The weather outside is frightful, which is fitting football weather for Cleveland vs. Buffalo. I swear, Dick Goddard ordered this crap straight out of the Dual Doppler Catalog of Weather Stereotypes. Then again, it wouldn't be Cleveland vs. Buffalo if the average fan weren't dressed like Ralphie's little brother in "A Christmas Story."
I have spent a good portion of the week chatting with Ed, the office Bills fan. Like most people from Cleveland and Buffalo, Ed and I get along well. After all, our cities are more or less cousins. I wouldn't say brothers. Cleveland's little brothers are Akron and Canton. Buffalo's brothers are Rochester and Syracuse. But Cleveland and Buffalo, we're definitely related.
(I was trying to think of a legitimate familial relationship that could be constructed using Mother Nature and Lady Luck, but both women apply equally to Cleveland and Buffalo, so maybe we're brothers-by-lesbian-adoption or something. And after Lady Luck apparently abandoned our family 43 years ago, Mother Nature overcompensated by smothering us.)
Anyway, I've always had an affinity for Buffalo and the people that come from there. Aside from the fact that most of them are Yankee fans, we share a lot of similarities. We are traditional blue-collar, rust belt cities. We have had our hearts ripped out by our football teams. (Ed refers to Orchard Park as "Torture Park.") Oh, and we live on the wrong side of Lake Erie.
In December of 1992, my dad and I made a pilgrimage to Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. By the time we got to Mentor, the weather was treacherous, and then it got exponentially worse between Erie and Buffalo. A thick blanket of clouds dropped more white powder than Lindsay Lohan with a hole in per pocket. The roads felt paved with Vaseline, and low visibility turned I-90 into the Mr. Magoo Bumper Car Motor Skidway.
After several hours of attempting to distinguish between several shades of white, we finally got through Buffalo and made it up to Niagra Falls and St. Catherine's. Upon reaching the north side of Lake Erie, it was a different world. There wasn't much snow to speak of, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. "So this is how the other half lives," I said to my dad. As I explained to him at the time, the sudden and startling change made it feel like we were in "The Wizard of Oz" right when the movie transitioned from black & white to color.
Ever since that day, I felt a lake-effect bond with Buffalo. We're in this together. I wanted them to win one of those Super Bowls. I was outraged that Dallas won the Stanley Cup when Brett Hull's skate was in the crease. And the Music City Miracle? Since it didn't happen to us, it HAD to happen to them.
One of the things Ed and I talked about this week was the playoff game between the Browns and Bills after the 1989 season. Still skittish from The Drive, we Clevelanders watched Jim Kelly march the Bills into position to score the winning touchdown in the final seconds. First, he hit Ronnie Harmon in the hands in the end zone, but Harmon dropped the ball. On the next play, Clay Matthews picked off Kelly at the 2-yard line. The Browns won 34-30, but it was a transitional game in the twisted and torturous football fates of Cleveland and Buffalo. The next week, the Browns went on to lose their 3rd AFC title game in 4 years to the dastardly Denver Donkeys. The next four years, Buffalo would win the AFC every time before succumbing to incurable bouts of lombarditrophiphobia.
In both cities, our generation's gridiron glory days are consumed with regret and missed opportunities.
But the biggest reason of all that I will always feel fondly for the good people of Buffalo is because of what Ralph Wilson and the Bills did for Cleveland and the Browns. When Art Modell whisked away a civic institution, Ralph Wilson joined Dan Rooney in Pittsburgh as the only two owners to vote against the move. And Wilson did so vocally. (Al Davis and the Raiders abstained, which was as good as a "no" vote, and he also publicly spoke out against the move. However, his motives were transparently anti-Modell, not anti-stiffing-a-loyal-NFL-city, so for Browns fans, Al Davis only counts in an enemy-of-my-enemy sort of way, like when the U.S. supported Saddam in the 80s.)
In the three years that the Browns were gone, Ralph Wilson, bless his heart, held Cleveland Browns Days and bussed Browns fans in to watch football. It was a wonderful gesture. I even mixed in a Bills hat with my Browns attire during The Void as a reciprocal show of support. I don't really follow them all that closely, but to this day, I still wish nothing but good things for the Bills and the good people of Buffalo.
Except for Sunday.
Screw those wannabe hosers from suburban Toronto.
Every now and then, I think of something, and then decide to research it for the hell of it. Earlier this week, knowing that the Browns and Bills are in the throes of an ongoing division title drought, I wondered, "Since the NFL thrives on parity, how many teams have won a division title this decade?"
I mean, with four-team divisions for most of the decade, it would have to be most every team, right?
So I went through the standings and looked it up. In the 2000s, 25 of the NFL's 32 teams have won a division title. Here are the teams that have not, noted with their last division title:
* Washington Redskins (1999)
* Jacksonville Jaguars (1999)
* Buffalo Bills (1995)
* Detroit Lions (1993)
* Houston Texans (Never, but the Houston Oilers won AFC Central in 1993.)
* Cleveland Browns (1989)
* Arizona / St. Louis Cardinals (1975 in STL. AZ drought is 1988-present.)
I don't look these things up to make myself vomit. Honest. I was just curious. Of these Sad Seven, the Skins, Jags, and Browns have earned wild cards this decade, meaning only the Bills, Lions, Texans, and Cards have been shut out of the playoffs in the 2000s.
So in the NFL's Parityland Fun Park, the Browns and Bills are working division title droughts of 18 and 12 years, respectively, and the Browns have the lone post-millennial playoff appearance between the two clubs.
It's no wonder that this game feels like the Lake Erie Super Bowl.
And if that's the case, how did the Browns get there? And how can the Bills possibly win?
