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Written by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich

VinnieReality is sometimes a very difficult pill to swallow.  If you're a Cleveland Browns fan, you know this all too well.  The reason we were dealt the hand that we've been playing for far too long, and God only knows how much longer, may make us regret getting caught up in the game in the first place.  I mean, we don't sit and ask ourselves, why?  We aren't wondering why the Browns are so inept; most of us can hammer out a few good bullet points, that we can count on one hand.  I, for one, just can't figure out why bad things keep happening on the Cleveland sports scene.

I realize that I might be grasping at straws, in blaming the original re-location of this franchise to Baltimore, but the evidence presents itself without twisting the numbers or fabricating propaganda.  Everything about the rebooted Browns has been a train wreck, ask anyone for or against the Browns.  It's embarassing, and sure, there's a point in time where we need to put the whole thing behind us, because these pains aren't just the fruit of a Grand Re-Opening gone wrong, but every 4-12 team and every new piece of masking tape on that infamous Tim Couch jersey serves as a reminder.  We had something that was once great, and it was taken away from us.

City of BaltimoreIt leads me to wonder; what mistakes did we make, could this have been prevented, and what if it didn't go down the way it did?  I know, it's a stretch, and it probably isn't healthy to torture myself by thinking about it, but not much more than watching what is supposed to be an improved team lay an egg against the hapless Jaguars of Jacksonville.  Remember, their existence, or maybe Carolina's hinged on the fact that Art Modell blocked Baltimore from expansion, in order to have that very carrot available to dangle in front of Cleveland a year later.

Hasn't enough time passed?  It has, the Ravens have existed for a longer portion of my life than the original Browns did, and soon, I'll have more years of the new Browns under my belt than the old.  There's been no quarterback that deserves to be in the same sentence as Bernie Kosar; in fact, there really hasn't been a quarterback in the reboot that deserves to be criticized by Bernie in meaningless pre-season games, but that's beside the point.  I often wonder if there's been anything remotely near the caliber of one Vincent Frank Testaverde.  There certainly hasn't been a Head Coach on Bill Belichick's level, or a front office guy that speaks the same language as Ozzie Newsome.

Damn, I don't care for this reality at all.  On Sunday nights, I sometimes put my head on the pillow and welcome the nightmares that will terrify, but give me peace of mind at the same time, as something like a Zombie Apocolypse would surely take my mind off the putrid Browns.  Maybe, if I take the red pill and blue pill at the same time, I can end up in Evil Cartman's world, where the Chef is a skinny, white insurance salesman, and the Browns never left Cleveland for Baltimore after the 1995 season.

This is my tale of life in that world.

SabanIt's 1995, and Nick Saban is gone.  The Browns were a playoff team a year ago, but rumors of the team re-locating to Baltimore have sent Bill Belichick's team into an absolute tailspin.  There seems to be more questions than answers right now, but none of them can be answered without knowing where this team might be playing next year.  Art Modell's Discover card is maxed out, and the bill collectors have been threatening to repossess the first wide receiver they see in an orange helmet.  Let's just hope it's Carl Pickens, the best receiver David Shula's Bengals have in Cincinnati.

In all seriousness, thank the heavens for those Bengals.  Without them, this would have been a 3-13 season.  5-11 doesn't seem that bad, provided it doesn't define the team; just imagine a team that was regularly 4-12 or 5-11, not even bad enough for a marquee pick in the draft.  Of course, that first win in Cincinnati brought the Browns back to 4-4, and might have saved their season.  The second time around, many wondered if it would be the last game ever played at Municipal Stadium.  If so, the Browns did get the "W" and the players said good-bye.  If not, they're going to have to put in some new seats, because many of the wooden seats left with the angry masses on December 17th.

