A Browns Diary: Redux
So … the Bengals didn’t take. After five minutes, I already knew … look, I like Joe Burrow, and I worked in Cincinnati for a while, and one of my best friends is a Bengals fan, but let’s not kid anybody: I’m not going to be a Bengals fan. It’s not a fit. Even at the end, with the Bengals having a chance to beat my least favorite NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, I just didn’t have any feelings at all for them.
So, by popular demand, yeah, I’m going to do one more Browns’ Diary … because the thing that happened to the Browns on Sunday might be, as impossible as it seems, the worst thing that has EVER happened to the Browns.
And we all know that covers an astonishing array of dreadful things.
As a kid, I had few gifts. Couldn’t draw. Couldn’t write. Wasn’t musical. Thick glasses in the second grade. Smallest kid in the class. I believe the peak of my childhood was either making multiple dazzling defensive plays at third base as an 8-year-old in the South Euclid Underhand Pitch League or finishing third in a spelling bee (while getting knocked out on the word “chocolate”).
But there was one thing I could do: I could imagine ways for the Cleveland Browns to come back from any deficit no matter how little time was left. I could do the calculations instantly, too. “All they have to do is score a touchdown, get the onside kick, score a touchdown, get another onside kick and then they don’t even need a touchdown, they can win with a field goal!”
My mind was always ablaze with comeback possibilities. Always. Of course, the truly miraculous comebacks almost never happened — but I could imagine them happening. I could SEE them happening in my mind’s eye.
I mention that the wildest comeback ALMOST never happened — one time it did. In January 1987, the Cleveland Browns played the New York Jets in a divisional playoff game. If you are of a certain age and care at all about the Browns or the Jets, you will immediately know the game. I know it by heart, every minute of it. You’re going to get more about that game than you want, I’m telling you that right up front.
The Browns were 12-4 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC; this was their year to go to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Jets started the season 10-1 and looked like Super Bowl favorites themselves before losing their last five games of the season in calamitous fashion. Seriously. The Jets were outscored 183-61 those last five games, an average score of 37-12.
But the Jets somehow put it together with a blowout victory over the Chiefs in the wild-card round, and then, to my horror, they came into Cleveland and absolutely stuck it to the Browns. Cleveland’s brilliant young quarterback, Bernie Kosar, was awful that day. Late in the fourth quarter, he threw an absolutely terrible interception (though the one he threw into the Jets end zone earlier was even worse). That set up a jaunty Freeman McNeil touchdown run with just a bit more than four minutes left. That put the Jets up 20-10 or, more to the point here, put the Browns down 20-10.
It was over. This was the mid-1980s, when huge comebacks in the final minutes were much rarer than they are now (in part because most kickers didn’t even TRY 50-yard field goals, much less make them). Oh, yes, it was over. “The Jets,” Bob Trumpy said on the broadcast, “have taken it away from them.”
But, of course, I ran the calculations because that was my one enduring skill. If the Browns could score quickly (even a field goal!) and then maybe recover an onside kick and then …
Then the Browns got the ball and made it very clear: They were NOT coming back. On first down, they were called for holding. On the next play, Kosar was sacked. The next play was offsetting penalties. Nothing good was happening. The Browns were spinning their wheels in the mud. It was second and 24 with just a little more than three minutes left, Browns down by two scores, the stadium was not just quiet but silent as a morgue .
On the next play, Kosar’s pass was knocked down at the line. And then, the first miracle happened. New York’s wild man, Mark Gastineau, decided it was a good time to hit Kosar late. The officials threw the flag. First down, Browns!
Most Jets fans I know will blame Gastineau for all that happened next … but I never thought that was right. Yes, Gastineau’s roughing-the-passer penalty did help, but the Browns were still completely discombobulated. On first down, Kosar threw behind his receiver. On second down, he threw the ball some 15 feet to the right of his receiver. He was fracturing before our very eyes. And the clock ticked on.
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Then came third and 10 … and THIS was when everything changed. Kosar threw a quick pass to receiver Reggie Langhorne, who was pulled down close to the first down marker. “He’s short!” Don Criqui announced, and sure enough, one official marked him short. But a second official raced in, took the ball and moved it up the field. Hardly anyone noticed it at the time — well, that’s not exactly right, the Jets coach, Joe Walton, noticed it and he screamed and pointed and briefly lost his mind.
But there were no reviews then. The ball was marked, the chains came out, and it was a first down.
And somehow, during this little break in the action, Kosar and the Browns got it together. The magic was about to begin.
And, I don’t know why, but that was the thing that turned on the magic.
Kosar to Langhorne for a big play. Kosar to Brian Brennan (that “undersized, overachieving receiver from Boston College,” as Criqui called him) for a big play. Kosar back to Brennan, all the way to the Jets’ 3-yard line. After the 2-minute warning, Kevin Mack blasted into the end zone to pull the Browns within three.
The Browns then tried an onside kick (as my calculations demanded), but it failed. But Cleveland still had two timeouts, and after they stuffed the Jets in three plays, they got the ball back with about a minute left. Kosar drove the Browns right down the field for the game-tying field goal just before the clock expired (the Browns actually had a chance to win the game in regulation, but spent like 10 seconds celebrating a long pass to Webster Slaughter).
The overtime was a mess with, in my memory, about 17 missed field goals by Mark Moseley. But finally, he made one, and the Browns won.
It remains one of the five happiest days of my life.
