The Cleveland Browns in Week 7 lost a legend, continued their quarterback clown show and committed 12 penalties including, somehow, FIVE defensive offside penalties, and feat so remarkable that announcer Spero Dedes called it incredible. Twice. The Browns needed a missed field, a stop at the 1 and a bizarre slice 54-yard field goal just to force overtime against a Tennessee team that seemed entirely uninterested in winning the game. Then the Titans won the game in overtime anyway to make the Browns 0-7 and to make head coach Hue Jackson 1-22 and to make my own life so sadly predictable.
“Is the game over?” my wife asked as she brought the kids home from girls afternoon outing.
“Yes,” I said. “The Browns lost.”
“Well, I knew that,” she said.
All of this, I’m told, was a step forward. This is what it is to be a Cleveland Browns fan.
Actually this was a good week to be a Browns fan because my friend Tommy Tomlinson came over for the first time to watch the game with me. Another friend, Jonathan Abrams, author of this marvelous upcoming oral history of The Wire, stopped in for a little bit but he had the good sense to bring a baby and, as such, had a ready-made excuse to leave at any point. Tommy does not have a baby and so was forced to stay until the bitter end.
In truth, it was good to have Tommy there — good for me anyway — because it reminded me how ridiculous this team is, how ridiculous this organization is, and how ridiculous my life is for caring. This should be intrinsic knowledge but, like the knowledge that we are all going to die, it is easily pushed down deep,
On the first series of the game, Tommy was given a great give, a full sense of what it is to be a Browns fan. The Titans had the ball, 3rd and 1 on the Cleveland 32. They were in field goal range, just so we are all clear here. The Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota threw an incomplete pass. But there was a flag on the play. The Titans had committed a 15-yard facemask penalty when trying to block Browns rookie sensation Myles Garrett. Woo hoo! Back ‘em up to midfield!
Then the camera showed a closeup of Hue Jackson, and it was the damndest thing. It was like a bizarre optical illusion where it looked like, well, this will sound crazy, I’m sure it was just the lighting or something, but it looked like Hue Jackson was waving his arms as if he wanted to DECLINE THE PENALTY.
Of course, this couldn’t be true — it had to be the way the angle of the sun or something — because no one with even a basic grasp of football rules would decline the penalty there. Ha ha! If you accept the penalty, the other team is moved back the 47, well out of field goal range, and it’s 3rd and 16, and even the Browns can stop a team on 3rd and 16. But if you accept the penalty, you give them the field goal and, even worse, the option to go for it on fourth and one. No one would do that, no one on earth, but here was the strange part. The officials seemed confused and proceeded as if the Browns DID decline the penalty. Perhaps they too were swayed by this optical illusion. I just kept waiting for the error to be fixed.
But nope, they just kept on going as if Hue Jackson REALLY declined the penalty. The Titans sent out their offense like it was fourth and one.
I looked to Tommy, who sat there on the couch slack jawed. This was eye-opening. See, he KNEW the Browns were terrible. Everybody knows that. He KNEW the Browns were capable of astonishing acts of incompetence. Everyone knows that. But this ... this was getting a bit too close to the sun.
It goes without saying the Browns jumped offside to give the Titans the first down.
Then, and only then, did Tommy understand. Sure, he’s been around bad teams all his life. He was an Atlanta Braves fan in the 1970s and 1980s. He roots for the Atlanta Hawks and Falcons, who have provided plenty of heartburn. But it wasn’t until the first series of the Browns-Titans game that he really got what this is about.
“Oh,” he said, as it was the end of The Sixth Sense. And, “Is it always like this?” And, “Why?
Why? It is, perhaps, the greatest of all existential questions. I’ve read that the philosophers way to respond to “Why?” Is “Why not?” But in this case, “Why not?” is easy? “Why?” remains.
In this way it was actually fun to school Tommy and Jonathan on the ins and outs of Browns fanhood. For example, Tommy often would say, “So this is where the Browns fumble?” Or, “So this is where the Browns lose the game?” And I would laugh my knowing laugh and say, “No, no, not yet.” It reminds me of the wonderful scene in “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray convinces Andie McDowell to spend the night, almost like a science experiment, and she expects him to disappear at midnight. When he does not disappear, she is baffled. He explains that nothing happens until 6 a.m. She feels a little bit cheated.
This is the part of being a Browns fan that is hard to explain .... they will rarely give you the satisfaction of making the dunce play when you most expect it. They do not have the decency to just blow the game while you are bracing yourself for it. Instead, you have to endure 66 minutes of awfulness, boredom and garbage truck crashes before the Browns lose in an entirely unsatisfying way. Sure, sometimes they will lose by having a field goal returned for a touchdown or by throwing a helmet and getting a penalty, but more often they lose blandly. You have to wait for it until it no longer seems worth waiting.
