"Where are they?"
- Enrico Fermi, 1950
Contrary to what you may be hearing, the Cleveland Browns are not a bad football team. They're a good football team, with some very special athletes. Even the players at the bottom of the roster have likely dominated games at every level.
The Cleveland Browns' coaches are not bad coaches. Contrary to what you might be hearing on talk radio and message board forums right about now, they seem to be quite capable and hard-working individuals, whose success is clearly demonstrated by their positions of responsibility at the highest level of their sport.
Their problem, and ours, is simply that the NFL is played by the best of the best, and coached by the best of the best. Good isn't good enough. Hard working isn't good enough. Our favorite team doesn't measure up, and hasn't for a long, long time. Based on what we've seen so far, they're still very far away.
It's not your fault, or mine. Or Randy Lerner's fault, or Eric Mangini's fault. Prolonged failure of the magnitude displayed by the Cleveland Browns franchise can't be the fault of one single individual, no matter how inept. It's been a group effort, with lots of blame to go around. As it is again this year.
So don't hate anyone, or anything, for making your Browns an awful football team. A horrible team that many reasonable people feel is unlikely to win more than two or three games this year, 46 years after their last appearance in a championship game.
Even folks dependent on the team's occasional success, whose lives are damaged in tangible ways by the team's incompetance, can't get too angry at people who are trying their best.
Sure, the consequences of the team's sheer lack of competitiveness may be devastating for local businesses surrounding the Stadium. There will be less travel and less financial benefit for the suffering city of Cleveland. Sports bars, hotels, and more will struggle, and some will go out of business, while even the most poorly compensated of those responsible are well into six or seven figures.
It would be easy to go overboard with the histrionics and rail against this team. But it's not worth it.
* * *
It's taken us less than a century to go from bicycle repairmen getting airborne for a few seconds to the very concept of human flight becoming mundane. Once considered one of mankind's greatest achievements, it now takes a steward fleeing down an exit chute, purloined beer in hand, to get us to notice the dullish, workaday realm of air travel.
We've gotten pretty good at shooting things into the air thousands of times each day without them crashing too often. Our spacecraft are ingenious creations, which have even ventured in interstellar space.
That's pretty good progress. It's not as rapid as mankind's recent advancements in flavored waffle technology, but it's not bad.
And this is why it bothers me that we aren't tripping over aliens.
Other star systems are millions, or billions, of years older than ours. Their cleverest life forms should have figured out how to shoot things into the air, with them or trusting inferior species on board, a long time ago. Look at what we've done in just a hundred years. They've got millions... billions of years as a head start.
The lack of obvious extra-terrestrial visitors is disappointing. There should be billion-year-old tourist traps on the way between Earth and Jupiter. Why aren't there?
It's not that the aliens aren't likely to need the room. If we humans have shown anything, it's that we're remarkably good at making more of ourselves to fill up all available space. I would have to expect that older life forms would be as busy reproducing as we are. After all, reproducing is fun, even if you don't succeed.
So, if other smart critters orbiting other stars have had a billion-year head start, and are like us, as Enrico Fermi famously asked, where are they? It's called the Fermi Paradox. If the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe is so high, we should be awash in aliens by now. The sky should be lousy with UFOs. We should be tripping over tourists from Arcturus the way into work.
None of this is the case. It makes no sense.
* * *
Five years after Phil Savage dismissively assessed Butch Davis' progress, we're still "wondering when the varsity will arrive".
Fans who have dealt with the ugliness since 1999 aren't in the mood for more rebuilding and further excuses.
Driving my kids around yesterday - sometimes seemingly the most time-consuming task in my life - my daughter and I spied a car in front of us with a bumper sticker that said "American Elite".
As much as I tried squinting at the bumper sticker, I couldn't figure out what it meant. Was it pimping a martial arts school? A car dealership? I couldn't tell. All I could tell is that someone had labelled his Japanese car with a big red, white, and blue "American Elite" bumper sticker. All I could conclude was that they were elite, and proud of it.
I find it very helpful when people label themselves. It simplifies things and helps paper over misunderstandings. When elite folks try to hide amongst the rest of us, only to blindside the normals with their outstanding awesomeness, there can be rough feelings.
Herein we have the problem with the Cleveland Browns.
That bumper sticker clearly said "Elite". You never see people labeling themselves with bumper stickers calling themselves. "American Average" or "American Pretty Good". Or "American Not Very Good But Maybe, Someday, Please Give Us More Time Because We're Not the Same Dolts You've Put Up With the Last Ten Years".
Americans don't identify themselves as losers, and they don't identify with losers, the Chicago Cubs aside. Over time, many will turn their backs on failure. Failure is kryptonite for Americans.
