The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next.
On October 14, 2012, the mighty Cleveland Browns defeated the lowly Cincinnati Bengals 34-24, raising their record to a respectable 1-5. The Browns, in fact, had dropped 11 straight dating back to the previous season, which at the time struck me as an abnormal number of games to lose in a row. But on this dazzling autumn Ohio afternoon, led by rookie quarterback and budding superstar Brandon Weeden—who celebrated his 58th birthday by throwing for two touchdowns, including a 71-yard hookup with fellow budding superstar Josh Gordon—justice prevailed, angels (in latex dog masks) sang, a prosperous new era dawned.
Browns win! The Browns won. Yes. A victory. For the Browns. Not a loss; not a tie. A win. Indeed. The Browns, from Cleveland. This, too, was abnormal. Here, for example, was my 1-year-old son’s immediate reaction.
To be a Browns fan is to regard any positive development—such as a win, or for that matter a person on the internet writing that they might win a game at some future time—with utter shock and immediate suspicion. It has to be a joke, a bit, a cruel setup for future humiliation. The Browns are supposed to be good—perhaps even great—this season. Maybe you heard about it. Maybe you don’t yet quite believe it. Maybe you are, in fact, 15 percent excited and 85 percent braced for some newer, crueler, more public and prolonged form of total degradation. Maybe you are, in short, a Browns fan.
Here is the part where I need to summarize for you just how much this team has sucked, and for how long. This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.
Top Five Personal Browns Moments in the 21st Century (All Emotions Eligible)
This was the December 2001 game vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars when the Browns (riding high with a 6-6 record and led by budding superstar QB Tim Couch) got boned by the refs on a fourth-quarter fourth-down call, sealing the game for the Jaguars and compelling the righteously displeased crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium to throw a bunch of shit on the field. True story: Oblivious to these events, I walked into the official Columbus Blue Jackets arena team shop at the exact moment the bottles started flying, looked up at the TV screens, observed a bunch of Browns fans looking furious while a bunch of Browns players looked dejected, and said, out loud, and I quote, “Yep.”
4. The Helmet Game
This was the 2002 season opener, in which the mighty Browns beat the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, except on the final play linebacker Dwayne Rudd took his helmet off, threw it 15 yards in celebration, got flagged, and watched as the Chiefs kicked a last-second field goal to win. The next morning I wrote like a 2,000-word post on my Yahoo fantasy football message board imagining that I beat up Rudd, dragged him down the length of an Applebee’s salad bar, and threw him out a plate-glass window. It was hilarious.
3. The Christmas Eve Miracle
This was in 2016 when the San Diego Chargers biffed a last-second field goal and the victorious Browns thusly raised their record to a respectable 1-14, avoiding, at least, the ignominy of an 0-16 season. Both my sons screamed at the television for like 20 minutes.
2. When the Browns actually went 0-16 the following year and somebody threw a Perfect Season Parade around the stadium in January 2018, during which my phone got so cold it turned itself off.
At one point during the actual parade, I glowered up at a banner of Myles Garrett glowering down at me glowering up at him glowering down at me in a perfectly Brownsian feedback loop.
1. The Browns beat the Steelers 21-21.
This was the 2018 season opener, in which the mighty Browns tied the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers, not losing for the first time in 624 days. Browns don’t lose! The Browns didn’t lose. Yes. A near-victory. For the Browns. Not a loss. A tie. Indeed. The Browns, from Cleveland. Two games later, during a farcical Thursday Night Football matchup with the New York Jets, rookie quarterback and actual budding superstar Baker Mayfield took the field, and the Browns actually won a game and finished out the season an ungodly triumphant 7-8-1, and an actual prosperous new era dawned, theoretically, maybe.
