About 7 o'clock Sunday night, when there was just a handful of media people working in the press box at Cleveland Browns Stadium, a reporter could be heard amidst the quietness as he made a phone call.
"Man, you're lucky you didn't come," he laughed. "This was awful."
Then he laughed again.
With no noise to buffer it, the laughter resonated through the press box.
The Browns were getting laughed at, and about, in their own stadium, only hours after being laughed out of it following a 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
It was a humiliating, depressing and demoralizing end to a humiliating, depressing and demoralizing day for the Browns – my Browns.
Yes, my Browns. There I said it, and with the team at 1-6 and headed nowhere at breakneck speed, you know I mean it. To admit that these are my Browns at this point takes a lot.
To admit they're my Browns when I'm in the media and supposed to cast aside such allegiances and be objective, takes a lot, too. That will never change, though. I'm still objective. Always have been since I began covering this team nearly 20 years ago, and always will be.
Just ask former Browns player personnel director Mike Lombardi, who wagged his finger in my face in 1995 when I reported that the Browns were scrambling to make payroll.
Or ask former linebacker Ben Taylor of the re-born Browns, who never let me forget that in my preview of the team for the 2003 season, I gave the young Browns linebacker corps a composite grade of F.
I stood my ground both times, refusing to be bullied or made to feel bad or apologetic. And if the same thing happened today, I'd do the same thing again.
Yes, even though they're my Browns, I have a job to do, first and foremost. And sometimes that job entails reporting bad – very bad – news. That's just the way it is. Deal with it. I have to. Everybody else needs to do so as well. It's part of the business.
But as much as I wear my heart on my sleeve – even though that sleeve might be covered by a sweater or a sweatshirt for objectivity purposes – you wear your heart on your sleeve, too. They're your Browns, too, if you're reading this.
Which is why all of this hurts so badly.
You see – and I can only speak for myself – these are my Browns, win, lose or draw, because they were, beginning way back in that inaugural season of 1946 after my father and countless other men had arrived back home from World War II, his Browns, win, lose or draw. And since I wanted to be just like my dad, I became a Browns fan. Actually, in my house, there was no other choice. Browns, Indians, Ohio State. The Cavaliers weren't in existence then.
As the years went by and I became a teenager and then a young man, I did as teenagers and young men often do as they spread their wings, try to find their independence and carve out their own niche in this world, in that I figured out what irritated my parents, especially my dad, and then did whatever I could to tweak them on it.
What a stupid knucklehead I was. I should have been slapped upside the head.
But no matter how ornery I was, the Browns were always the common ground – that Switzerland, that 38th parallel, that de-militarized zone – between my and dad and I where we could always come together like the best buddies that we really were.
Though I didn't know it would be such at the time, the last thing we ever did together in the hospital room before he died was watch a Browns game on TV.
Looking back, I can see that there was some higher power working to arrange that one. It was too fitting for there not to have been something like that in play.
So this is personal with me. It means something.
And to see what is going on with the Browns this year, in particular – and throughout this expansion era, generally – makes me physically ill. Seriously. Writing this story in my head as I took my daily walk Monday morning, I got a pain in my shoulder that almost caused me to stop.
Stress. The same thing that caused me to lose sleep Sunday night after coming home from that debacle against the Packers.
This is a mess – a total, complete, unmitigated mess, the likes of which maybe this franchise, or even the original Browns franchise, has never seen.
Now, if you're looking for some reasons as to why this is the case, and some finger-pointing for the people who caused it, then you're going to have to wait until sometime later, or go somewhere else to find out if you need to get it now. Not in the mood to do that kind of today. Just want it fixed – now, immediately, this moment, this instance, or at least just as soon as is humanly possible.
We're all so tired of waiting.
And, before we go any further, let's not lay this all at the feet of head coach Eric Mangini. We'll leave it at that.
No, this piece is about feelings – how all this feels to the many, many, many thousands of people who care about this team.
It feels unbelievably terrible.
Where do you begin?
The Browns can't run the ball, or defense the run.
They can't pass the ball, or defense the pass.
