds finally taking hold. Once in the playoffs, all you will hear about is how nobody had them pegged as playoff teams, nobody had them going far, nobody believed in them.
The downside to the Cleveland Browns getting such hype this offseason as a dark horse playoff team is it seems like this possibility was gone. Literally everyone *everyone* thought they were going to push through into the upper echelon of NFL teams. That’s what happens when you have a would-be franchise quarterback, acquire possibly the best wide receiver in the league, trade for a disruptive edge rusher and sign a top 20 defensive tackle alongside him, draft well over the past two years,6 hire an offensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach that seems to be coming into his own as a play-caller…the list goes on. But it took them out of “Nobody Believes In Us” territory since…ya know…everyone believed in them. Then Week 1 happens.
Week 1 brought back all the horrible nightmares Browns fans used the summer to get rid of. Undisciplined play as a team and individuals. Head-scratching play calling. The look and feel of a quarterback who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Everything we had just spent eight months pursuing, creating, imagining in our heads as title contenders came crashing down like a sandcastle built during low tide.
A Week 2 scoreboard drubbing of the hapless New York Jets did nothing to quell those fears; if anything it made them worse. The penalties dried up for the most part, but Baker Mayfield looked hapless at times. The defense looked like the ’85 Bears but it was against Trevor Siemian and Luke Falk, hardly world-beaters. Odell Beckham Jr had his coming out party for Cleveland, but it was in a stadium he played home games in last year, after he had to miss redzone touches in the first quarter for his visor being too dark, a signal that drama is inescapable for him, even if he isn’t trying.
Does this mean Cleveland has some “Nobody Believes In Us” cred? Being the underdog is underrated, as nobody expects you to come out on top and when you don’t it’s fine because nobody expected you to anyway. On this very site, we put out a “Monday Night is a lose-lose situation game” piece that was very much accurate: win against the Jets and you’re supposed to, struggle and you look weaker than you already were, lose and you might as well call off the season. That doesn’t happen to the underdog as Cleveland finds itself this Sunday night against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams. As long as you fight tooth and nail with them, you win, even if you lose. So let’s get back to being the underdog. It’s more Cleveland’s style anyway.