The NFL, as we’ve written about this week, is defined by parity, with 20 of 32 teams currently holding records between 3–5 and 5–3. Hypothetically a competitive league is exciting, but the compounded mediocrity makes it a slog. It’s hard to identify more than a few standouts in a league where everybody seems capable of beating — or losing to — almost everybody else. There are the Patriots, some teams that might be good, and then a whole host of teams that are roughly average.
And then, below all those teams, there are the Cleveland Browns, the league’s last winless team, sadly sitting at 0–9. And they’re not likely to get any better. Their best opportunity to win was probably a home tilt against the hapless Jets in Week 8. But they lost that one, 31–28, and from here on out, all of their opponents are in the Zone of Parity or better.
Yet, I’ve somehow been impressed by the Browns. Yes, they’ve been horrible. They’re 0–9. But — and here comes one of the dumbest sentences I’ve ever typed — I feel like they’re not that bad for an 0–9 team.
A lot of their badness can be explained by a historic string of injuries under center. Injuries to the team’s top four quarterback options led to legitimate playing time at QB for wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (who deserves some sort of award for being one of the NFL’s most fun humans) and rookie Kevin Hogan, who was drafted in the fifth round and promptly cut by the Chiefs. No team had played six quarterbacks in the first seven games of the season since the 1976 Buccaneers, who famously lost every game they played. Two weeks ago, the team released a QB depth chart consisting of Hogan, an undrafted rookie named Joe Callahan who played in Division III last season … and that was it!
It’s hard enough to win with your first-string QB. It’s borderline impossible to win with unwanted rookies and wide receivers at football’s most important position. And yet the Browns generally aren’t getting blown out! OK, they’ve gotten blown out by the Patriots and Cowboys, two of the league’s best teams. But four of their games have been decided by a single possession, and during losses to Cincinnati and Washington, they were within one possession most of the way.
On the one hand, I’m encouraged by the Browns. On the other, everything about the Browns leads me to believe that they are irreparably doomed and that the curse of Cleveland still exists. The omens are out there, and they are very bad.
Future Timeline No. 1: They’re Rebuilding, and It Might Actually Work This Time
The definitive item of the 21st century Cleveland Browns is the Browns Starting Quarterback Jersey, which started out featuring Tim Couch, but the owner replaced his name with every quarterback to start for the Browns up to Austin Davis, with two McCowns between them. The jersey is a testament to the sheer number of misguided ideas and bad luck the Browns have experienced. But you could easily make a Browns Head Coach Headset with the names of all of the team’s failed coaches, or a Browns General Manager Draft Board listing all the regimes that have come and gone.
The Browns might soon have all three. Hue Jackson has long been a good NFL assistant and went .500 in his one season as head coach before being inexplicably fired by the Raiders. I cannot stress how difficult it must be to nearly win football games with such historic volatility and bad luck at quarterback. The Browns are doing it, and Jackson deserves some of the credit.
Upstairs, the team eliminated the GM position, but hired a bunch of dudes from Harvard like lawyer Sashi Brown and former baseball executive Paul DePodesta to fill that role. They might not be football people, but they just traded a third-round pick for All-Pro linebacker Jamie Collins, somehow turning a chance to select a decent player into a player who is already great, so they seem to know what they’re doing. Collins is set to be a free agent, but if the Browns can persuade him to stay, the decision to trade for him will have been a great call.
We knew the Browns were thinking about the long term when they punted on the option to use their no. 2 pick in April’s draft. Instead, they dealt down until they had 14 picks, the most in the NFL. Plus, they got an extra first- and second-rounder in 2017.
In addition to all those picks, the team’s poor play will probably give Cleveland next year’s no. 1 pick and a chance to draft a franchise quarterback like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson or Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. And they’ll have three more opportunities to take team-changing players in the first two rounds.
Unfortunately, the team’s only recent positive draft moves were made by Kevin Costner. You ever notice how Draft Day actually ends before you find out if any of the players are good? This is the nature of the NFL draft (and it’s also why the idea of a movie about the NFL draft is fundamentally flawed, but whatever).