I am a lifelong Browns fan with vivid memories of, for example, grown men guzzling whiskey out of Hershey’s syrup bottles during midwinter games in the early ’90s at the old Municipal Stadium. But I have kept my fandom at a detached, somewhat ironic remove that permits me, for example, to drive around buying hockey apparel during big games. If being a Browns fan is cool now—or at the very least, not abjectly terrible and humiliating—most of my friends and loved ones deserve far more credit, and deserve an actual winning season, far more than I do. My buddy Mike once greatly upset his wife by admitting (pre-children) that he would live as a homeless person for a year in exchange for the Browns winning a Super Bowl. (Mike, who punishes himself after especially painful sports losses by eating at Arby’s—he hates Arby’s—also “refused to study for a law-school exam” after Bottlegate.) My brother-in-law had season tickets for 13 years, despite living in L.A. for the last nine. They deserve this. This is their time, their birthright, their Golden Era to enjoy. Theoretically. Maybe.
(Also: Midway through writing this, I went to the dentist, who informed me that she’d quit rooting for the Browns several years ago because she’d “become a very angry person.” She and her husband are having people over on Friday to watch Browns-Buccaneers, which is a preseason game.)
Deserve is a squishy word; Cleveland as a whole has struggled mightily over the years to avoid wallowing in overwrought championship-drought misery à la Boston, a curse both mitigated and exacerbated by the Indians in their various good-but-not-quite-good-enough years, and finally broken by LeBron in 2016. But as shitty as they’ve been for as long as they’ve been, the Browns own the city like no one and nobody else, such that the highlight of an early-August Indians game in the midst of their recent surge was the surprise sight of Mayfield on the Jumbotron shotgunning a beer while flaunting a classic Long-Suffering Browns Fan mustache. Gaze in wonder upon Cleveland’s large adult son, an absolute unit, dilly dilly, so on and so forth.
The run-up to this NFL season, in which the Browns are generally purported to win their division (for starters), has a surrealist zeal that can end only with either (a) indeed, a Browns Super Bowl win or (b) the sports equivalent of the Carrie prom scene. And with apologies to my good friend Myles Garrett or even Odell Beckham Jr. (The Browns front office did a good thing is another sentiment I am not used to seeing expressed), it all hinges on Mayfield. It is bizarre beyond expression that a Browns quarterback is getting the GQ-article “he pokes at his plate of chicken milanese” treatment, is giving quotes like “Looking back on it, I kind of was built like a little bitch,” is trash-talking other teams’ quarterbacks, is photographed wearing thousands of dollars worth of clothes, plus a belt from Prada captioned as “price upon request.” I have never even considered asking Prada how much a Browns quarterback’s belt cost. This is the highest profile one of our QBs has had since Brady Quinn was throwing footlongs at people in a Subway ad. It’s delirious. It’s awesome. It’s terrifying.
It could also all end at any time. Specifically, it could end Sunday, September 8, with a shocking Week 1 loss to the Tennessee Titans, followed by Mayfield getting hit by a bus, followed by the Browns losing their nigh-unprecedented four prime-time games by a combined total of 250 points, followed by my buddy Mike eating Arby’s for a month straight, followed by my dentist throwing her couch off her roof. This is, in short, the first Browns season in half a decade at least where they have … expectations. Where anybody other than the Dawg Pound denizens guzzling whiskey out of chocolate-syrup bottles is paying attention. Where there is more to lose, further to fall, more pain to feel. They still suck; who cares was not a rewarding fan sentiment, but it was familiar, easy, and, above all, safe. It is mortifying that any of you people are willing to read 1,400 words about the Browns under any circumstances. It is, indeed, cool to be a Browns fan now. It is also, to paraphrase our protosuperstar QB, an awfully dangerous feeling.
You know who really deserves a redemptive Browns arc, by the way? Actual-superstar Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who retired in 2018 after 11 seasons, 10 Pro Bowls, a record 10,363 consecutive snaps, and literally no playoff games. I have never felt worse for a pro athlete, in any context, than Joe Thomas; he ought to get a Super Bowl ring if and when the team manages to win one, even if he is long dead, even if the planet as we know it is, even if merely imagining this scenario is to invite further disaster. For the first year in maybe literally forever, this might be our year. It is almost certainly a trap. But at least it’s ours.