While the Browns were struggling on the field, Modell and his long-time lieutenant Alfred Lerner were flying down to Baltimore to work out a bribe for Modell to uproot the heart and soul of Cleveland to Baltimore.  Little did they know, Cleveland Mayor Mike White was working with Paul Tagliabue on the down low to find a buyer for the Browns that would keep them in Cleveland.  After weeks of litigation, Modell, the NFL, and Cleveland came to a settlement.  The Browns would not play another game in Municipal Stadium, and would have to re-locate.

ModellModell did not get his way, as the Browns only re-located to Columbus on gamedays, where they would call Ohio Stadium home while Municipal Stadium was demolished and rebuilt.  Though it took him swallowing every bit of his pride, Modell accepted a deal that would allow him to own the new expansion team in Baltimore, but they wouldn't begin play until 1999.  The league vetoed the sale of the team to Lerner, because of his relationshiop with Modell and rumors that Lerner would keep Modell on the payroll as a consultant until Art got his team in Maryland.

After that, Belichick was able to re-group and make the "Columbus" Browns, who kept the Cleveland name, much to the dismay of the "hometown" fans in the state's capital.  They weren't going to be the Ohio Browns or anything silly like that, and none of this chaos would be going on, had their former owner just joined Gordon Gund and Dick Jacobs on the Gateway deal on the south end of Cleveland's downtown.

Changes would be made to avoid another 5-11 season, so the coordinator roles were both left vacant after Belichick cleaned house, and even threatened to resign at one point.  Despite efforts to bring back former assistant Al Groh or poach Marvin Lewis off of Bill Cowher's staff in Pittsburgh, Belichick made himself the Defensive Coordinator, after Romeo Crennel decided to stay with in New England with Bill Parcells.  In a surprise move, he promoted offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz to Offensive Coordinator.  It was clear, he was prepared to win ugly with Vinnie Testaverde under center, just as he was years earlier with Todd Philcox.

OzzieOzzie Newsome had some work to do in the draft.  The previous year netted them virtually nothing, with the glowing exception of Eric Royce Zeier's 7 games at the quarterback position in 1995.  With the 4th pick in the draft, UCLA's all-world blindside Tackle Jonathan Ogden was the obvious choice.  There was some talk about taking Terry Glenn from Ohio State or even Marvin Harrison from Syracuse, but the Browns had a second 1st-rounder from the Eric Metcalf deal, so they didn't need to reach.  Despite pleading from Belichick to take Michigan's Amani Toomer or Washington's Lawyer Milloy, Newsome grabbed an undersized linebacker from Miami named Ray Lewis, with the mindset that, undersized or not, he was an upgrade from Craig "Clifford Charlton Junkin" Powell.

After taking Aaron Beasley from West Virginia with the 55th pick, the Browns were without a pick for a while, but took Jermaine Lewis with the 153rd pick, leaving defensive monsters like Zach Thomas and La'Roi Glover on the board.  Hindsight is 20/20, I suppose.

The Browns won just two games in 1996, and all of the air from the 1994 playoff season had been let out of the balloon.  The fan base had reached a point, where some were wondering what they fought to keep in Ohio.  A late season win over the Steelers in the Shoe restored some faith, but 2-14 was their worst season in franchise history.  Newsome asked the new owner for some patience with Belichick, and he returned for a 7th season in 1997.

Orlando PaceBecause of that, Newsome took autonomy of the 1997 Draft, where the Browns were slated to pick 2nd overall, but furiously attempted to trade down.  After a lot of talk and no action, the Browns had no deal when the Rams took Orlando Pace with the first pick.  Belichick was reportedly overjoyed that Newsome couldn't pull off a trade and told assistant Eric Mangini that he wanted Darrell Russell or Peter Boulware, but Newsome chose Boulware's Florida State teammate Walter Jones, who played guard.  They'd add Freddie Jones and Darren Sharper in the later rounds, moves that were viewed as successful by ESPN's draft experts.