Any draft pick is an educated guess, and the Browns have been absolutely horrible at guessing. Cleveland’s parade of general managers somehow managed to turn five consecutive first-round picks into players — Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Barkevious Mingo, Johnny Manziel, and Justin Gilbert — that were off the team’s roster by the time their rookie contracts expired. The first round is supposed to produce franchise players, and, five times in a row, the Browns couldn’t even pick players capable of staying on the team.
Of course, past failure by Browns executives doesn’t necessarily predict future failure by different people. And the current front office seems to realize the most reliable way to guess well is by guessing a lot. It’s like they’ve taken The Process and applied it to football: The Philadelphia 76ers put out basketball sludge for a few seasons. They accumulated a lot of picks — 16 in the past three drafts — which gave them plenty of opportunities to select potentially good NBA players. Some worked, some didn’t, but it left the 76ers with a roster filled with more talent than they ever could have assembled by attempting to win basketball games in recent years.
In the NFL, though, you don’t really have the luxury of waiting a few seasons to effect such a dramatic rebuild. Players’ careers just aren’t long enough. So the Browns’ future will likely come down to whether they pick the right guys next April.
After many years of wandering aimlessly, the Browns actually seem to have a plan. Who knows if it’ll work, but just by letting the front office carry out its strategy, the Browns will be doing the smartest thing they’ve done in a long while. They’ve switched horses midstream enough times to see that it gets you nothing but dead horses and uncrossed streams. At least the Harvard brain trust offers them the opportunity to get to the other side — even if the current team is 0–9.
Future Timeline No. 2: Nope, They Are Irreparably Cursed
I knew the Browns were doomed when Charlie Whitehurst got injured.
The Browns signed Robert Griffin III to kick the tires on a potentially great QB with a bad injury history. He got hurt Week 1. Disappointing, but something that happens in the NFL.
Griffin’s backup, Josh McCown, got hurt Week 2. OK, bad luck, but McCown has been playing quarterback in the NFL since the Korean War and is understandably brittle.
They had to start Cody Kessler, a rookie third-rounder who was supposed to spend his year developing in practice way down the depth chart. And just to have somebody there in case Kessler got hurt, the Browns signed Whitehurst, a career backup with phenomenal hair and just enough quarterback talent to serve as a human insurance plan in case a team’s actual good quarterback gets hurt.
When Kessler got hurt Week 5, the Browns didn’t need Whitehurst to be good. They just needed somebody to complete a football game and allow 10 other players to get meaningful game reps. Instead, Whitehurst got hurt in the same game as Kessler, and instead of Pryor continuing to develop his WR skills, he had to play the position he played in college just to help Cleveland finish the game.
The Browns were not trying to win. They just wanted to exist, and this pitiful plea was rejected with violence by the football gods.
Friends, this is what a curse looks like. The only option is failure. The Browns do not have to fumble. Even on plays when they do not fumble, the ball will be awarded to their opponent, for no reason besides the fury of some deity too powerful and vengeful to listen to you.
We have long acknowledged that Cleveland’s sports teams are cursed, although we never bothered to name it. We blamed Boston’s decades of baseball misfortune on a long-dead slugger. We gave the Cubs a literal scapegoat. But the world outside of Northeast Ohio couldn’t bother to think about Cleveland long enough to give its half-century of sports futility a name.
But now Cleveland is practically the center of the sports world. The Cavs won the NBA Finals with an all-time great player in an all-time great series, and will be in the mix to do it again this year. The Indians didn’t win, but they made Game 7 of the World Series with a team that played revolutionary baseball, and could be a contender for some time. Hell, even the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League won a title.
Except the Browns, as wretched as ever. They don’t get to be good. They don’t get to even be OK. They seem doomed to permanent irrelevance. They’ve never been in a Super Bowl. They haven’t been in a conference championship game in my lifetime. They’ve been to the playoffs only once since being reborn in 1999, and that was 14 years ago, when they lost to the Steelers in the wild-card round.
The Browns may stack up the brightest minds and most talented players, but I fear it will never matter. It is quite clear to me that the plentiful sadness of Cleveland sports has been thrust onto the Browns. It’s not that the Cleveland curse has been broken; it’s just that the Browns have been chosen to bear the burden of three franchises’ worth of tragedy.