Commentary: Paranoia Before the Fall

OBR publisher Barry McBride came late to his second career and is probably too inexperienced to know what he's not supposed to say. Using recent poll numbers and evidence gleaned from his many conversations with fans, Barry provides an example of how the Browns organization and head coach Romeo Crennel are tearing apart a fan base built over fifty years.

According a recent Harris poll, the Cleveland Browns are the 17th most popular team in the NFL.

They rank below the Tennessee Titans, and are about half as popular as the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Not more than 6% of adults who follow professional football have claimed to be fans of the Cleveland Browns since the poll began in 1999. In 2006, after seven mostly horrible seasons, that number has merely dropped to 5%, a testament to the patience of the team's fans.

What's interesting about the poll is that popularity numbers aren't directly tied to the on-field success of the team. For example, the Tennessee Titans, one of the worst teams around, with even less hope than the Browns, are ranked above Cleveland. The popularity of the Packers has never fallen below 11%, and they've been awful for several years.

The ultimate test of loyalty to a franchise is not how fans pack stadiums when the team wins, but how well they support them when the team loses. That baseline number of hard-core fans is incredibly important, for planning and for the team's finances.

Frontrunners are easy to find. An audience of loyal fans takes years to create, and years to lose. They are the most valuable commodity that a team will ever have.

Browns fans are still among the most loyal in the NFL, but it is those hard-core fans, who support the Browns through thick and thin, that are slowly drifting away from the franchise.

I know. I talk to them everyday.

I know that they're not just drifting away because the team has been losing. It's not that simple.

* * *

After the Browns 1-4 start, fans are looking for hope.

Fans on the OBR tend to be weeks or months ahead of the mainstream in their thoughts about the team. They were questioning Maurice Carthon after the first pre-season game, and last year.

They look for options on our radio show and in Ask the Insiders.

For example, a number of fans like WR Travis Wilson, or at least what they saw of him in the pre-season, and ask us why he was inactive last game. "What's wrong with his game?", they want to know.

We can only repeat what the head coach has told us, because we're not allowed to see his progress in daily practices. The fans are cynical about what they're told by the team's head coach. You don't really get the truth, they say.

In the absence of credible information, many assume that Wilson was either a blown third-round pick or that Crennel and Carthon are clueless about evaluating talent.

Fans are worried about Joe Andruzzi, and wonder if Isaac Sowells will be able to help. They think of perhaps moving Ryan Tucker inside to one of the troubled guard positions as he gets older and handing the right OT job to someone like Nat Dorsey.

"How's Dorsey doing?", they ask. "We don't really know", we tell them, and then offer our analysis of what we saw a couple months ago. After that, we can only repeat what we're told, which is basically nothing. 

They turn away, disappointed, but they look forward to the off-season, where there's information that the team and league doesn't control, yet, and they can get some fodder for their hopes, maybe.

But, right now, we can't help them keep their hopes alive.

* * *

The St. Louis Rams closed practices to the media this September, as another branch of the Bill Belichick tree became head coach there.

At this point, 75% of the teams in the NFL close practices to reporters after the 30 minute minimum established by the NFL. The time allows the media to watch players stretching and casual unit drills. Very little useful information results.

Two of the vanishing breed of teams which did not close practices to the media last year are the Steelers and Seahawks.

Both teams went to the Super Bowl.

* * *

Fans are upset with Maurice Carthon and his operation of the Browns offense. I have a transcript of Carthon's comments to the press before the pre-season started. It is the only time all year that we are allowed to speak to him.

Carthon cannot explain his own decision-making, in his own words. Romeo Crennel speaks for him. Such protectiveness only makes Carthon appear more inept and incapable.

We reported last year that the Browns assistant coach Jeff Davidson was the heir-apparent at offensive coordinator if Carthon falters. Fans ask us whether he's capable.

We can't tell them what we don't know. We've never been allowed to speak to Davidson or gain insight into his capabilities. All we have to go on is the performance of the team's offensive line, which has been horrible. There's not much hope we can offer fans about Carthon's likely replacement.

According to a survey by the Pro Football Writers Association, there are seven teams in the NFL as of last year which allow no or limited access to assistant coaches.

The Cleveland Browns are one of those franchises.

* * *

The number of fans who remember when the Cleveland Browns were the "Yankees of the NFL" is declining each year. I am middle-aged, and I was three years old when the Browns won their last championship.

