The season-opening loss in Philly added to the Browns’ long cascade of calamity. But the Week 2 opponent reminds us of the worst twist of the dagger ever to strike the hearts of Cleveland football fans.
The very existence of the Baltimore Ravens derives from supreme treachery. We should never, ever forget that fact. The damage wrought by Art Modell in The Move was so much more than a vile violation of trust or a selfish assault on Browns fandom, though it was both of those.
Modell’s machinations ripped a playoff-caliber Browns team out of the city that had followed, favored, and funded it through thick and thin for half a century. Outrage doesn’t begin to describe what promptly followed, and the departing owner was ultimately forced against his original wishes to rebrand his uprooted team. The league then figured out how best to capitalize on its promise to get the Browns back in Cleveland.
Browns football was dead for three years. What rose in 1999, wearing our beloved brown and orange, owned by Modell’s erstwhile ally?
I don’t come to that term frivolously. But how else can you characterize the stricken spirit of Browns fandom reanimated around a team known as pro football’s worst for close to two decades now? It’s not quite alive, not how it was. The trappings are still somewhat familiar, but really, the “new” Browns fall into the category of the undead.
With all due respect to Joe Thomas, Phil Dawson, Josh Cribbs and others who have poured their professional lives admirably into this reborn team, the big picture view is dim. Zombies. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, as much psychic energy as we’ve invested in them, until Hue (or some successor) breaks through and the Browns finally hoist that Lombardi Trophy, that’s really what the Cleveland Browns of the 21st century most resemble.
Every interface with the Baltimore Ravens is steeped in this reality. Browns fans have unique rivalries with each other team in their division. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the obnoxious bullies in black, by far Cleveland’s closest and most frequent opponent. The Cincinnati Bengals are the cross-state copycats, created by our exiled namesake, sporting those oh-so-similar colors and a perpetual grudge against our gritty city.
But the Ravens, wrought from the wreckage of our heartfelt hopes, are in their own category. Their every success heaps more indignity onto the Browns, as if the ends justify the means, no matter what our parents brought us up to believe. The fans in Baltimore, having lost their Colts in another disgraceful move only a dozen years prior, now back the product of an epic betrayal without a shred of shame.
How apt it is that the death of the original Browns, and the psychic need to preserve their cultural legacy in Cleveland, led to a new outfit named for a poem in which the title character represents a ceaseless, tormenting reminder of loss.
If it’s been a while, I strongly encourage you to read that poem this very minute, and to read it as all poems should be read: out loud. Reconnect with beauty and with what Poe considered to be its purest expression, sadness. Yes, sadness, a term entirely familiar in its application to modern Browns fandom, made possible only through the depth of the love for what we had. And it is gone but for these myriad ironic reminders.
- At the heart of the Ravens’ formidable defense was MLB Ray Lewis, drafted in 1996 with a pick derived from the Browns’ trading away star speedster Eric Metcalf a year earlier.
- The reincarnated Browns sought to hire Vikings OC Brian Billick as their head coach, but the Ravens snatched him first. His teams went 85-67 in nine years. Cleveland settled for Jaguars OC Chris Palmer, who was axed after going 5-27.
- In their first clash in 1999, the winless Browns lost by seven to the winless Ravens, who were paced by a game-high 140 yards from Errict Rhett. After that season, the Browns signed Rhett to a $6 million deal in free agency. He tore a foot ligament five games in and would play again nevermore.
- Five years after the move, Modell’s Ravens did what Modell’s Browns never could: win the Super Bowl. Lewis, the game’s MVP, was on probation at the time for admittedly lying to police in a double-murder case. The NFL allowed him to play every game despite his causing “great harm to other NFL players and to the league.”
- The face of the Browns’ franchise, QB Tim Couch, was left unprotected in a memorable prime time game against the Ravens in 2002. First the swarming defense knocked him woozy. Then, the press got access to him despite his concussion. He lashed out at Browns fans cheering while he lay hurt. Backup Kelly Holcomb nearly pulled off a huge comeback despite a broken leg. Ironically, Couch later saved that season with a winning comeback drive in Baltimore, but he missed the team’s only playoff game of the millennium with a broken leg of his own.
- When the Ravens let Rhett leave in free agency, they used the fifth-overall pick on RB Jamal Lewis. (The Browns had taken Penn State DE Courtney Brown with the top pick.) Lewis predicted he’d break the single-game rushing record against the Browns in 2003, and he did just that, gaining 295 yards. In the rematch, he added 205 for an even 500 on the season. Browns GM Phil Savage, a former assistant to Ozzie Newsome in the Ravens’ front office, would later bring Lewis to Cleveland, and the big back remains the Browns’ leading rusher since the return.
- When the Browns hired Savage, Newsome said, “They will now have someone that really knows what types of players it takes to play in this league.” Savage’s quarterback acquisitions in his four-year reign here included former Raven Trent Dilfer, third-round draftee Charlie Frye, Baltimore sixth-rounder Derek Anderson, and notorious bust Brady Quinn (acquired for a first- and high second-rounder). Meanwhile, Newsome drafted Joe Flacco, who is 13-2 to date against the Browns.
- A signature trade of the Savage era was letting Newsome flip spots in the first round of 2006. With the Browns’ 12th pick, Baltimore got five-time Pro Bowl DT Haloti Ngata. Savage, enthralled by his “Gumby-like” flexibility, opted for edge rusher Kamerion Wimbley at 13. The Browns also badly needed an interior D-lineman, so they used the paltry sixth-rounder gained in the trade on Babatunde Oshinowo, who never really emerged.
- The Browns snapped a series streak of 11 straight losses by beating the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens 24-18 in 2013. It was an inspired effort, and the most satisfying in-person experience I’ve had since attending my first Browns game on January 3, 1987. Five different defenders sacked Flacco. The despicable Ray Rice, who spit in a Brown’s face the previous meeting, was held to 17 rushing yards. Jason Campbell earned honors for three scoring strikes inside the red zone. The Browns’ CEO was effusive in praising his rookie head coach, who had his young team at 4-5 at the bye. It would be the last win of the abruptly aborted Chudzinski era.
- No play could possibly be a better microcosm of the Browns’ 2015 season, the expansion era, and their rivalry with the Ravens than the last one. Tomorrow’s game is so welcome if only as a chaser to the bad taste of the Kick Six. The Browns attempted a tie-breaking field goal as time expired, but it was blocked and returned all the wrong way. Three plausible reasons this shouldn’t have been allowed to stand all worked against the Browns.
More cascading indignity. More upheaval. More epithets etched into the identity of what was once the greatest organization and most successful dynasty pro football had ever known. And more to come…
… unless there is balm in Gilead. And the Browns don’t get suspended for using it.