Belichick ran with what Ozzie put in the cupboard, and used what he had, an outstanding offensive line, to sign Garrison Hearst away from the Bengals.  The former Georgia Bulldog ran for 1400 yards behind Ogden and Jones on the left side.  What they didn't get in 1997, was a stellar year out of Testaverde, even though Derrick Alexander, Michael Jackson, and Freddie Jones all put up adequate numbers.  Vinnie just threw too many balls to the other team, finishing with 18 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.  They actually improved down the stretch with Zeier under center.  The defense gave up points by the bunch, and they finished 1997 with an 8-8 mark.

The following season, they drafted Robert Edwards, another Georgia Bulldog, to carry the rock.  They took a good run at Curtis Martin, but he chose the other Bill (Parcells) in New England, and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.  Edwards, on the other hand, was sensational as a rookie, even making the Pro Bowl, but in typical Cleveland fashion, injured himself in Hawaii and never played another down for the Browns.

Testaverde was sensational in 1998, throwing 25 TDs and 5 INTs, while accumulating nearly 3000 yards in ten plus games.  The Browns were 7-3 and their eyes were once again on the Denver Broncos, the team that always stood in their way.  Again, in typical Cleveland fashion, Testaverde went down at Cincinnati in Week 11.  Zeier couldn't carry the load, and the Browns went 1-5 down the stretch for another 8-8 finish, but signs of hope sprung eternal.

MustangsNow, 1999 was fun.  Baltimore joined the league, with a huge sponsorship deal from Ford, as the Mustangs.  In some ways, they looked like the Lions, but they mostly looked like an F-150 commerical.  That was all well and good, because this group on Art Modell's payroll sure as hell didn't resemble a football team.  They had some promise with Oregon's Akili Smith, but the plan was to have Jeff George mentor him.  The Mustangs would be lambs to the slaughter, which sounds fun on paper, except we learned that Modell was selling his majority stake in the club to Steve Bisciotti, a head-hunting mogul and Maryland native, so the element of angst from Cleveland would be minimal.

Besides, we had better things to worry about, like getting to Atlanta for the Super Bowl XXXIV.  At this point, we'd seen Denver win it enough, and John Elway was gone, even though it would have been outstanding to take him down on the road to glory.  At this point, 1964 was 35 years ago, and with the Indians collapse in the 1997 World Series, this town was just due.

They started the season 5-5 with rookie quarterback Michael Bishop handing the ball off to a running back-by-committee, before Vinnie came back and led them a 5-1 mark, good enough for 3rd place in a very difficult AFC Central Division.  They ended up clinching the final AFC Wild Card spot, and upset the Seahawks in the Kingdome.  Then, it was on to Jacksonville, and Jacksonville would play them tough.  Second-year Browns defensive back Samari Rolle picked off Mark Brunell, who was looking for former Browns receiver Keanan McCardell in the end zone for a 28-24 victory, and trip to Nashville.

Eddie GeorgeThe newly named Tennessee Titans, who apparently decided that the oiling be best left to the Houston-ians (or the Edmonton-ians; I don't know, not really into the whole fracking thing), were a tough out.  Before being upset by Cleveland the week before, Jacksonville had won 14, but their only losses came in both regular season meeting with the Oilers, I mean Titans.  They came with a balanced attack; Steve McNair aired it out and Eddie George was there get the yards on the ground.  They appeared to have the Browns put away when Josh Evans nearly sacked Testaverde for a safety that would have given Tennessee a 19-14 lead and the ball in the 3rd quarter.  However, Testaverde found Freddie Jones at the sticks, and drove the Browns down the field for a game-tying field goal.  Adrian Murrell, who didn't do much in two seasons with Cleveland, scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:53 to play.  So, he will forever be known as the guy who won the game that got the Browns to the Super Bowl.  If anyone knew what Adrian Murrell looked like, he'd never buy another drink in Cleveland.

