How could it be anybody else?
For the past two weeks, we've counted down the NFL teams and fan bases that have suffered the most through the years. Deciding where to slot each of the damned in the "top seven" was a difficult process (a process, it must be acknowledged, I took waaaaay too seriously). The truth of the matter is that a case can be made for each of the teams to land anywhere in the first six spots.
In an exercise that focuses on the Super Bowl era, nobody can touch the unadulterated hurt of Cleveland's football enterprise. Zero Super Bowl trips, a trio of iconic playoff losses in the '80s, the outright elimination of the franchise for a period in the '90s and an unrelenting struggle in the post-rebirth 2000s.
This is an endlessly loyal fan base still searching for its reward. It was terrible for the city when the Cavs lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat in 2010 -- but at least Cleveland's NBA team had a LeBron (and later got him back, to boot). The Browns are still waiting for their King to walk through the door. That guy -- whoever he is -- is running seriously late.
As hard as it is to believe, the Browns were once a true football force. Led by all-time greats Jim Brown and Otto Graham, Cleveland won eight championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, including four consecutive All-America Football Conference titles (1946-49) and National Football League championships in 1950 (their inaugural NFL season), 1954, 1955 and 1964. (The '64 conquest remains the last major pro sports title for the city.) If you want to get your Cleveland fan buddy unreasonably upset, tell him he can't complain about the Browns because they were wildly dominant during the Truman administration.
We're not going to do that. Browns fans deserve better. They deserved to beat Elway once. They deserved an owner who wouldn't turn out the lights in the name of luxury suites. They deserved one of these hotshot rookie quarterbacks to be worth a damn.
A wise sage -- OK, it was Tom Petty -- once taught us that the waiting is the hardest part. To which, a grizzled denizen of the Dawg Pound might be quick to reply, "No sh--."
Patron Saint Of Pain: Earnest Byner
In which we choose the figure who best represents the suffering ...
The Browns had their hearts broken by John Elway and The Drive in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, but they had a chance to turn the tables one year later in a conference title rematch. Cleveland wiped out a 21-3 halftime deficit behind some transcendent quarterbacking from Bernie Kosar and marched deep into Denver territory with a chance to tie the game with less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Cue the calamity. Running back Earnest Byner took the ball on a draw, darted to the outside, then cut back in. As he crossed the 3-yard line, Broncos nickel back Jeremiah Castille reached in and knocked the ball loose. Castille recovered the fumble and the game was effectively over. The Broncos went on to win, 38-33.
"Earnest never saw Castille coming," former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer told ESPN Classic. "Earnest was the reason we were still in the game at that point. He had several heroic runs and catches over the course of the second half that allowed us to have a chance to tie the game at 38. All of these heroics, unfortunately, were overshadowed by a single draw play from the 8-yard line."
Check out the clip above, as NBC cameras remained fixed on Byner as he makes the long walk from the goal line to his lonely spot near the Cleveland bench. How could you not feel for the man? Utter devastation.
Apex Of Pain
In which we study the lowest point in franchise history ...
In the end, it all went back to money. It always does.
Art Modell felt the Browns were playing in an outdated stadium that kept the team from being financially solvent. So the longtime owner made a business decision -- a region-rattling business decision. He would move his franchise to Baltimore before the start of the 1996 season.
It seemed almost impossible. The Brownswere Cleveland in many ways. The fans would have built a new stadium brick-by-brick on their off days if it meant the difference between their team staying and going. Instead, heartbroken fans spent the team's final home game on Dec. 17, 1995, ripping out sections of the bleachers, either for themselves or to throw onto the field as a sign of protest.
"I told my wife not to come to that game," said Ozzie Newsome, then a promising Browns personnel man, in the NFL Network special Cleveland '95: A Football Life. "Because we didn't know what was going to happen."
"I personally never felt threatened," said Bill Belichick, of his final home game as Browns coach, "but it certainly was not like a normal home game. There's never been a game like that before."
The old Browns, now known as the Ravens, benefitted from a strong foundation built during the final Cleveland years. They won two Super Bowls and have qualified for the playoffs eight times since setting up shop in Charm City. There's a parallel universe -- one I don't suggest Browns fans even try to imagine -- in which Bill Belichick coached Ray Lewis for 15 years in Cleveland. The Ravens should have been named the Baltimore Butterfly Effect.
Browns fans got their team back -- and a new stadium, too -- but there hasn't been much to cheer about in the 16 seasons since. Cleveland has gone 84-172 and qualified for the playoffs just once since the reboot.
Modell never again stepped foot in Cleveland after the move. He was persona non grata in the city when he died in 2012.
The Hurt Files
In which we study some other deeply punishing low moments ...
Red Right 88: The Browns were trailing the Raiders, 14-12, late in the 1980 divisional playoffs when Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano made perhaps the worst decision in Cleveland sports history (well, at least until LeBron sat down with Jim Gray). With the ball on the Oakland 13 yard-line and less than a minute to play, Rutigliano called for a pass play -- "Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay, 88." Browns quarterback Brian Sipe was instructed to throw the ball away if no one was open, but he forced the ensuing pass into coverage and it was intercepted by Oakland corner Mike Davis. The Kardiac Kids were finished. The Raiders won Super Bowl XV three weeks later.
The game was played in some of the coldest conditions in playoff history. Browns kicker Don Cockroft had already missed two field goals and had an extra point blocked. There was some logic to throwing the ball in the spot. Just not enough.