Yet, we're still following the Browns. Some of us still are, anyway. A few even claim to be optimists. Fans have dealt with constant losing for 25 years, longer than some have been alive. But we're still here.
* * *
There are a number of theories as to why the aliens didn't set up shop on our nice peaceful planet long before we emerged from our caves. One is that the vast interstellar distances are too great to be overcome.
The other is that life may be common, but intelligent life is rare. It took billions of years for the first intelligent life to arise on earth, but there were plenty of other critters before us. The dinosaurs ruled this planet for hundreds of millions of years, but never developed the brainpower to craft nuclear weapons or a quadrillion non-biodegradable Stegosaurus McNugget containers. Obviously, they were pretty dense, and smart critters couldn't get a toehold until the dinos were splattered by space rocks.
Perhaps it's our opposable thumbs that put us over the top. They're darn good for strangling mammals, admittedly. Brains and thumbs, that's the ticket, but there are a lot of stars out there, and we can't be the first with both.
A third theory is that intelligent aliens exist, but they're deliberately avoiding us. We are a bizarre lot, so stupidly unaware that we create things like oil spills, romantic comedies, Steeler fans, and wild-eyed political extremism. Even then, the species with the bigger gun usually wins - why not just cleanse the planet at the first sign of Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail and move in?
None of the explanations I've heard for our noticable lack of aliens is working for me. There has to be another reason we're alone so far.
Here's my theory: We're the only ones who will bother.
You see, every time we learn something new, we seem to move a little further from the center of creation. Ridiculously far away from the center of creation, in fact; approaching irrelevancy. Contrary to blowing themselves up - another fashionable answer to Fermi's Paradox - my theory is that lifeforms who develop science simply decide that there's no point in spreading out. Space is too big to be conquerable, too complex to be knowable. The universe in a word, is depressing.
Humans, though, aren't like this. Maybe the reason we continue to explore is due to something we have and other species might lack: hope in the future.
Hope is the key ingredient in the soup that makes us interested in exploring every nook and cranny of the universe. It's why boys dream of spaceships, and why multiplexes are dominated by science fiction. Our hope in the future helps define us.
They key point is that, If I'm correct, the human race is even weirder than we heretofore suspected.
And I figure, in some small way, that's the trait that will keep us following a really bad pro football team. It's just how we're wired, perhaps uniquely. Hope keeps us going, even in impossible conditions or certain doom.
The whole species has a tendency to keep going no matter how dumb we know it is.
* * *
After the game, the Browns send out a listing of "Post Game Notes", I presume to help make the lives of scribes clicking away on keyboards easier. Naturally, the team's notes focus on the positive: After the Bucs game, we learned that Jake Delhomme went over 20,000 yards in his career; Josh Cribbs completed a pass for the third straight season; Evan Moore's 87 receiving yards is a career high, etc.
After a win, these notes help put an exclamation point on the team's success. After a loss, they might help writers inclined to look on the bright side.
None of these facts, though, as nice as they are, removes the overall impression the Browns have left over the last two weeks that they are simply a very bad football team which is unlikely to break through anytime soon.
Tom Heckert and Mike Holmgren can ask for, and should get, some time to make a difference. But it may be too late.
In the very uncertain event that Holmgren and Heckert succeed, those results will arrive too late for some of us. There will be a much smaller group of people watching when the corner gets turned. There's already been a lot of attrition in our ranks, and there will be more.
The team looks horrible this year, and after the season fans will be treated to the noxious display of greed as the economically suffering populace is denied football because slavering owners and players want to drool over their share of the spoils. They will come back to something smaller and less valuable than they left.
A lot of folks will come back when the team is again something to be proud of, but you and I both know it won't be the same. The past and future greatness will be too disconnected over a void of time when most turned their backs. The old greatness celebrated in today's long-overdue Ring of Honor ceremony already seems like a curious relic that has nothing to do with what it now means to be a Browns fan. Five years from now, it will seem even more so.
But as angry as they can make me, as much cause as I have to rail against their failures, I'll be back in front of my TV and my computer next Sunday, talking about the Browns with friends in the OBR chat room.
For whatever reason, they're still important to some of us. Regardless of what the present looks like, we can only think of the future. We know next Sunday is unlikely to be pleasant, but we'll look for something, anything that helps feed our hope.
It's a self-destructive, pointless behavior. Still we come back. It's part of being human, and maybe a small example of something in us all that is very rare, and very, very special. We Browns fans may be very remarkable, in our way. Perhaps almost astronomically rare.
I wanted to write something positive amidst the certain gloom. This is the best I can do.
Maybe next Sunday will give us all something more.
Barry McBride is a one-time useful member of society who now runs the Orange and Brown Report. He hates it when his email client mistakes email messages for spam, so please contact him via the OBR contact form, via Twitter, or on the forums.