In the Super Bowl, the Browns would meet "The Greatest Show on Turf", and it wasn't pretty.  Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Torry Holt had their way with the Browns, but the dagger came when Mike Martz dialed up Issac Bruce.  Down 14-3 at the end of the first half, a holding penalty had the Rams backed up deep in their own territory on third down.  Bruce ran a simple fly pattern, but it was good enough to burn Beasley down the right sideline for a 93-yard score and a 21-3 halftime lead.  Ray Lewis couldn't keep up with Marshall Faulk, who had nearly 200 all-purpose yards in the game, and the Rams went on to win 31-16.

In a seemingly unrelated story, aspiring barbers from Akron had a great night on the town and made it home safely on a frigid winter night in Atlanta.  Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar went on to be two of the best barbers in the Southeast.  Isn't that nice?  It's certainly better than being left for dead because some thug football player's entourage needed to stab a few club-goers for a thrill on a Sunday night.

Lollar and Baker

With a conference championship under his belt, Belichick was given more authority in the war room with Newsome, and hit a few home runs with Ian Gold, Brad Meester, Adalius Thomas, and a guy named Brady.  They had talent all over the field on both sides of the ball, but still no real answer at QB.  That was the difference in the division, the "Haves" were working with Mark Brunell and Steve McNair, while the Have-Nots Akili Smith, Tim Couch, and Kordell Stewart with a clueless coaching staff in Pittsburgh.

FerentzKirk Ferentz had moved on to take a job in the college ranks, so Belichick took over the offense and hired Mike Nolan away from the Redskins to fine tune Ray Lewis's game.  In the meantime, Belichick took Tom Brady, the 6th round pick, under his wing.  Brady didn't see the field much in 2000, but Ray Lewis had obviously improved.  It wasn't enough; the Browns did return to the AFC Championship, but Tennessee was firing on all cylinders and won the game going away.  They went on to defeat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.  On a side note, Ray Lewis was mad enough to kill one or two people after the loss to Tennessee.  It's a good thing he has football in his life; someone should introduce that guy to God or something.

Finally, in 2001, it was time for Tom Brady to turn into Joe Montana, even without anything resembling a Jerry Rice on the roster.  They found themselves on the ropes, at home against Oakland in the opening round of the playoffs.  There was a strange play, where it appeared Brady fumbled and the Raiders recovered for the win, but it was over-turned by some obscure rule.  The tide was turning in Cleveland; there's no way that rule gets enforced to benefit the Browns in the Cleveland I know, but they'll take it.  Phil Dawson kicked two near-impossible field goals to send the game to overtime, then another to win it in sudden death.

The next week it was on to Pittsburgh, where Bishop had to come off the bench and save the day.  But, it wasn't really the offense at 3 Rivers that day; it was a blatant case of special teams and defense winning championships.  Down 20-7 in the waning moments of the first half, Dennis Northcutt returned a punt 61 yards to the Steelers' 39 yard-line.  Dawson was right as rain from 56, and the deficit was 10 at the half.

DNo220Though the offense could get little going, Northcutt was the hero, once again, returning a kickoff 101 yards, which cut Pittsburgh's lead to 23-17.  Then, with 4 minutes to go,Orpheus Roye, the former Steeler, stipped Jerome Bettis and Lewis would scoop it up, then run it 44 yards for the score.  Browns win 24-23, and they're headed back to the Super Bowl, where they'd get the Rams again.  Kurt Warner and friends were all still there, but it felt different this time around.  Belichick had them playing differently, hanging with the team that sent them home for the winter the last time these two met in a dome.

Brady played an unbelievable game, and engineered a miraculous scoring drive, preventing the Super Bowl's first overtime game when Phil Dawson was true from 41 yards.  Browns 36 Rams 33. And, that kids, is how the Browns won their first Super Bowl.  Looking back, maybe the parades down Euclid Avenue have become so commonplace that they've become boring.  Maybe Tom Brady isn't the same Hall of Fame-type player if he gets picked by New England or Arizona, before Belichick scooped him up in the 6th round.  Maybe, this town doesn't love the Browns as much, if the Indians and Cavs were ever worth a damn, after the luster of their new venues wore off.  Maybe Belichick would have never came anything more than a lieutenant to Parcells, had he been fired by the Browns after a shaky beginning.

