On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 blasted off, carrying Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders on the first mission to orbit the moon.
And Jack Chambers took his son to his first Cleveland Browns game.
The Browns and the Cowboys were playing for the Eastern Conference championship.
We didn't have tickets, but our neighbors did as we rode to the stadium with them. Dad said if we couldn't find tickets we could afford, we'd just catch a bus back to Fairview Park. Well, the scalpers wanted too much, and Dad was about to give up, when a man walked up to him and asked, "Do you need tickets for you and your boy?" Dad answered, "Yes, sir, we do," and the man said, "Stay here, and I'll be right back." He boarded a charter bus, and returned a few minutes later with two tickets. When Dad asked how much they were, the man said, "You don't owe me anything. Two people from our group couldn't come, and they told me to give them away." Looking back years later, that showed me what kind of people Browns fans can be.
As a wide-eyed eight-year-old, I had never seen so many people in one place before. I clearly remember walking across the 3rd Street bridge, with peanut vendors calling "four bags for a quarter!" as part of a moving sea of people on its way to Municipal Stadium. That old cavern of a stadium was alive inside. Our seats were way in the back of the lower deck, behind the visitors bench, but it didn't matter. I was at a Browns game with my Dad!
We won the game, 31-20, behind stars like Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield and Bill Nelsen. It was "Dandy Don" Meredith's last game. But for me, it marked the beginning of my life as a Browns fan. I was hooked, and have followed them obsessively ever since.
From then until I left the Cleveland area in 1981, I rarely missed a home game. Our family would bolt out of church the moment the service was over, rush home to make lunch and get to the stadium in time to watch pre-game warm-ups. The seats behind us were occupied by two Polish guys who knew less about football than I did, but they were devoted fans just like us. I couldn't tell you what they looked like, but if I heard their voices today, I'd recognize them immediately. I sat through a lot of lousy weather and lousy football in that old cavern of a stadium. But I wouldn't have chosen to be anywhere else on Sunday afternoons, or the occasional Monday night.
After settling in Atlanta 25 years ago, I volunteered my time to run the Atlanta Browns Backers and North Georgia Browns Backers clubs. It was a lot of thankless work, but for the most part, I enjoyed myself. Though I lived a long way from Cleveland, I felt like I was doing my part to support my team.
What have these last 40 years been like? Well, I'm an accountant, so let's look at the numbers from the 1969 season through game 14 of 2008:
- Regular Season Record: 258-302-4 (0.446)
- Playoff Record: 5-12 (0.294)
- Combined Record: 263-313-4 (0.441)
- Winning Seasons: 15 (0.405)
- Head Coaches: 13 (including 3 interim)
- Division Championships: 7 (0.189)
- Conference Championships: 1 (0.027)
- Hall of Fame Inductees: 18
- Stolen Franchises: 1
- Seasons in Hiatus: 3
- NFL Championships: Zero.
There have been some exciting times over the past four decades. The Kardiac Kids were a blast to watch, because you just knew Brian Sipe would figure out a way to pull it out in the end. And there was a lot of great football during the Bernie Kosar/Marty Schottenheimer years, the closest we've come to a Championship since 1964. And, yes, 2007 was certainly exciting, even though we came up short of the playoffs.
But there have been plenty of down times, too. During the early and mid 1970's, when the Steelers were winning Super Bowls, we were terrible. We signed wide receivers on Wednesday, and they started on Sunday. Only Greg Pruitt, who was so much fun to watch, made those games enjoyable. How many "quarterback controversies" have there been? Let's see… Nelsen/Phipps, Phipps/ Sipe, Bernie/Vinny, Detmer/Couch, Couch/Holcomb, Dilfer/Frye, Frye/Anderson and Anderson/Quinn. There have been some unbelievably bad trades, like the "Gift of the Magi" deal that sent Paul Warfield to Miami for the draft rights to Mike Phipps, and swapping Earnest Byner for Mike Oliphant.
And let's not forget blown first-round draft picks like Steve Holden, Pete Adams, Willis Adams, Charles White, Mike Junkin, Clifford Charlton, Tommy Vardell, Antonio Langham, Derrick Alexander, Craig Powell, Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, William Green, Jeff Faine and Kamerion Wimbley.
In 1995, it looked like it was all over. Art Modell committed the ultimate betrayal, which I wrote about at length a few years ago. We fought to keep our name, our team and our colors, and to get an expansion franchise instead of stealing someone else's. What we did was unprecedented, and worth every ounce of effort. But things certainly haven't gone as planned since then.
