Another season, another reason

The onset of each season draws forth a new straw through which to drink the Kool-Aid, or to join in the suck.

There’s something about the imminence of opening day that tempts this old blogger to wax poetic. I’ve been doing this since the Browns were last a playoff team, so there’s truly something behind this seasonal state of mind.

On the verge of the 2003 season opener against the horseshoe heads, I tried to summon more of the magic that made the previous season so surrealistically special:

The new season is upon us. With any luck, the butterflies flutter fast in William Green’s gut. With any luck, Tim Couch has secretly detailed with guided mental imagery an amazing riches-to-rags-to-riches script. With any luck, Anthony Henry snares ten more interceptions, Big Money finally earns it, the Quiet Storm wreaks havoc. With any luck, today Kelly Holcomb avenges his former team and the coach who once cut him. With any luck, Peyton’s post-game comments proffer props to those speedy new linebackers. The helmets stay on, the prevent defense is shelved, and in the end, our quarterback, whoever it is, takes a knee both to salt away the victory and offer a pious prayer that at long, long last, this might be, this improbably team might finally be, yes indeed, beginning its rambling run toward the elusive destiny of its fans’ dreams.

In 2004 I was a new father and found my heart open wider than Warfield after a double move. On the eve of the new Browns’ only opening game victory to date, I posted one of my favorite pieces ever, a personal rumination on the emotional relevance of football as summer turns into fall.

Anything is possible, until it isn’t. On the threshold of a fan’s season, the ultimate triumph is a vicarious vision, a fluttering feeling, five months into the future.

As the weeks bear on, the sun gets sleepier, the trees barer, the rhythms more desperate, the snow deeper, the legs heavier, the days dimmer, the glimmer of opportunity ever narrower. Each encroaching weekend, anything is still possible, until it isn’t.

As ever, I fasten my football fanaticism on the orange and brown, colors of grounded memory, colors that enliven autumn’s essential energies.

The blog archives from 2005 are incomplete, but the 2006 season started in a unique but familiar way. I self-consciously struggled against the impulse to acknowledge just how jaded this era of error had made me:

Here’s the kind of sophisticated Browns fan that I am. Just before the long-awaited opening kickoff, the waitress had set before me a tall glass of amber ale. Inexplicably, during Josh Cribbs’ return, a party of four deserted a large round table with the best angle to the biggest TV airing the Browns game. A few other fans and I seized the opening. During the transfer across the room, I was able to remain fixed on the long Frye-to-Edwards touchdown, remark upon it to my fellow fans, realize it would be nullified by a penalty, and casually settle in to my new seat. All without spilling a single drop of beer.

Yes, I am a veteran Browns watcher.

Prior to the Browns’ surprising 10-6 season in 2007, I had an inkling that things could go well, but I was extremely guarded, given all the misfortune that preceded it:

Part of me believes that all these pundits and prognosticators are wrong. The Browns will not suck again this season. They really will put it together in a hurry. The other three division rivals are all on the descent. The playoffs aren’t out of the question. Surely, no way the draft pick Dallas gets for Quinn will be in the top five.

At some point, the oxygen reaches my brain…

Really, the Browns are a couple of ill-placed injuries away from being a pretty poor team. I dare not even mention their names.

But there is enough talent at enough key positions that it’s not unreasonable to expect an 8-8 season and even to hold out a humble hope, provisional and probably best kept hush-hush, that the ball bounces our way for once, and Cleveland reaches the playoffs. Where anything can happen.

I’ll take another deep breath and try to keep my eyes open to the possibilities more than the perils.

After barely missing the playoffs the year before, the Browns carried high hopes in 2008. In an exchange with a Dallas blogger in advance of the season-opener against the Cowboys, I reiterated my baseline view heading into every season:

My philosophy is that expectations should remain high. If you’re protecting your heart from pain even before the first game is played, you’re not fully into the fan game. No sense accepting “reality” before it unfolds on the field. So I expect them to win in 2008. Period. However the Browns get into the playoffs is fine with me. 9-7 division champ? Sure. Anything can happen from there.

Of course, disaster struck that year, and a thorough housecleaning led us to the reign of Mangini and a low ebb in my blogging. In 2010 I leaned on noted columnist Rick Gosselin’s words of hope, that a sudden start in September often turns an underdog into the season’s surprise success story.

