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Browns Browns Archive A Division of Eternal Struggle
Written by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich

AFC NorthThey don’t have to be good, they just have to be better.  Better than their previous selves; well, that’s a given, but more importantly, the Browns need to be better than every team that ever won the AFC North.  Just a friendly reminder, but the Browns aren’t included in that group.  I’m sure no one needs any kind of reminder, friendly or otherwise, to know that this reboot has been brutal in every way imaginable, and has likely exceeded the boundaries of even the most twisted imagination.

I could make excuses, I could say it’s not fair, and I could swear to you that the blue pen is red, but I’d have a hard time convincing anyone that any of it matter when numbers speak volumes.  Low numbers like zero and one stick out the most, high numbers would stick out too, if there were any.  Just seven times in the illustrious first fourteen years of this god-forsaken carnation of the Cleveland Browns netted three wins or more in the division, and that does include the first three years of the new franchise playing 10 intra-division games in the 6-team AFC Central Division

It was a little bit like the AFC Central Division that we enjoyed watching Bernie Kosar play in a lifetime ago, for both us and Bernie, except there was a purple team from Maryland, and the Houston Oilers had assumed a new identity and now played in Tennessee.  Technically, Kosar never crossed paths with the team in North Florida, but the Jaguars were still in the AFC Central when the old Browns existed and this isn’t the time or place to split hairs.  In 2001, first-year Head Coach managed to sweep Baltimore and win 5 games in the division, but Pittsburgh took both clashes with the Browns.

Butch DavisIn fact, they’ve been swept by one of their division foes, at least one, in each of their previous 14 seasons.  They’ve never been over .500, and finished even keel in division play just three times; there was Butch’s 5-5 run in 2001, which really could have been a winning season in the division (and 8-8 overall), if not for the Bottle-Gate game against the Jags.  That unforgettable playoff team of 2002 was 3-3, but they offered a big Blutarski against Pittsburgh in three tries, including the playoffs.  You may have guessed they also pulled it off in 2007, thanks to a sweep of the Ravens, but missed the playoffs, thanks in large part to another year of failing to best the NFL’s Western Pennsylvania chapter in two tries.

What usually makes a moment cool, speaking mostly in terms of sports moments, is remembering where you were when something happened.  It’s best if your story doesn’t involve lying about being at that game.  For example, I can remember exactly where I was for every single one of the “New Browns” wins over the Steelers, but I can count those experiences on one hand.  Suddenly, those five memories aren’t as cool, and in time, they become ‘I guess you had to be there” quips.  The outlook improves when you look at the others, but their play against Baltimore and Cincinnati is consistent with everything else we know to be true, for the most part, about the Lerner/Haslam Era Browns.  They stink.

Browns v RavensSuccess and failure against the Ravens tends to come in waves, with the latter being a more prominent phenomenon and the former being very relative and measured as such, mostly in the eye of the beholder.  For Cleveland, losing to Baltimore became a thing years before Ty Detmer ever made his Browns debut, which was his 20th NFL start.  Cleveland lost the second Arthur Bertram Modell boarded Alfred Lerner’s Maryland-bound private plane in 1995.  I’m not sure whether or not we should include anything Roberto Alomar-related in this context, but even when the Browns were brought back to Cleveland from the ashes, every day without football was a friendly little reminder.  Baltimore got the upper-hand on us, and we couldn’t wait for our Browns to exact revenge on those crabcake-eaters.

It took them a while.  By the time the Browns managed to not only defeat the Ravens for the first time, but pull off the season-sweep in 2001, two bodies of Ohio-born men were found in the streets of Atlanta and Art Modell had a Super Bowl ring.  The Browns beat the Ravens five times, from 2001-2005, finding themselves ahead of them in the standings at season’s end just once, in that majestic 2002 playoff season.  The Browns took both games in 2007, despite the universe trying to take a successful game-tying kick away from Phil Dawson in Baltimore, but that Ravens team was a 5-11 team that lost to a 1-15 team.  The fun didn’t last long, as Kyle Boller and Brian Billick were upgraded to Joe Flacco and John Harbaugh in the offseason.

DawsonThe Browns fired Romeo Crennel, hired and fired both Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur, and started 10 quarterbacks not named Derek Anderson, before the tandem Rob Chudzinski and Jason Campbell finally cracked the code earlier this month.  It feels great to beat Baltimore, even a version that’s suffering one of the worst Super Bowl hangovers of all-time, mostly depleted of its core from a very successful run.  Yes, it feels great.  Beating Cincinnati feels pretty good too, and they have at least done that in 10 of the 15 seasons, including this 2013 campaign that they’ve been playing in the new building.