Since we returned to the NFL in 1999, we have an overall record of 54-105 (0.340) through 14 games of the 2008 season. (That's a pretty good batting average, but unfortunately, the Browns play football.) I didn't expect much the first few years, but we continue to struggle. Aside from two seasons of teasing success, I can sum up the last 10 seasons on one word.
How inept? Consider that only one player from the 1999 squad is still on the team, and he's the kicker. The extra draft picks from 1999 and 2000 were foolishly squandered by Dwight Clark on players who were out of the league after a few seasons. There are a total of four players from the 1999-2004 drafts still on the roster. These should be the players who make up our veteran core, our leaders. It's not like those guys went on to have success with other teams; most just were not good football players. Granted, we've had some bad luck with injuries to players like Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Jamir Miller and LeCharles Bentley. But there have been far too many whiffs in the personnel area.
We apparently like to be the NFL's proving ground for head coaches and front office staff. Neither Chris Palmer nor Romeo Crennel had ever been a head coach at any level. Butch Davis was a head coach at the University of Miami, but had no background as a personnel man or general manager. Dwight Clark and Phil Savage were completely inexperienced as general managers. Not only that, but the team has failed to hire anyone with experience above any of these people to mentor them, or hold them accountable. I know everyone has to start somewhere, but why does "somewhere" always have to be here? It's no wonder we have struggled.
I continue to follow this enigmatic franchise after a rather tumultuous 40 years. But I must admit that it's increasingly difficult to remain a loyal fan. Watching the Eagles hand the Browns another embarrassing loss – the fourth consecutive game without a win, or even an offensive TD - all I could think of is how horribly inept this franchise is.
If I could talk to Randy Lerner, I would simply tell him that I've about had enough. I have spent 40 years supporting this team, only to be let down season after season. Apathy has set in. As a recent thread in The OBR's Watercooler lamented, this is not what we fought for back in 1996. I used to schedule my weekends around Browns games. No more. In the future, instead of spending three hours a week in front of the TV watching the Browns play, if I have something better to do, I'll do it. Yes, I fought for Cleveland to get its team – my team – back, but this is absolutely not what I fought for. I can't justify spending the time or energy to obsessively follow this franchise until it starts taking things as seriously as its fan base does. There's no return on my investment.
Do you hear that, Randy Lerner? A guy who has been a fan for 40 years couldn't care less. And I'm not alone, not by a long shot. Every game, my buddy Jeff and I send text messages back and forth, most often just saying, "pathetic". If you want to get the pulse of your fans, browse The OBR Forums for a while. It's not pretty, but it's a good indication of what your fans are thinking and feeling. Look past the people who want you to hire this guy or that guy, and get the emotion, the passion…the outright anger and disdain the fans have for their team.
As I await the merciful end of another losing season, I can only wonder what will happen to the Browns over the next few months. Will Lerner make the right decisions when deciding the fates of Crennel and Savage? I think they both need to go. Crennel is liked and respected by his players, but is in way over his head as a head coach. His teams have posted a record of 24-38 (0.387). He can't manage the clock, can't adjust during the game, is loyal to a fault to his coaches and veteran players, and makes inexplicable decisions during the game. Too often, his teams are out-coached, and are not competitive. With a few exceptions, his players show no heart, discipline, fire or urgency.
The rest of the coaching staff is woefully inexperienced. One coordinator is a rookie, the other is in his second year, and it shows. Only one assistant, QB coach Rip Scherer, has head coaching experience past the high school level. I believe that's why Romeo wasn't fired during the season; there is simply nobody on the staff qualified to take over for him. That is inexcusable at this level.
Phil Savage is more of a pro personnel guy than a general manager, and in that role, he completely failed to fill gaping holes at DB and WR on this year's team. His draft record is spotty, but I'll admit that some of his picks might do better with a different head coach and different schemes. Savage's mistakes with the Kellen Winslow situation and the profane e-mail were unprofessional and embarrassing.
The franchise is broken, and needs to be overhauled. Lerner likes continuity, and that's fine if things are going well. As we say in the South, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But the franchise is broken, so continuity is a bad thing. It needs a face transplant, not a facelift. If he fails to right this sinking ship, Lerner risks alienating the most loyal fan base in all of professional sports.
This offseason will be one of the most important in franchise history. Lerner's decisions will determine whether the Browns will become an elite NFL franchise, or sink to the depths of teams like the Lions and Bengals. It's time for the franchise to rise to the level of its loyal fans. Browns fans deserve a winner, but all we've gotten is lip service. Get serious about fixing this franchise, Randy. Quit hiring people that have "potential" to grow into their job. Find qualified, experienced people to run this franchise, and bring loyal Browns fans everywhere a franchise we can be proud of.
I can't wait another 40 years.