"Yeah, but it was the Detroit Lions!"
Enough, Browns fans.
As a native and devoted Cleveland émigré who lives steps from Ford Field in downtown Detroit, it delights me to watch our team eviscerate the Lions. I sat at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Dearborn last night, just a few miles from the Lions' headquarters and practice facility, in my genuine No. 19 jersey and let the sulking Lions fans around me know whose team was boss in this meaningless, glorified televised scrimmage.
But a little reality check: the 2008 Detroit Lions lost all of their games, but that's only because they didn't have the 2008 Cleveland Browns on their schedule down the stretch.
It's very possible to lose all of your games and not be the worst team in the league, especially talent-wise. That's exactly what happened with the Browns and Lions a year ago, and I can promise you that Detroit would have handily beaten Cleveland last December. The Browns were finding quarterbacks off the street, and probably inquired to see if Don Strock was in a wheelchair or not.
Based on the score of the final six games of 2008 for both teams, the Lions would have beaten the Browns any way you look at it. Detroit was averaging 16 points a game and the Browns were giving up 21.5. Cleveland averaged 5.1 points per game on offense while Detroit was giving up 34.8.
Giving up that many points against a team that didn't score an offensive touchdown over those final six games, and managed just eight field goals ... well, you get the point. The Lions couldn't stop anyone from scoring, but the Browns were stopping themselves through sheer ineptitude.
And even though Cleveland's defense was slightly better by giving up just three touchdowns per game on average over that stretch, Detroit's ability to average more than two touchdowns was more than enough to offset its poor defense in this hypothetical match up, a match up that might have been the first NFL game to have no one in the stands and no one watching on television.
Both teams feature significantly changed rosters this year, although my gut feeling is that Cleveland's remains a litany of mostly backups and special teamers more than a list of quality NFL players, beyond just a handful. Barring injury, I suspect Detroit and Cleveland will have similar offensive rankings this year, but Cleveland might have the edge on special teams and defense – if Shaun Rogers is healthy and interested in playing. And that's a 350-pound maybe.
Conventional wisdom says the third preseason game is the window on how the coming season might play out, because it's the game in which the starters play into the third quarter before giving way to the guys that will be back driving cabs and delivering for FedEx in two weeks. And we all know the fourth preseason game is little more than a well-executed high school game and the NFL's version of waiting in line at the DMV for the season to begin.
So, toss out what happened against Green Bay and Detroit, and you probably won't even know what the final score of the fake game with the Bears turns out to be. It's the Tennessee game that will provide a vague snapshot of the team that will take the field on Sept. 13 against Brett Favre's Vikings.
So Saturday night or very early Sunday morning is when we'll know if there's hope for 2009, or it's just another edition of the same pathetic show we've been watching since 1990: "The Cleveland Browns: We Don't Score Much, Stop The Run, Stop The Pass or Beat the Steelers."
Bill Shea is the OBR's Detroit bureau chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org