Sometimes all that team needs is a dose of confidence. Win the opener and that confidence starts to build. Every win thereafter becomes a log on the fire.

In 2012, the news of a new owner inspired a few words about what’s essentially important to me about the Browns:

The Browns are plain and simple, traditional and unadorned. For good reason. It strikes at the heart of our regional identity. Real. Genuine. Not distracted from the authentic work we do by the pursuit of appearances.

We honor a glorious past when we wear its trappings into the future…

Our team isn’t named after some animal or archetype. It honors a single man, the ultimate organizational innovator, who brought this team to prominence and dominance not with style and sizzle, but with strategy and skill. Dogged, determined effort, working together through ceaseless challenge, speaks more to our methods of aspiration — and how we recognize ourselves in the Browns — than any rebranding expert ever will.

2013 started with a heartfelt reconnection with the Browns zeal of my youth, as a fellow fan and high school classmate of mine was named the team’s head coach.

…there is something authentic and resonant about the striving, the strategy, the self-imposed suffering and sacrifice, the struggle for coordinated effort, the patience and persistence, and the exciting unknown of the wide-open, goal-oriented field itself that stirs me in a way that today feels both strangely new and profoundly archetypal, even totemic.

I followed Chud’s saga closely, but in advance of the season I restrained myself from being too full-throated in my bias, even as some troubling undercurrents formed.

In 2014 I was still shellshocked after he was shamefully scapegoated by the higher-ups so soon into his tenure. So I had no gentle reveries to offer prior to the official onset of the Pettine era.

This time last year I took the sarcastic tack with an absurd insistence that 2015 was finally the year for the Browns’ ultimate breakthrough. The ironic intent (with a subtle Brokeback allusion) lay at the end:

Cleveland will be the feel-good, eye-opening surprise team that everyone in the echo chamber expects to fall back to earth, but down in the trenches, the other teams will know we’re for real. For real, man.

Really. I swear.

One way or another, I swear.

And I did swear, loudly and often.

That leads us to the eve of another new era of Browns football. The re-re-re-re-re-re-re-reboot, as it were. No one has the slightest hopes of making the playoffs. In fact, the new EVP, Sashi Brown, feels compelled to defend against the impression that they’re angling more for the 2017 draft than for victory in 2016.

I appreciate that folks have not seen a strategy quite like this before, but I would hardly call it tanking.

Hardly the posture to inspire poetry, huh? Still, I’m interested in witnessing what may be the early germination of a sensible, winning approach. It will be rough. It will require more patience than the organization has any right to expect from its fans. But if you’re reading this far down, you too are no bandwagon fan, and that means following the many fits and starts along the way to success. This year’s Browns surely will both frustrate and fascinate. I doubt I’ll be spilling my beer this year either, but I’ll still be watching.

On a side note, because this isn’t worth a post of its own, and because discussing race is so fraught with peril, I can’t help but comment upon the cultural makeup of so many of the key figures in this remade organization. I’m not one who believes we should pretend we don’t “see” race, or that we should shy away from recognizing the strides we have or haven’t made in regarding each other by the content of our character rather than our complexion.

Put simply, it’s remarkable — in a positive way, I’d posit — that so many of the men now critical to the Browns’ fortunes are African American. Reporting directly to ownership are Sashi Brown (who has final say over the roster) and head coach Hue Jackson. Andrew Berry became the new VP of player personnel well before turning 30. The top assistants under Jackson on both sides of the ball are Pep Hamilton and Ray Horton.

And for the first time in their history dating back to 1946, the Browns will open the season with a black starting quarterback. For a team with a long legacy of giving players opportunities regardless of race, this is a very welcome if underacknowledged breakthrough.

I expect some may react to this with a conspicuous shrug. “Who cares?” “It doesn’t matter.” “As long as he can play.” Maybe that’s a degree of progress from the days when blacks were deemed unqualified to command the sport’s most important position.

But for precisely that reason, yes, it does matter. It would be extraordinary were RGIII ever to ascend to the beloved status of Bernie Kosar and Brian Sipe. I’ll just say that it would be special indeed if he were to succeed as a Browns quarterback, and I’ll be rooting strongly for him for reasons that transcend the Xs and Os.

May the ball bounce our way a little bit more often this year.