These are things I think about, but never worry about.  And, though it's been a while since the Browns last won a Super Bowl, they just need one more to equal Pittsburgh's four.  We've finally exorcised the ghosts of John Elway, Red Right 88, and every other miserable thing that's ever happened to this city.  Even though the Browns are having somewhat of a down year this season, I'm happy to have Belichick on the sideline, wearing that same Starter hoodie that he borrowed from Saban in 1994, coaching this team for a 23rd season...

Doc Browns Alternate Timeline

I guess this is where the blue pill or red pill is starting to wear off.  Either that, or Biff Tannen has stolen the time machine and manipulated the present to be a house of horrors for Browns fans.  We are back to that world, where speculation that the Browns won't win another game happens in early December, where we wonder about the next coach before the current one has coached his 13th game, and where we get paranoid about the depth of blue-chip in a draft that's 6 months away. That's the world we live in, even if we are of enough sound mind and body to comprehend that it may always be like that.

Two BillsLook, I know that it's preposterous to draw conclusions like I have in this article.  After five years, Belichick may, and probably would have been fired after the 1995 season, even if its debatable that the double-digit loss season happens without the distraction of re-location.  He may have learned a lot more in his second go-around as the #2 to Bill Parcells than he would have on his own in Cleveland.

Ozzie and Baltimore may have been the perfect storm, but I contend that Newsome had the benefit of a Top 10 pick, which wasn't necessarily commonplace for the Browns back then, and a second 1st-rounder.  The home run they hit with the linebacker from Miami involved a lot of luck, even if they saw somethng in him that 24 other teams may have missed.

And, what do we make of Brady at 199 in the 2000 Draft?  Is that just a case of everything falling into place or what?  The whole New England Dynasty goes away, if he's taken at 198 or the Patriots roll the dice that he could be had as an undrafted free agent with an incumbent like Drew Bledsoe holding down the job.  If only these rebooted Browns could be so lucky as to have a talent like 2000/2001 Drew Bledsoe already on the depth chart, let alone a near-Mr. Irrelevant to take his job and become a once-in-a-generation type of talent.  However, they haven't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season, and that's the knock on them.

If only that was the knock on the Browns.  We're approaching a decade since the Patriots have won a Super Bowl, but they lost two since.  You know what I would give to see the Browns GO to the Super Bowl once, let alone twice?  Even in a bad year, they won 11 games and missed the playoffs...with a back-up quarterback.  The Browns have never won 11 games in a season, but they did win 10 and miss the post-season in 2007, which we sometimes consider "Our Greatest Year".

2007Our greatest year has to be better than that.  It has to be better than those teams of the 80s and 90s that couldn't get it done in the playoffs, right?  I'm starting to miss the playoff failures; at least, the games were watchable after Thanksgiving in those years.  I miss having the option to settle for mediocrity.  I miss getting upset by a far inferior Pittsburgh team, because it would have to mean that Pittsburgh is inferior to Cleveland, even if it did not and will not equal wins on the field.

Most of all, I am beginning to hate myself for wishing for anything short of greatness and glory for the Browns.  I hate myself for how often I have to convince myself that it isn't going to hapen, but I hate myself more when I allow hope to seep in.  Abandoning all hope and being fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, but the doctor highly recommends it for Browns fans.

Even if it defies logic and sensibility, I'm still blaming Modell for all of it.  I can't guarantee it would have been that much better, had he not stolen what rightfully belonged to Cleveland, but it would be different.  And as I'm watching the Patriots destroy them on Sunday, if I'm watching the Patriots destory them on Sunday, I'm sure different would automatically mean better.

At least, in my scenario, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar are still alive.

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