I often joke that I slept through the beginning of this Browns reboot, literally.  I was burning the candle on both ends for a good deal of 1999, and it wasn’t completely out-of-character for me to sleep for long periods of time during random milestone events.   There was the night of the Monday pre-season return in Canton, against the Cowboys, a game they won.  A friend and I were supposed to watch that game at a bar; he went to the bar, I took an 11-hour nap, then watched Cruel Intentions at 4 AM.  A month later, the game was on a Sunday, the place was Cleveland, and we were all set to reignite the rivalry with that pesky bunch from PA.

The night before, we’d taken an impromptu trip to Niagara Falls.  It was the type of trip you take with your 19 year-old friend that’s excited that his real ID gets him served north of the border.  It was the type of trip where you don’t let the price of Canadian lodging interfere with your binge-drinking budget.  It was probably the type of trip you shouldn’t take after working first and third shift for five consecutive days prior, but he was driving, so I didn’t ask questions.  Had I been in the mood for the interrogative, I might have asked why we were both asleep on the grass outside of the shoulder with the car in drive and his hands on the wheel, but you don’t ask those type of questions at a time like that.  The Browns were playing that night, for the first time in four years, so getting back to Ohio was much more important than the coherency of the drunken, delirious designated driver.

They're back

I woke up in Northeast Ohio, after sunset, to a note instructing me where I can join my friends to watch the game.  That was the way we rolled back then, with handwritten notes, beepers, and analog mobile phones with 50 anytime minutes a month.  The game was in the third quarter, the Browns were down 26-0.  They had two first downs in the game, both on 1st-half pass plays to Leslie Shepherd, and I missed them both.  I had to get back to the third-shift job before it was over, but at some point I was thrilled that it was only a 43-0 final.  The punchline here is that I slept through the first game, but the Browns slept through the first decade and a half, but Season 15 doesn’t have to be a same script/different cast deal.  They can snap out of this.  I know that our standards are low, even for the silly optimistic crowd that hasn’t yet been prescribed regular dosages of Lithium, but at 4-5 with a lot of pieces obviously missing, it’s okay to feel good about this team.  This isn’t the one-game-under-500 disgust that I displayed walking out of Candlestick Park in 2011 after a pathetic 20-10 loss to the 49ers, when I shook my head at a fellow Browns fan that held his head high and wanted to high-five me to celebrate being 3-4 in late October.  This optimism isn’t as completely ridiculous as it was when Shurmur-Ball got them to 5-8 with an outside shot at backing into the playoffs last year, then they finished 5-11, disappointing us, per usual.

Going back to 2007, it has taken a minimum of 4 wins in the division to win the division.  The Browns have never done either, going back to 2007 or all the way to ’99.  Pittsburgh was perfect in 2008, the Bengals were flawless against the AFC North in 2009, and the Ravens ran the table in 2011.  On the flipside, you have the Browns, who mirrored Baltimore’s perfection with undeniable futility, even in the name of symmetry at 0-6.  Going back to ’06, you’ll find the Browns gave us 0-6 twice and 1-5 for three consecutive seasons in the AFC North.

Browns BengalsIt’s a new day, with a big game on the horizon in Cincinnati on Sunday.  It’s hard to say exactly how it’s working, even if we know the first part of the equation is keeping Brandon Weeden off the field, but something is working.  Are they ready for prime-time?  Absolutely not, Green Bay and Kansas City showed us that much, but the Chiefs were forced to sweat a bit, so there’s that.  Like I said, I don’t know if the Browns could be defined as “good”; nobody in the national media is really giving them the time of day, but I don’t know that they necessarily need to be good, and 4-5 suggests that they probably aren’t, at least not yet.

They are better though.  They are better than they were under the charge of Pat Shurmur.  They are better than they were with Weeden running the offense.  They are better than Pittsburgh, because the record says so.  They are better than Baltimore, because the most recent applicable box score says so.  Ditto for Cincinnati, but that’s subject to change.  It doesn’t have to change, isn’t it time that the Browns are just better than whatever?

They don’t have to regress.  They don’t have to get swept by at least one division foe for the 15th time in 15 years.  They don’t have to miss the playoffs.  They just have to win, and that starts in the Queen City this Sunday, or all of this should be rendered moot.

Same old Browns, Business as usual in Berea.  Aren’t we sick of those antics?  The time is now, and I know the fans will be ready.  We just have to hope the Browns are ready too.

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