Last week's game was weird. For 56 minutes, it plodded along comfortably and boringly, like OSU's win in Ann Arbor this year. Then all hell broke loose.
With the Browns up 17-6, Leon Williams committed a crucial penalty that kept a Jets drive alive. Naturally, that drive culminated in a touchdown. But Williams redeemed himself by breaking up the two-point conversion, keeping it a touchdown game at 17-12.
But then the Jets got the onside kick, and quickly found themselves 20 yards from taking the lead. It was unfathomable. One moment, I was half-asleep on the couch. The next, I was a ranting lunatic. In the blink of an eye, I went from Steven Wright to Sam Kinison.
The Jets kicked a field goal to make it 17-15, then tried the onside kick again. This time Joe Jurevicius was equal to the task.
And what followed was one of the most memorable and important Browns runs of my lifetime.
When I think of big-time Browns TD runs with the playoffs on the line, I think of Willie Green and Kevin Mack. Jamal Lewis' 31-yard touchdown rumble on 3rd and 4 with 1:31 to play coupled the excitement of "Run Willie! Run!" with the sheer power of Kevin Mack's last-minute, division-winning, 4-yard bulldozer impersonation on the Astrodome's painted green cement in 1989. Needing just four yards to potentially ice the game, Lewis didn't stop. By the time he reached the end zone, he was carrying more Jets than the U.S.S. Nimitz.
Lewis' run HAD to be a back-breaker, right? But even THAT didn't ice the game.
The Jets easily got into field goal range and cut it to 24-18. Then the Jets got cute and tried to do a longer onside kick that went out of bounds, but Leon Williams was offside, so we had to endure yet ANOTHER onside kick, which was thankfully corralled by Jurevicius, whose two biggest catches of the day came on special teams.
And then it was over.
Whew. What a nightmare that almost turned out to be. I never dreamed I'd see that many onside kicks in the closing minutes of a game. It was as if Sam Wyche were nursing a 47-point lead against Jerry Glanville all over again.
So the Mitchell Report came out this week, and we got to see a partial list of who was juiced up on artificial Rocket-boosters. Predictably, Bumbling Bud talked tough after turning a blind eye for a decade, Donald Fehr took personal offense to the entire report since the players weren't given time to nitpick a report that they refused to contribute to, and various media personalities and fans of the game got all worked up in a lather about The Evil That Men Do With Needles And How It Has Ruined The Sport And Caused A Massive Tear In The Moral Fabric Of America.
Don't get me wrong. Any self-inflicted freak show revolving around greed, hypocrisy, and salacious gossip is bound to be a good time. But what I don't get is why we expect so much self-flagellation out of Major League Baseball, and why we are so eager to vilify ballplayers, yet nobody really gives a crap about steroids in the NFL.
Shawne Merriman is a Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers. In the middle of the 2006 season, he tested positive for steroids. By the time the 2007 season kicked off, not even a year removed from his positive steroid test, he was already starring in a fast-paced commercial dedicated to illustrating his superhuman speed, strength, and agility.
And where are the legions of self-righteous fans chucking syringes at people like Ray Edwards and Ryan Tucker on game day? Where are the creative home-made signs displaying such witticisms as "Roidney Harrison?"
When I look at the crucifixion of steroid cheats in baseball, track, and cycling, and then look at the indifference most all of us show about steroids in the NFL, all I can think of is The Stud/Slut Dynamic. When men and women sleep around a lot, there is a well-known double standard in that only one gender is castigated. Nobody furrows their brow at the "studly" men, but when it comes to the women, all those sluts are labeled "whores."
Haha. Just a little gender-bias-in-promiscuity joke there.
But seriously, when it comes to steroids in sports, particularly in football versus baseball, it appears that The Stud/Slut Dynamic is in full effect. The ubiquitous commercial celebrates Shawne Merriman's studliness while we're simultaneously sewing scarlet letters onto The Sluts of Summer.
I can't tell you how excited I am for the Lake Erie Super Bowl. I am trying to be confident. I mean, "Trent Edwards" sounds more like a senator than a quarterback. He can't kill us, can he?
Ross the Dolphin Fan was trying to upset me on Friday. He asked me, "I wonder if I bet just $1 on the Browns, would that be enough to make them lose?"
I explained to him that this game is so huge, that for him to attend Browns Fan Fantasy Camp again, he's have to wager at least $500, or maybe even $1000, so he could truly feel the elation or despair that we would feel after tomorrow's outcome is known.
I think that scared him off. That's good for us. We don't need his 0-16 / bad-gambling mojo gumming up the works.
It's going to be hard to sleep tonight, but I have to tell you Barry, I am geared up for tomorrow. I've already got my Thug Chips potato chips, pretzels, and pork rinds ready to go, as well as a two-liter of Atomic Dogg soft drink, a bottle of Party Dogg mixed drink, and a 6-pack of King Pin lager, which dates back to the days of the original gangster Egyptians.
Speaking of ancient Egyptians, let's hope that by Sunday evening, the 2007 Buffalo Bills will have been swept into the dustbin of history. Or mummified and sealed into a pyramid in Lackawanna. You know, so they could be the subject of the next Indiana Jones movie or something.
"Indiana Jones & the Tomb at Torture Park" has a nice ring to it. Who wouldn't go see that? Make it happen, Browns. The American movie-going public is counting on you every bit as much as we are.
Until next week,
Steve Sirk, once Art Bietz's co-conspirator at the TruthCenter, has taken to sending a weekly letter to "home base" about life as a Browns fan struggling in the NFL mixing pot of Central Ohio. At some point in life, 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 email@example.com