If you survey 100 Browns fans, Family Feud-style, asking which game from the last 20 years best epitomizes the New Browns experience, you’ll receive a barrage of responses that includes dozens of different games, each of which certainly culminated with a miserable defeat or was highlighted by an embarrassing moment. Actually, the diversity of possible answers is kind of charming. Most fanbases, I think, would have highly conserved responses—Giants fans would mostly reminisce about David Tyree’s famous helmet catch, Saints fans could celebrate a certain Super Bowl onside kick. But, fans of the Browns’ current iteration have endured so many brutal moments, so much heartbreak, that whichever game you pick means something about you. The Browns were savaged by the Steelers at home to conclude the 2005 season, losing 41-0. Ten years later, with the score tied at 27 and the Browns attempting a game-winning field goal as time expired, the Ravens blocked Travis Coons’ kick and returned it 64 yards to win the game. Neither of these games is inherently more correct of a choice, more Brownsy (if you will), than the other—they’re both equally, 100% miserable, just like the team itself has been. So, whichever game a Browns fan chooses reflects their values, or their personal history, or their individual expectations of the team, or something.
Which is to say, of course, I have an answer to this question that is uniquely my own.
The year was 2002. Incumbent starting quarterback Tim Couch had inflamed scar tissue on his throwing elbow, meaning journeyman back-up Kelly Holcomb would have to start the opening game of the season, at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. Neither team had been particularly successful in 2001, making it the kind of low stakes affair that serves as a breeding ground for wacky results.
The Browns had been effective offensively all game, which was surprising because the team had finished second-to-last in yards in 2001, and that was with their first-string quarterback under center. The Browns got the ball down 37-36 with exactly three minutes remaining in regulation. A normal bad team would have thrown four incomplete passes, or maybe a wide receiver would have fumbled trying to scratch forward for a few extra yards. However, the Browns, as you know, were no normal bad team. They didn’t just roll over; Holcomb led his group of men down the field on a methodical drive, dinking and dunking his way into Kansas City territory. Rather than go for the jugular, head coach Butch Davis decided to play for the field goal, running the clock down to 33 seconds before reliable Phil Dawson struck the ball through the uprights, as he so often did, to give Cleveland a 39-37 lead.
Were it only that simple. Placeholder, punter, and future Pittsburgher Chris Gardocki got flagged for taunting. Taunting by the placeholder! Phil Dawson would have to send the ball from his own 15-yard line to legendary kick returner Dante Hall. Luckily, by the time Hall was tackled at the 36-yard line, there were only 21 seconds left, and the Chiefs had already used all three of their timeouts. Trent Green began the Kansas City drive by narrowly avoiding the pass rush and scrambling 10 yards. By the time they spiked the ball, there was barely any game left; the Chiefs only had time for one more play. Again, they dropped back for the pass, and again, the Browns pass rush nearly got to him. But, as Green was being wrestled to the ground, he managed to flip the ball to tackle John Tait, who rumbled forward for 28 yards, an impressive but ultimately fruitless endeavor, as he was pushed out of bounds at the 26-yard line.
Again, were it only that simple. Linebacker Dwayne Rudd thought Green had been sacked, he thought the game was over. As Tait was caressing the lateral, Rudd triumphantly removed his helmet and threw it across the field, a clear violation of the rules. Since NFL games cannot end on defensive penalties, the infraction moved the ball half the distance to the goal line, and from the 13, Chiefs kicker Morten Anderson nailed the chip shot to win the football game, 40-39. Browns fans go home sad, the Earth rotates around the sun. What else is new. (The entire game is on YouTube—the final three minutes still put a pit in my stomach.)
. . .
The 2002 Browns home opener game was surely an excruciating loss, but was it more excruciating than the blocked kick or the Christmas Eve shutout? Maybe, maybe not. But, it’s my choice for the Brownsiest Browns game because it taught me how to be a Browns fan. In fact, it was my first game. I was eight years old. I learned from the very beginning that it wasn’t a matter of if the Browns were going to lose, but in what upsetting manner would they lose next. Dwayne Rudd showed me that defeat was inevitable.
That’s not to say there weren’t any highs. I went to every Browns home game from 2002-2011. While they went 31-59 in those games—no team won fewer home games in that span—there were enough carrots to keep me interested through the sticks. The energy in the stadium when the Browns scored never got less exciting. Occasionally, the Browns won a big game (Colt McCoy beat the Patriots 34-14 in Cleveland in 2010—look it up). And hey, we’ll always have 2007, when they went 7-1 off the shores of Lake Erie.
Then I left Cleveland for school, and I haven’t been back to Cleveland Browns/FirstEnergy Stadium since. And as I got further away from Browns Stadium, something changed in my fandom. The touchdowns became less exciting; I knew they’d be in vain, anyway. The losses became banal and numbing. The Dwayne Rudd Principle of Inevitable Defeat remained firmly intact. My feelings remained safe and sound in my put-on indifference and watching NFL games with friends who support other teams was an exercise in cynicism. Browns touchdowns were often followed with defeatist proclamations. It became a game to point out the players on other teams who left Cleveland only to find success with a functional franchise. The owner was a meddling, incompetent crook. There were so. many. quarterbacks.
Now, I’m supposed to believe that this time is different, that the Browns have actually turned it around. I want to, but the problem is I’m just fundamentally ill-equipped to handle it. It’s not a matter of trust or confidence in the players; the Browns I knew didn’t have a Baker Mayfield or a Myles Garrett. It’s just that I honestly don’t know how to be a fan of a good football team. Just last week, the Cleveland Browns dismantled the Baltimore Ravens—the vile, traitorous, insidious Ravens—by touchdowns, plural, but as I was watching, it still felt as if the Browns would lose. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for my broken spirit to mend, and for me to enjoy Browns games with hope and without cynicism. But I know I want to, and that’s the first step in the right direction.