The Drive: The guts of the John Elway legend was built at Cleveland's expense. The Browns led the Broncos, 20-13, with 5:32 to play in the 1986 AFC Championship Game when the Broncos took possession at their own 2-yard line following a botched kickoff return. Elway stepped on the field and picked the Browns' defense apart, marching Denver 98 yards on 15 plays to tie the game with less than a minute to play. In overtime, Broncos kicker Rich Karlis hit a short field goal to hand the Browns a devastating loss.
The Fumble was still to come.
2002 Wild Card Playoffs: The Browns have played in just one postseason game since their 1999 return. Fittingly, that one flirtation with meaningful January competition ended in heartbreak. Behind a red-hot Kelly Holcomb (seriously), the Browns built a 24-7 lead in the third quarter at Heinz Field. But Tommy Maddox (seriously) led Pittsburgh back. Maddox directed three fourth-quarter scoring drives, the final ending with a Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (seriously) touchdown run with less than a minute to play. The Browns fell 36-33 and have not been back to the playoffs since.
Draft blunders: The Browns have struggled to gain their footing in their second iteration, and a poor draft record is a major reason why. Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, William Green, Braylon Edwards, Brady Quinn, Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden read like a who's who of failed first-round investments.
This is a team that took Kellen Winslow Jr. when Ben Roethlisberger was available. (The only thing Big Ben and Winslow had in common was flawed motorcycle-riding abilities.) The ledger could get worse, too. The jury is very much out on recent first-round picks Justin Gilbert, Barkevious Mingo, and, of course, Johnny Manziel.
Speaking of which ...
Johnny Manziel's rookie season: Whoa. It's easy to forget -- now just 14 months later -- what Manziel represented when the Browns selected the former Texas A&M sensation with the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 draft. Manziel was about flash and sizzle for Cleveland, sure, but he also represented hope. Hope that the Browns had deftly imported a charismatic winner at quarterback. Then the other swan float dropped.
TMZ taught us that Manziel partied relentlessly in the months leading up to his NFL debut. Then, when he finally saw meaningful snaps during Cleveland's second-half swoon, the rookie quarterback face-planted. The season ended, Manziel checked himself into rehab, and he's now entrenched as the backup quarterback behind Josh McCown. Josh McCown, people! Even Lindsay Lohan is disturbed by Johnny Football's fall from grace.
Phil: Whenever I read about the latest Manziel setback, I think about Phil. Does he still believe? Has he abandoned hope? Does his heart now belong to another? Does he still own those shorts?
From someone who should know
Mike Polk Jr. is a comedian, Cleveland native and Browns season-ticket holder who scored a viral web hit a few years back with "The Factory Of Sadness (A Cleveland Browns Fan's Reaction To Today's Game Against Houston)", a pitch-perfect ode to fan pain. We caught up with Mike to ask him about the video and life at the factory in the years since.
OK, so how did the Factory of Sadness video come about?
I remember they were playing Houston on the road and it was just one of those games where it didn't even look like football. It was just a completely miserable, impotent, gross game to watch. I'm sure the score was 9-5 or something, which doesn't even make sense. The whole time I was having a couple cocktails, and getting more frustrated and just screaming out random things in the bar. And people were responding favorably to my criticism, so I just started jotting a few things down. After the game, I made the short drive to the stadium. I do some video-production stuff, so I had a camera in my car. So I set up the tripod, lit myself with my headlights, screamed at the stadium for probably about four minutes, came back that night, had a couple more drinks and quite frankly didn't remember posting it. Woke up the next morning -- and by morning, I mean early- to mid-afternoon -- and I log on to social-media stuff and see it had taken off. And I was like, "What's this that everybody's passing around?" It was the thing I had made that night before and didn't recollect completely.
It spoke to a lot of people, and not just Browns fans, either -- which was interesting because that's the one thing that made me happy about it was, even though I was speaking specifically about one team, I think it related to a lot of people who follow frustrating teams in different sports who said how they connected with it. So that was kind of cool. Yeah, drunk dudes still yell it at me at bars from time to time -- and, boy, that never gets old, let me tell you.
Have things gotten better since then? Worse?
It hasn't gotten better, but I've just gotten older and slightly more jaded (because that implies success), but I've gotten more accepting of the whole fate. I always describe it as right before you totally drown, you freak out, you panic and then there's this moment of calm right before you die where you just kind of let it take you. And I've been kind of in that state for the last couple of years.
People still want me to get furious and stuff, too, which is funny because they'll be like, "Come on, why aren't you mad?" I'm like, "I just don't have it in me. And it's not that I don't care about the team and it's not that I don't want to win. It's certainly not that I've developed better priorities because it's not like something else took the place of that, like something healthy like charity work or anything. I care less and less about pretty much every aspect of life as I get older, and fortunately one of the positive byproducts of that is that I don't freak out to that degree about Browns games anymore.
You still care, even against your better instinct.
I'm at every game I'm in town for. I'm watching every game that I can't be at physically. I still root like hell for them and I still want them to win. I'll use New England as a comparison: If you've ever seen one of those spoiled Patriots fans freak out when their team doesn't play up to the level that they think they deserve as a fan base, it's just sickening. They get mad if they go three years without going to the Super Bowl, they're like, "WE'VE GOT TO FIRE EVERYBODY." It's all perspective, though. You can barely blame them because if you're raised like a spoiled, rich kid, you expect the environment that you're born into. And they were born into opulence. Whereas we were born into poverty, so we're products of that environment.
Last year we won seven games and, I swear, you should have heard the positive vibes after that season. Even though we lost the last five games, we were like, "Hey, seven wins! Not bad, you guys!" Even when we lose a game a lot of times, if we scored a couple of touchdowns and it looked like a real football game, we're like, "Hey guys, that kind of looked like football! Great job, everyone!" So yeah, the bar is real low.