They can't score points, or keep the opposition from scoring them.
And Sunday was the absolute worst. The Browns were non-competitive. That's the worst thing you can say about a team, that it couldn't defend itself in a competitive way.
Throw out the 1999 and 2000 expansion teams. Those fall into a completely different realm, so they're not part of the discussion.
But otherwise, this could be the worst Browns team ever. Really.
In 1975, when the Browns had their worst start in history at 0-9, it wasn't this bad. That club lost three consecutive games by the scores of 42-10, 42-6 and 40-10, setting a team record for points given up – 124 in a three-week span, while setting a team mark for margin of defeat – 108 points – in a three-week period.
But that team later defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, who would finish 11-3 and make the playoffs, and won three of its last five to finish 3-11. And they had the Pittsburgh Steelers, who would go on to win their second straight Super Bowl, down 17-7 at halftime at Three Rivers Stadium before losing.
The following the year, that end-of-the-season momentum continued, as the Browns finished 9-5 and nearly made the playoffs, causing head coach Forrest Gregg to be named AFC Coach of the Year.
Now, maybe the current Browns will likewise get it together at the end of the season, then keep getting better in 2010, causing Eric Mangini to be named AFC Coach of the Year.
But right now, with the state of this team, that seems as far-fetched as Art Modell being welcomed back to Cleveland with a ticker-tape parade.
And that 1975 team had some very good players. There just weren't enough of them.
Wide receiver Reggie Rucker led the AFC with 60 receptions; Greg Pruitt, the fourth-leading career rusher in team history, had the first of three straight 1,000-yard seasons; Jerry Sherk is the best defensive tackle in team history, and Walter Johnson isn't far behind him; Clarence Scott is among the best cornerbacks the Browns have ever had; Doug Dieken is one of the best left tackles in team history; safety Thom Darden is the Browns career leader in interceptions; Charlie Hall was a very good outside linebacker; and the club also had young players such as Tom DeLeone, guard Robert E. Jackson, running back Cleo Miller (the No. 9 career rusher in Browns annals), middle linebacker Dick Ambrose and some quarterback named Brian Sipe, all of whom would go on to be great players in Cleveland.
Other than a small group of players that includes returner Joshua Cribbs, nose tackle Shaun Rogers, left tackle Joe Thomas, left guard Eric Steinbach, aging but still potent at times running back Jamal Lewis, punter Dave Zastudil, kicker Phil Dawson, and long snapper Ryan Pontbriand, this team doesn't have much, if any, talent.
It hurts – really hurts – to say that, but it's true.
It hurts – really hurts – to say all of this.
It hurts – really hurts – to think back only about 15 months ago, when the Browns opened their 2008 training camp to the fans chants of "Super Bowl!, Super Bowl!, Super Bowl!"
What in the name of meteoric drop has happened to the Browns since then to cause them to fall this far, this quickly?
And every inch of that drop has been painful to watch.
It was painful to see Browns fans on Sunday being eerily quiet, watch them leave early, watch them put bags over their heads. What used to be one of the best home-field advantages of any NFL team back in the old days, has now disintegrated into a place that opponents don't fear in the least.
A proud, proud franchise has had its proud, proud tradition tarnished.
The fans still care. They care a lot. Remember, they fought to get this team back in 1995 and '96.
But they've simply been beaten down so much in this struggling expansion era, with the nightmarish fall from grace in 2008 and then all the problems of this season, having combined to serve as the knockout punch, the final nail in the coffin in terms of having hope.
They still love their Browns dearly.
I still love those same Browns – my Browns – dearly.
We just need a reason for optimism that at some point, this will all change and the Browns will return to being what they once were. But that reason – those reasons – don't appear to be there. At least they're not clearly visible. If they are there – legitimately there, not just in somebody's mind – then a person in a position of power on this team needs to point it out and shine the light on it for all to see, a beacon of hope, as it were.
The darkness – the bleakness – we see now is no laughing matter.
Nobody – butnobody -- should ever be laughing at our Browns, especially in Cleveland, and never, never in their own stadium.
If the Browns do nothing else this season, they've got to quell all that.