There's a fun little game that I've started to play in my continuing effort to get into The Good Place by rooting for the Cleveland Browns. I call it: "Can the Browns trick me into thinking they will actually win?"
Here is how it works: I go into every game knowing that the Browns will lose. That's sensible, right? The Browns have lost 21 of their last 24 games and, as the line in Bull Durham goes, the only mystery is how they won those three games.
"It's a miracle," Larry says.
"It's a miracle," Skip adds.
And so I don't go into games looking for a Browns victory. I go into games looking for a moment -- even a few seconds -- when the Browns can dupe me into THINKING they're going to win.
Some games it doesn't come up. Week 1 in Philadelphia, the Browns never even threatened to win. But then in Week 2 against Baltimore, the Browns jumped out to a 20-0 lead, and the Ravens looked miserable, and the game was in Cleveland, and the game was afoot!
Honestly: Did I ever believe the Browns would win?
Sadly: No. No I did not. When the Browns had the extra-point after the third touchdown blocked and returned for two points, I knew it was only a matter of time.
Then came Week 3 in Miami. Let's pause for a moment here to say that I'm not one of those Cleveland Browns fans who believes that rooting for the Browns is a singular burden. There are numerous teams that are miserable to root for -- the Bills, the Lions, the Chargers, etc. I have a real sympathy for those Bills fans. I love Buffalo. And I want a championship there.
Still: There's a special place on this list for Dolphins fans: Even as a Browns fan, I must admit: I do feel your pain.
If you are not a Dolphins fan you might not realize that this team has made the playoffs once since 2002. That seems really weird -- it doesn't seem THAT long ago that Dan Marino was flinging passes and Don Shula was roaming sidelines and the Dolphins were good every year. But, yeah, it was a long time ago.
But it's worse than that. Since 2009, the Dolphins every year have gone 6-10, 7-9 or 8-8. That tells you that the Dolphins are never good. But it also tells you the Dolphins are never bad either. They are on the treadmill of blah. And that is a rotten place to be because of two words:
The Dolphins are the Knights of False Hope. With the Browns, you know. You accept doom. But the Dolphins will go out and get a Ndamukong Suh or Mario Williams or Arian Foster. They will get a few nice games from quarterback Ryan Tannehill. They will ALMOST win games against a great team. They will hire an exciting young coach like Adam Gase.
And it's like "Woo hoo! Shula days are here again!"
But then, no, none of it quite works out. If you are not a Miami Dolphins fan, it's not hard to look at the team and say, "Nah, Ryan Tannehill is not good enough" or "Adam Gase?"
But inside the Miami bubble there's always just enough to make you believe. That's the agony of it all.
The Dolphins should have blown away the Browns on Sunday. Everything was lined up for a destruction. The Dolphins were coming off two crushing and close losses to two excellent teams, so they were obviously motivated. It was their first home game which always adds something. Plus the Browns, already a terrible football team, entered the game without:
Their top two quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown.
Their best defensive player, cornerback Joe Haden.
Their most promising defensive player, defensive lineman Carl Nassib.
Their most promising offensive player, receiver Corey Coleman.
Their starting center, Cameron Erving.
Their kicker, Patrick Murray.
Repeat: The Browns are a terrible team WITH those players.
But, like I say, being a Dolphins fan is no picnic. And so, even though the Browns had to start someone named Cody Kessler (the 26th different starting quarterback since the new Browns began in 1999), even though Browns right tackle Austin Pasztor had one of those games that haunt dreams (FIVE penalties and various other misdemeanors), even though the Browns defense was basically the cast of "The Longest Yard," Cleveland STILL outplayed Miami for 60-plus minutes. If it had not been for a kicker named Parkey (a lot more on him in a minute) the Browns win.
It was such a staggeringly bad performance by Miami, that I'm pretty sure LSU alumni got together and tried to fire Adam Gase.
But back to the original question: Did I ever think the Browns would actually win?
And I must admit: Yes. It happened. I have come to pride myself on resisting the usual Browns traps. But the Dolphins were spectacularly awful and the Browns were irresistibly scrappy, and so the temptation was too strong. The Dolphins led by three with eight or so minutes left, and they got the ball back, and I felt sure, absolutely sure, that they would run the ball down Cleveland's throat and put the game away.
Instead, the Dolphins did something bizarre -- they decided to throw the ball three straight times out of a no-huddle shotgun. I suppose this does neatly blend the drawback of confusing the offense with the impediment of not running off clock. I don't know ANYTHING about the Dolphins specifically or football in general so I'm not second-guessing. I'm just saying that as a Browns fan, yeah, I loved it. It seemed straight out of the ancient text "Ways to Lose Football Games", and I had thought the Browns had the only surviving copy.
