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Monday, July 26, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal in "Brownstown"

Anyone who honestly thought one year ago that in July of 2010, the Cleveland Browns would be the best professional sports team in Cleveland, please stand. (Come on don’t be shy…just jump right up. Go ahead and brag about how right you were. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?...)

With rookie training camp underway, the veterans due in later this week, and the first preseason game less than three weeks away, this seems like the right time to start thinking about football and stop thinking about that number 23 basketball player guy.

Looking back, 2009 was a tale of two seasons for the Browns. The first twelve games of the season brought talk of how historically bad this team might be. Save for a 6-3 win in Buffalo in one of the ugliest games in the history of organized football, the Brownies didn’t win a single game. Granted, it took an overtime field goal by the Bengals and a last play fluke penalty in Detroit to get there, but the Browns limped into week 13 with a 1-11 record. There was serious talk of 1-15 and the number one pick in the draft (again). Beleaguered first year head coach Eric Mangini was on the hot seat. The only thing to be truly excited about in Cleveland was across town at Quicken Loans Arena.

Then, against the most unlikely of foes, everything changed.

I was fortunate (some said unfortunate at the time) enough to have tickets to the Browns/Steelers game on Thursday December 10th, 2009. I bought these tickets in August in the foolish hope that the Browns would be fighting for their playoff lives and control of the AFC North against their hated rivals. I am a life long Browns fan who had been to many games to that point, but had never been to a Pittsburgh game.

An injury riddled Pittsburgh team was still in the playoff hunt, and a win against the hapless Browns would obviously improve their chances of defending their Super Bowl title. The Browns were decimated by injuries as well, and most people were expecting them to simply be playing out the string to bring another hugely disappointing season to a merciful end. Eric Mangini’s job was in peril, there was no general manager, and Mike Holmgren had not yet been hired, and everything was seemingly headed in exactly the wrong direction. On top of all of that, the Browns had lost to the Steelers 12 consecutive times, the Browns were near the bottom of nearly every statistical category in the league, and Brady Quinn was the starting quarterback. There was absolutely no rational reason to believe that the Browns were going to win this game.

But as I stood in “the pit”, a parking lot adjacent to Cleveland Browns Stadium, drinking a slushy beer and half frozen bratwurst, none of that mattered. The Steelers were in town, and maybe this team could summon up the intestinal fortitude to do the unthinkable. The game time wind chill was -12. The foam in our beer was freezing in the neck of the bottle. We were building fires in the parking lot to try to stay warm. It was beautiful. It was fun. It was everything that a Browns home game in December was supposed to be.

Behind 8 sacks of Ben Roethlisberger, and 200 all purpose yards from Josh Cribbs, the Browns exorcised their demons and beat their hated rivals. The team with nothing to play for except pride defeated the team with everything to play for. Walking out of that stadium and hearing the chants of “Pittsburgh Sucks” and “Here we go Brownies” was a memory I will never forget. Records didn’t matter. For a brief shining moment, all was right in Cleveland. The Steelers had been vanquished, and no amount of cold, wind, or snow could take that away. I saw the soul of Cleveland sports that night, and it had nothing to do with any narcissistic, egocentric basketball player. That number 23 basketball player guy was never the face of this city, no matter how big the banner hanging across from Quicken Loans Arena was.

Oh, yeah. And the Browns haven’t lost since. Behind a renewed sense of purpose, a suddenly competent defense, and (gasp!) a running game, the Browns closed the season with three more wins and a lot of momentum heading into 2010.

I always had a good laugh whenever I heard people contend that with the success of the Cavs over the past few years, Cleveland was in danger of becoming a “Cavs town”, and that the Browns were soon to be an afterthought in Cleveland sports. I read several blog articles to this effect. I remember laughing whenever I would read these articles, because whoever thought that any team could displace the Browns in the hearts of Clevelanders doesn’t know Cleveland, and doesn’t know Browns fans. The Cavs and the Indians will always play second fiddle to the Browns in Cleveland, and if the Browns somehow find themselves in the playoff hunt come December, “LeBron who?” will be a common refrain across the city.

It is with this backdrop that the eternal optimist in me looks forward to another season of Cleveland Browns football. In the coming weeks I am hoping to write a series of articles dealing with the offense, defense, special teams, coaching, and schedule for your 2010 Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland is a football town. Cleveland was, is and always will be “Brownstown”. Anyone who believes otherwise is kidding themselves.

Oh, and one final note: The Browns close the season at home on January 3rd…against none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cleveland in January? There’s no place I’d rather be.

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Man, that chick beside me is smokin'.

Imagine waking up and seeing this on ESPN. I look like I'm having a stroke back there. Good Lord.

Imagine waking up and seeing this on ESPN. I look like I'm having a stroke back there. Good Lord.

3:30 AM, after the Louisville game.

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