Greetings from Cowlumbus. One of the things I love about writing is that no matter what you accomplish, no matter how proud you are of some creation, you will inevitably soon read something so good that it makes you want to break all your fingers and never type again. It is a very humbling profession.
I had just such an experience this week when I read your article "The Hollow Men." That thing pegged my envy-meter at "Art Modell / Jacobs Field" levels. I'm as green as Grinch fur. I'm talking code red, four-alarm, my-neighbor's-wife-is-Charlize-Theron covetousness. So, uh, if you don't ghostwrite me a story that great, I will soon be writing Crab Patties From Annapolis for the Ratbirds page. ("I had no choice. I couldn't compete.")
The reason I bring up your story is not to place puckered lips upon your Bietzian backside, but because I noticed an interesting convergence between our two stories from last week.
You'll recall that I have become increasingly annoyed by random NFL teams stealing the Browns' thunder when it comes to utterly preposterous defeats, while the Browns just muddle along, losing one nondescript game after another.
You can only imagine how I felt after halfheartedly watching the Browns halfheartedly lose to the half-incompetent Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to turn on the TV a few hours later, just in time to see the seemingly playoff-bound Bengals bungle the game-tying extra point snap inside the final minute. The Football Gods mocked me, Barry. They mocked me, and two of my closest friends paid the price.
As I have mentioned in my previous correspondence, my friends Rob and Flick are legit Bengals fans. Unlike most Whodey-come-latelies, they were not blacked out like Gary Busey between 1991 and 2005. So they took The Snap pretty hard. During our weekly email bull session, Flick was amazed that after a terrible performance, it still came down to a missed extra point. I told him I hadn't seen the game except for the very end, and asked if it was some sort of multi-train pile-up. Here was his detailed listing of events:
Let's see. Denver gets the opening kickoff. On their first play, Dexter Jackson picks off a pass and returns it to the Denver 6. Three plays later, Jesse Palmer overthrows a wide open 84 in the end zone and it gets picked.
At one point Cincinnati downs a punt at Denver's 1. Denver goes 99 yards for a TD.
Rudi Johnson fumbles in Denver territory when Cincy was driving effortlessly.
Chris Henry has a 75-yard TD wiped out because of a two men in motion penalty. It came immediately after a Denver score, I think, so it would have been nice.
85 lost a fumble after a first down. I think it's the first fumble he's lost in his career.
Jesse Palmer had 85 open for a long TD - like, he was past everyone Despite all of that, it still came down to a botched PAT.
If Flick is ridiculing the franchise savior with Jesse Palmer jokes, it must have been bad. Then he followed up with another email:
Did you see the play where the Bengals actually recovered the onside kick, but were flagged for offside? That was cool.
This is no exaggeration on my part: As I watched this entire late-game scenario unfold, I actually pondered if life would be easier and less stressful if I just stopped following sports.
Before I even had a chance to digest that, Rob followed up with:
I thought about this too. I don't know why I devote so much time and energy to something I have no control over.
I countered with my usual arguments: sports bring the community together; they are a social lubricant across all sections of society; they are entertaining; they are amusing; and for the most part, they are fun. Sure, it's completely irrational, but so is most anything else that we do in our leisure time. When you consider that they made a sequel to Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, sports don't seem so stupid after all.
But after this conversation, I was struck by how, no matter how different our situations, both North Coasters and River Dwellers had a bummer of a Christmas thanks to their football teams.
Your piece about the Hollow Men perfectly captured the melancholy of another lost season. It was a slice-of-life piece that fit the mood perfectly. As Browns fans, we have all been questioning why we care at all, never mind the fact that we seem to care more than some players do. As you said, while we are left to despair, the players go home and open presents and play video games, oblivious to it all.
Meanwhile, my Bengal friends are despondent over their own Hollow Men, who have underachieved in a season that held so much promise. Sure, their team has been more successful, and we would be ecstatic to have a playoff shot heading into week 17, but their hollowness is every bit as hollow as ours. This was a team with superstar talent and Super Bowl aspirations, but without the character to match. As has become a hallmark of Marvin Lewis' teams, they shrink in the face of pressure, yet rise to the non-occasion. In that sense, I had often compared Lewis' Bengals to Eric Wedge's Indians. The difference was that last year's Bengals seemed to buck the trend. This year's results-- on the field, in the locker room, and in the courtroom-- hint that perhaps last year was an aberration.
So it's looking like another busted season for my two friends, who spent a decade enduring what we currently endure. Between the antics of a likeable attention hog (Chad Johnson) and the criminal attention-grabbers (Chris Henry, et al), the Bengals' have been more notable off the field than on. And while Flick and Rob (and thousands of bandwagoners) despair, the players hit the clubs, buy drinks for 15-year-olds, wave guns around, drive drunk, and resist arrest, oblivious to it all.
Hollow men, indeed.
While it is interesting living in a contested NFL market, it kinda sucks because you can make friends with fans of rival teams. Thankfully, the language barrier prevents me from communicating with most Steelers fans, but having Bengals fans as friends is weird.
I do not like the Bengals. I hope the Browns pummel them every year. Yet I have developed a full-blown case of empathy for my friends. It's hard to want your good friends to be miserable.