In 2000, the Cleveland Browns crowed about their season ticket waiting list. For a small sum of money, Browns fans could pay to get on a list to, perhaps, if they were lucky, spent thousands of more dollars on season tickets.

In 2006, the Browns need to spend their own money to advertise tickets and loges on television. It took only six years to squander a benefit of the loyalty the team had built for fifty years.

* * *

Part of what I feel binds fans and teams together is the mutual struggle they go through to be successful in a league where, by definition, 31 of the 32 teams will end the season out of the playoffs or with a loss.  Part of that struggle is the drama associated with all aspects of the sport, on-field and off.

Choking off information by closing practices and barring access to assistant coaches limits the amount of topics that the media can comment about knowledgeably. This combines with rather banal information pouring out of team and league-owned outlets to make the sport fundamentally less interesting. It gives us less to talk about.

So, I ask the question. How is the league served in competing for the disposable income of families by making their sport less interesting?

They don't get it. They don't understand that the struggle is part of what pulls us together. They refuse to admit that the drama is part of what sells.

They seem to believe that it's their own marketing which is responsible for the success of the sport and that winning and losing games is the only variable in their popularity.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

* * *

The Harris poll I mentioned above is focused on learning more about the fans of the NFL, their economic status, and so forth.

It shows that the percentage of adults who follow professional football has dropped 7% between 1998 and 2006, from 55% to 48%.

* * *

I know of two plays that the Cleveland Browns have added to their playbook. We know them because a member of the organization told us about them as we sought information about another matter. People will talk.

They are plays the public hasn't seen and would be interested to learn about. I could write them down and describe them, put them in a premium article, and maybe get a couple of subscribers from it.

But I won't.

I would never consider it, not for a moment. Neither would anyone else in the press room in Berea.

* * *

This isn't ESPN the Magazine. It's not written at a fifth-grade level. I don't have to connect the dots for you, and don't have time to wordsmith it.

I don't go to Berea very often. It's too much time for too little benefit. I have to work another job to keep this place going, and don't have two hours to lose driving back and forth to get the same information as everyone else. I leave that to far more capable writers, like our own Fred Greetham.

So maybe I can say what others are thinking or are too smart to put into print.

NFL franchises are acting based on an overly paranoid distrust of the media. This isn't an overt public relations disaster because it plays on a fundamental distrust of the media felt by many people in general.

The NFL feels that it is so big and so successful that it no longer has to rely on local news organizations to help keep the public informed.

In my opinion, the NFL and Cleveland Browns engage in restrictive policies toward the media that are arrogant, self-destructive and idiotic. There is no on-field advantage to them. They hurt me, they hurt my peers, and they hurt hard-core fans of the sport. I'm watching it happen, every day.

Mr. Crennel, the time has come to be your own man. To think outside the box, and not just copy what Bill Belichick did. He won three of four Super Bowls as a head coach. You've won nothing. This organization hasn't sniffed a national championship since this middle-aged writer was three years old.

The time has come to re-open the doors and let the media back in for the good of the Cleveland Browns organization and their fans.

Romeo doesn't read the internet or the papers, so he says. Randy Lerner is off basking in the glow of his purchase of a soccer team. The Vice President of the team in charge of this area of responsibility has never once returned a phone call I've placed to him.

This plea will fall on deaf ears.

* * *

Those of us with a cynical bent will say that everything that rises must fall.

Your town library is filled to the brim with biographies of men and women who forgot their own strengths as they gained power and wealth, only to suffer a precipitous fall. History books are full of examples of empires which frittered away their wealth on displays of might while they quietly crumbled from within.

The National Football League and the Cleveland Browns have both risen quite dramatically in the last half-century. NFL executives and owners command an empire which includes billions in wealth, extorts athletic palaces from cash-strapped cities at will, and now attempts to spread its reach around the world.

But there's something I can sense, there, at the edges. A rot that has already set in. You can see it already eroding the interest of the fans who support the bloated sports league on their back.

Smells like hubris.

Barry McBride is publisher of The Orange and Brown Report. He began publishing football-related commentary as a hobby in 1996 with a website protesting the move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. In 2001, he established the OBR, originally named Bernie's Insiders. Barry would be happy to receive your questions or comments via email at

The opinions expressed in this article are his and his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of other writers and employees of the Scout Network or The Orange and Brown Report.


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