And so I kept telling Tommy, “Oh, they might get the first down here,” or “Oh it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes this field goal,” or “Yeah, the Titans might not score here.” It is only with a lifetime of watching the Browns, only with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, that you begin to really get the rhythm of this team’s true awfulness.
I’m pretty sure Tommy is now going to put in the necessary 10,000 hours.
There are two more things to discuss.
One ... I had one of those out-of-body Browns experiences during this game without even realizing it. This happened early in the second half, I think, when Browns starting quarterback DeShone Kizer was still in the game. Kizer was pulled in the third quarter because he was absolutely terrible and anyway, at this point, Hue Jackson has lost the script. The idea coming in was to stick with Kizer through the hard times to develop him into this team’s quarterback. Hue has now benched him for all or part of the last four games. This time he benched Kizer for Cody Kessler, who was so bad in training camp he lost the starting job that was handed to him, then lost the backup job too.
Kessler was competent in replacing Kizer, by the way, only throwing one bad interception and showing a veteran’s sense of throwing the ball away when defenders steamrolled the guy now playing left tackle. I suspect there will be calls to start him this week because that’s the most chaotic decision imaginable.
Anyway, Kizer rolled right and looked downfield and it was entirely, abundantly, absolutely clear that he was going to throw an interception. It was clear from the snap. The intended receiver in the flat was not open so Kizer was going to throw the ball downfield. The man covering the flat backed off the receiver and was of course in the line where Kizer was looking. Kizer is too inexperienced and headstrong to not throw the ball. So he threw it. And Kevin Byard intercepted it. It was one of three interceptions for Byard.
“Have you ever seen a more obvious interception?” I shouted out while the ball was still in the air. I fully expected my friends to both share my sense of disbelief.
Instead they were both looking at me with an expression I can only call pity.
‘Well,” Jonathan said. “I didn’t see it. But you sure did.”
At which point, it occurred to me ... I’d had a flash-forward. I’ve seen so many Browns horror show moments that now I’m seeing Browns fiascos before they actually happen. So ... you know ... yay me.
Two ... watching Browns left tackle Joe Thomas go down with the first injury of his career after a record 10,363 consecutive snaps has crushed my spirit. Buddy Bell once said that things can always get worse, and that’s the only takeaway I have. In the three or so years I’ve been doing this Browns blog, Joe Thomas has been my lone salvation. Even while the world collapses around him, Thomas has been a weekly reminder that life is about giving your best even when it will make no difference at all, even when no one will notice, even when you’re coming off a loss and going into a loss and in the midst of a loss. It isn’t just that Joe Thomas deserves so much more than this team — he’s a Hall of Fame left tackle, one of the best to ever play his position, and the team around him never wins, of course he deserves more than this.
It’s that he plays as if he would not have it ANY OTHER WAY. He loves Cleveland. He loves the Browns. He has never asked to be traded. He has asked to NOT be traded. His optimism, like his game, never declines, never diminishes; he even ended his depressing Tweet about an MRI on Monday with: Go Browns!!
Two exclamation points.
There are people out there, more than I expected, who are reasonably OK with what the weekly slapstick comedy the Browns are putting on. See, the losing doesn’t matter to them, not now. The incompetence doesn’t matter. It’s about tomorrow. The team has gathered a bunch of draft picks. They are tanking another season and so should get more great draft picks next year. They seem to have acquired a star defensive player in Myles Garrett, and maybe there are a couple of other players on the defensive side of the ball who could be part of a good team, and there might even be an offensive weapon or two in the mishmash that is the Browns offense. Look at the Houston Astros! Look at the Chicago Cubs! They tanked! And then they won! These people preach patience and trust, two admirable traits, and suggest that all this losing will lead to better days.
Maybe they are right. Maybe there are better days ahead. But watching Joe Thomas go down — the indestructible Joe Thomas — is more than just a reminder about giving your best. It is a reminder that time is short, and the future isn’t promised, and this team has stunk beyond reason for a decade even with one of the best left tackles to ever play this game. I hope Joe’s MRI comes back negative (or positive — whatever the good one is). I hope Joe Thomas plays again soon and for as long as he wants. I hope he will continue to be an inspiration to those of us who find in him all that’s good in sports.
I also hope the next time around, Hue Jackson takes the 15-yard penalty when the opponent will face fourth and one from the Cleveland 32 yard line. You want to believe that things will get better.