At some point the camera showed a frustrated Tannehill on the sideline, and it sure seemed to me like he mouthed the words, "What are we doing?"
Anyway, the Browns got the ball at their own 6 and then they somehow coughed and wheezed up the field. They used Kessler and Pryor interchangeably at quarterback; Pryor was the best player on the field in this game. He must have thought it was like Ohio State days. During the drive, Kessler connected with Pryor for a 40-yard gain that pushed the ball into field goal range.
That set up the Browns new kicker, Cody Parkey, who had signed with the team about 12 minutes before kickoff. Parkey had already missed two field goals -- he seems to have a hook problem -- but he made this one to tie the game.
No, that's now when I believed the Browns would win. I was still sure the Dolphins would right themselves. But I was wrong. The Dolphins offense bumbled to a quick punt that gave the ball back to Cleveland with a little bit more than two minutes left.
The Browns responded with their own gambit -- Pryor dropped a pass on third-and-one and the Browns punted the ball back to Miami with 42 seconds left.
Then the Dolphins played their trump card. They decided to use those 42 seconds to try and score, a noble pursuit, but instead Tannehill fumbled the ball after getting sacked. The Browns got the ball at the Miami 27 with 20 seconds left and one timeout remaining.
Yes, this is when I let my guard down and believed the Browns would win.
Well, I looked at it like this: The Browns had the ball on the 27, which meant that if they did NOTHING, Parkey would have a 45-yard kick to win. That's certainly no gimme for a kicker who was out of a job two days earlier, but Parkey did make the Pro Bowl two years ago and he had attempted five field goals (making three) so he was warm.
But that wasn't the reason I thought the Browns would win -- I wouldn't count on Parkey making a 45-yard-field goal if a free pizza was on the line. To me the key was this: The Browns had a timeout. That was their golden ticket. That meant that they could run a play or two plays, get a few yards, make this thing a virtual chip shot. I WOULD count on Parkey making a 35-yard field goal. Heck, anything less than 40 would seem promising.
So many possibilities. They could run the ball -- Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson had been gashing the Dolphins defense. They could throw a quick pass, even over the middle. They could put Pryor in the Wildcat and let him make a play. I could feel it about to happen ...
... and then coach Hue Jackson did something that, even for this Browns fan, boggles the mind. I want to love Hue Jackson. I really do. He seems like a great guy, He says fun things, He has a strong history as a coach. I so want to love Hue Jackson.
Hue had Cody Kessler kneel on the ball to run off the final seconds of the clock and then used that final timeout.
I ... uh ... well ... but ... uh .. em .. ah ... dah ... well ... you know ... um ... uh ...
I don't know what to say. I really don't. The Miami Dolphins gave the Cleveland Browns a gift they did not deserve. They fumbled the ball on their own 27 with 20 seconds left. "Here," they said. "Take this gift," they said. "Pay it forward," they said.
And Hue Jackson decided to kneel on the ball in the stunning belief that his kicker, a guy he had just signed off the street, definitely would make a 45-yard field goal like it was nothing. Oh, wait, there's an added bonus: Taking the knee lost a yard, so it was a 46-yard field goal.
Cody Parkey has made exactly one 46-yard field goal since Christmas 2014.
I have no idea what possibly could have been going through the mind of Hue.*
*And, yes, while we're at it -- it has not escaped my attention or anyone else's that Carson Wentz, the quarterback the Browns traded down to escape in this year's draft, has decided to basically beat the rush and become Tom Brady right from the start. Now, it is true, many quarterbacks have -- Marc Bulger, Jake Locker, Todd Marinovich, RGIII, Marcus Mariota and so on -- have gotten off to impressive starts in their careers and it does not always lead to glory. Still: The kid looks awful good.
Anyway, as soon as I saw Kessler take that knee, I regained my senses and realized that of course the Browns would not win this game. Of course Parkey would miss the field goal. Of course he would not come close to making the field goal.
Of course Hue would promptly choose to kick off in the overtime.
The Dolphins did make one final stab at taking the loss by stalling on their first overtime drive and punting. But by that point they had to know that resistance was futile. The Browns punted it back, only shorter, the Dolphins got the ball at the Cleveland 44, and they needed just three plays to score the game-winning touchdown. I remain fairly certain that the Browns will win a game this year. They will probably win more than one -- that's how the NFL usually goes. But I won't believe it until the final whistle.