OK, so on Sunday, Browns vs. Jets again, only this time I wasn’t watching. I was trying on some other teams for size. The Dolphins are fun; I’m thinking maybe they should be in the mix for my new team. I found myself a little bit invested in Detroit when the Lions were blowing out Washington early. Sure, I kept seeing the Browns-Jets scores, but wasn’t paying too much attention to them.
Then I saw that with just a couple of ticks more than two minutes left, and the Browns up by a touchdown, the great Nick Chubb took the handoff and headed left. Oh, Nick Chubb, you superhero! He completely faked out a defender, ran toward the sideline and had the end zone in his sights with just one man to beat. He faked out the last defender and waltzed into the end zone, giving the Browns a 13-point lead with 1:56 remaining in the game.
Now, in retrospect, people will point out that Chubb should not have scored there. If he had just gone down, the Browns probably could not have lost the game. The Jets were out of timeouts. There were less than two minutes left. If Chubb had fallen down at the 1, it would have been first down and the Browns literally could have run out the clock. Even if he had fallen down before the 1, it would have been second down, and the Browns could have knocked the clock down and then kicked a chip-shot field goal to go up two scores.
Even if they had somehow missed that chip-shot field goal, the Jets would have had less than 30 seconds to drive 95 yards with no timeouts.
Even I could not have done the math on the Jets coming back then.
But, you know what? Blaming Nick Chubb for scoring his third touchdown of the game — a brilliant run that put them up 13 points with 1:56 left — seems kind of petty when you consider the madness that followed. Let’s be serious: Nick Chubb had put the Browns in position to win — I mean, their win probability was 99.9%. If you want to blame 0.1% of this on Chubb, well, go ahead, but it’s ridiculous.
OK, so the bad signs followed quickly. The first bad sign: The Browns’ cocky rookie kicker, Cade York — who last week made a 58-yard field goal to win the game — sliced the extra point wide. That didn’t seem to matter all that much — unless you’re a Browns fan, meaning you’re highly attuned to lurking disaster.
The second bad sign — CBS decided to do one of those, “Last time the Browns started 2-0,” graphics. I do not believe in jinxes, but this was a bit much. The last time the Browns started a season 2-0 was 1993, when “Jurassic Park,” the first one, was No. 1 at the box office, when Mariah Carey’s “Dream Lover” was the No. 1 song and when gas was $1.05 per gallon.
Fun! Harmless fun! Certainly not a harbinger of doom!
The third bad sign: On the second play of the Jets’ drive, Joe Flacco flung a deep ball to an absolutely WIDE OPEN Corey Davis for a 66-yard touchdown. I cannot make the words WIDE OPEN big enough. I mean there was nobody on the same screen as Davis.
It’s funny, Jets fans will remember that they used to have a receiver named Wesley Walker, and this guy had the uncanny knack for, at least once a game, getting way behind the defense and being open by like 10 or 15 yards or 20 yards.
That’s how open Davis was. Of course, this was way worse because:
(A): Corey Davis, all due respect, is not Wesley Walker.
(B) The Browns were protecting a 13-point lead against a team with no timeouts; literally the only way the Jets could come back was if they hit some deep pass.
“How do you allow this to happen?” announcer Jay Feely said, apparently unaware of the last 50 years of Cleveland Browns football.
Then there was the camera sweep of Browns fans with very confused looks on their faces … and this was the first time since this team signed Deshaun Watson that I felt just a twinge of Browns fandom. I don’t like seeing my fellow Clevelanders suffer. And every Browns fan had to know that the sound of ultimate suffering was yet to come.
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After the Jets’ extra point, New York had to try the onside kick. And come on, nobody recovers onside kicks anymore, right?
Then something odd happened. The Jets lined up as if they were going to kick the ball to the right … and Cleveland called timeout. They wanted to look over the Jets’ formation to formulate their onside receiving strategy.
Yeah. Like the Jets couldn’t CHANGE the formation.
Sure enough the Jets came out, and they pretended like they were going to kick it right but instead kicked it left, where they were exactly NO CLEVELAND BROWNS TO TRY AND RECOVER IT. Well, there was one, but he hesitated. Meanwhile like four Jets attacked, including Justin Hardy, who recovered the ball.
Missed extra point? Check. Stupefying blown defensive coverage? Check. Worst onside kick defense you’ve ever seen? Check.
Suddenly the Jets has the ball near midfield with 1:20 or so left and a touchdown would win the game for them.
And OF COURSE they scored the touchdown. That goes without saying. It couldn’t have been easier — pitch-and-catch from Flacco to first-round pick Garrett Wilson with 24 seconds left. The extra point, naturally, was good. The Browns’ quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, obviously threw an interception. The Jets won 31-30.
In the old days of the Browns Diary, I would take this moment to go listen — and fall asleep — to coach Kevin Stefanski’s press conference, but I’m not going to do that here. I can recount what happened to the Browns on Sunday, and I can use my life as a Browns fan to give it some perspective, but the truth is I didn’t FEEL anything. I certainly didn’t feel happy. But I also didn’t feel sad. The Browns are on their path, and I’m on mine.
Joe you and Marino need to have a sit down. Let him know you are in the market for a new team, and remind him about the John Daly incident. I bet if you spend some time, you guys will get along well. Try on the Dolphins, you might like them.
Before the Browns did it on Sunday, the last team to lose when leading by 13 points in the final two minutes was . . . the Browns in 2001 (Week 9 vs. the Bears).