Baseball is an easy truce, since the Tribe and Reds play in different leagues. Even the inter-league games are lightweight encounters in the grand scheme of a 162-game season. We can follow each other's teams and talk baseball all summer. For football, it's not so easy, considering our teams are division rivals. Rob and I have reached a truce based upon the following premise: "Self-interest above all else, but other than that, better the other Ohio team than the Ratbirds or Yinzers."
This truce has served us well. While I doubt we could ever watch a game that is important to both teams, no such game has existed since 1989. Who knows when it may ever happen again.
So when something like The Snap happens, I immediately point at the TV and cackle out of habit. Then I think of how the Browns were saving The Botched Extra-Point Loss for their next Monday Night Football appearance in 2016, and I become angry that the Bengals pilfered it. But then I think of my friends, and how Santa dropped a load of colon-coal into their tabby-striped stockings, and I get kinda sad that their Christmas Eve has been befouled in such an aggravating manner.
These are the type of annoying complications I must deal with by living in Columbus.
Another aspect of your Hollow Men article that I really enjoyed was your description of Romeo's press conference. It really hit home because it is incredibly awkward to have a front-row seat on the pier as a good man goes down with the ship. Whether warranted or not, it is never easy to watch.
I've endured those painful press conferences with Gerard Gallant of the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as Tom Fitzgerald and Greg Andrulis of the Columbus Crew. Good men, all of them, which made the strained Q & A sessions all the more miserable. There comes a point when the coach has lost the fans and the media, the team does nothing to inspire the least bit of confidence, and the whole thing becomes a fait accompli. The fans will demonize the coach until their bloodlust is rewarded; the coach digs in and plays everything close to the vest, often to his own detriment; the press alternates between feeling sorry for the guy and wishing he'd get fired already just to get it over with.
It's no fun being in the middle of that scene. I actually felt relief when Fitzgerald, Andrulis, and Gallant got canned. After a while, I wanted the whole thing to be over as much for their sake as anyone else's.
Sometimes I wish coaching was the sole domain of the arrogant and mean-spirited, so underperformers could be vilified and pilloried without remorse.
The loss to the Bucs was drab and thoroughly devoid of interest. The Browns aroused my ire only once on Christmas Eve, and Good Man Romeo played a large part in doing so.
Trailing 19-0, the Browns scored a defensive touchdown to close the gap to 19-6. After Daven Holly and the Brown & Orange K-Feds finished embarrassing themselves by auditioning for Dancing With Last Place Athletes, it was time to make the decision about the conversion.
The score was 19-6. There was 11:30 to play, meaning the Browns would likely get two more possessions.
Here were the possibilities:
1. Kick the PAT to make it 19-7. You'd then need two touchdowns.
2. Go for two and get it, which would make it 19-8. Then you'd need a TD drive (+2) and a field goal.
3. Go for two and not get it, which would make it 19-6. You'd then need two touchdowns.
Going for two was the only sensible option. If successful, it drastically shortened the field on one of your necessary scoring drives. If unsuccessful, it made no appreciable difference on your predicament. At 19-6 or 19-7, you'd still needed two touchdown drives.
When Romeo sent the kicking team out, I flew off the handle. I cussed him out as nicely as I could, taking care to issue a cuss-free cussing, as my young niece is at the age where she is a parrot in diapers.
I do not understand what Romeo was thinking. In fact, he didn't even need to think—coaches have a little chart that tells them what to do.
It blows my mind to analyze the situation even in ultra-cautious, play-not-lose terms, as in "How would going for two and not getting it impact us if we gave up another field goal? Or touchdown?" Giving up another TD ends the game no matter what, and giving up another field goal makes it a two-TD game, whether it is 22-6, 22-7, or 22-8.
Going for two after Dancin' Daven took his final bow was the only sensible move. It had the biggest upside, and virtually no downside, even from the playing-not-to-lose angle. And yet Romeo sent the kicking team onto the field.
I realize that this is a moot argument, as the Browns had as much chance of a successful comeback as Milli. Or possibly Vanilli. (Whichever one isn't dead.) But it's disappointing, that's all.
Then again, maybe I'm asking too much. Why should I expect Romeo to be paying attention to the game at that point? He's every bit as human as you and I.
Before I go, I will pass along this little nugget. As I am sure you are aware, ESPN.com published a match game this week, in which readers were timed as they attempted to match each arrested Cincinnati Bengal to the crime he had committed.
Since a few days had elapsed since The Snap, I felt it was okay to forward the link to Rob. Shortly thereafter, I got the following response:
"I earned a ‘Collegiate Effort', mostly because I dropped Reggie McNeal on the wrong resisting arrest square before noticing the dates. I was disappointed that they chose to go with Chris Henry's unlawful transaction with a minor charge as opposed to the gun charge."
See, sports are funny after all.
Wishing you a Happy New Year,
At some point in his life, Steve Sirk determined that suffering through the nexus, dips, valleys, and various low points of being a Cleveland sports fan within geographic proximity of Cleveland itself did not create sufficient emotional pain. Sneeringly dismissive of even basic survival instincts, Sirk elected to reside in Columbus, Ohio so that he could better be surrounded by fans of winning franchises who could mock his very existence. If you wish to contact an individual of such clearly questionable judgment, you may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org