It happens every year -- and we never learn.
Smack dab in the middle of March, one NFL franchise goes nuclear in free agency, emptying the wallet to add a legion of overpriced veterans to the roster. In turn, lathered-up football heads from east to west pronounce said team is WINNING THE OFFSEASON.
No label has proven more dubious, and it's the label itself that must be nuked.
I watched in semi-awe as a jewel-encrusted crown was shoved on the brow of an entrenched laughingstock that hadn't won a playoff game since New Year's Day 1995. I blanched when colleagues would shout proclamations across the NFL Network parking lot -- "Those Browns are going to the Super Bowl!" -- recalling the billion red flags that seemed to accompany any good turn by the team since its return to the league in 1999.
Fans of other browbeaten squads, once brothers in arms, told me I was out of the club. No longer a sufferer of bad football, I was now attached to a Browns operation guaranteed to dropkick Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the face, score 45 points a tilt and clinch the AFC North in July.
Obviously, the whole thing was a raging sham. Clinging to refurbished scripts of old, Cleveland bumbled and tumbled to another six-win nightmare amid a sea of in-fighting, LSD-tinged game-planning and headline-generating anti-dramas only the Browns could devise. By September's end, I vowed to never again fall for the fountains of hype showering teams that make their biggest mark before Memorial Day.
Ultimately, last year's Browns fall into the same notorious bucket as a handful of so-called offseason champs who glowed bright until actual games were played. Case in point: the shopping-spree Dolphins of 2013, who imported an array of free agents -- wideout Mike Wallace, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, right tackle Tyson Clabo, tight end Dustin Keller, guard Lance Louis, defensive tackle Vaughn Martin and receiver Brandon Gibson -- who were all history within two calendar years.
And let us not forget the highly absurd "Dream Team" cobbled together by Philadelphia following the 2011 NFL lockout. This over-the-top moniker came courtesy of quarterback Vince Young, part of an Eagles free-agent class led by All-Pro cover man Nnamdi Asomugha, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and edge rusher Jason Babin, among other would-be Lombardi hoisters. Crooned Young: "From Nnamdi to Cromartie to Jason to myself. ... It's just beautiful to see where we're trying to go."
Go they did not, stumbling to a 1-4 start and finishing 8-8 before many of those same overpaid, free-agent misfits authored an S.O.S.-inducing four-win dud the following year. As with Miami's splurge of 2013, many of Philly's overpaid free agents were off the roster within two years, while the enigmatic Asomugha -- known for brushing off Eagles teammates to eat lunch alone in his car -- was out of football altogether by 2014 after netting $25 million guaranteed in that ill-fated contract with Philadelphia.
The siren song of free agency elicits quizzical behavior by all sorts of teams. Who can forget the Texans "solving" their quarterback problem by handing $37 million guaranteed to Brock Osweiler? He lasted but one campaign before Houston shipped Brock -- plus a second-round pick -- to Cleveland in what amounted to an NBA-like salary dump. Now nestled in retirement, Osweiler glistens as the hood ornament on a clown car of hideous one-off deals.
History tells us plenty of open-market signings bring value, but my annoyance flairs when a desperate club attempts to craft a Super Bowl contender in a single offseason. Be it through signings or mega-swaps, we've seen too many of these Build-a-Team experiments dismantled almost immediately. The parting players are often joined by the jettisoned general managers and coaches who signed off on the ludicrous spree in the first place.
I'm not asking intelligence-deprived organizations to avoid pounding the idiot button.
My request is for the rest of us: Don't fall for the bait.
No more TEAM X WON THE OFFSEASON jive.
Pump those brakes. It's on us all to survey next week's open-market bum-rush with a healthy dose of suspicion. No more placing blue ribbons on fool's-gold teams with nothing more than smoke and mirrors where a beating heart should be.