In five of their last ten home games, the Browns have not only lost, but also failed to push the ball into the end zone even once. Patience may be a virtue, but let's face it: other institutions are better suited to instilling virtues than the Cleveland Browns football club. And they're typically open on Sundays too.
The Browns are (purportedly) in the entertainment business. In theory, they rely on discretionary dollars, and it's a time and place of special economic stress. But we heady fans know the franchise, as part of the NFL colossus, enjoys financial insulation with its ten-digit TV contracts, obscenely rich owners, and sweetheart stadium deals. If it were like most other consumer goods and services, Browns football would need to reliably offer good value or else soon risk extinction.
The Browns do not.
And their fans, which in times past cheered our teams to glory, commiserated in our heartbreak, rebelled valiantly in the face of betrayal, and even resurrected "our" team from the dead, have seen our intergenerational investment of the heart repaid with the very one thing that should be anathema to the Midwestern American ethos: interminable incompetence from top to bottom, inside and out.
Incompetence can be funny, even lovable. It can be abided for a time upon plausible presentation of a hopeful direction. But the Browns organization is in its eleventh year of re-creation. It now rewards its legendarily loyal followers with porous pussyfooting on the field. Off it, a bunker mentality, implicit (for they dare not still plea it aloud) calls for patience, and an attitude appearing to border on -- at times crossing into -- arrogant contempt for its customers.
I know -- football is not stand-up comedy; it's no afternoon at the spa. Performers aren't pandering for a laugh or a tip. It's a tough, cold, methodical, bottom-line sport, and that's part of its appeal. You've gotta be tough to identify as an active Browns fan through a decade when the team's average record was 5-11 and the current squad is headed far worse than that.
Besides gritting it out until your teeth turn to hash marks, what other choices are there? Shame to show the colors? Futile anger? The Polyanna posture? Gallows humor? Inebriation (further fueling the cycle envisioned by the league's networks' advertisers)?
Or the really scary option, for it threatens the long-term interest of every affiliated party: disengagement. It's discretionary time and money, after all. When goodwill turns bad, the brand cannot stand on its own. I've heard such testimony straight from a fourth-grader living in Cleveland proper: "Most of my school is Steelers fans."
If a Browns game isn't the hottest ticket in town, eventually the locals won't even see the games on TV. Indeed, we're on pace for the first blackout of the millenium.
So here's my far-fetched but heartfelt proposal to the Browns brass: give me victory or give me ... um, a coupon.
Ridiculous? Maybe, but we're beyond that now. Besides, Randy Lerner's an old credit card guy. Just call it a Loyalty Reward. Fans attending the games regularly shell out more than is delivered back to them. So if the team can't do it on the field, the front office ought to do it through the mail.
Here's how it could work: whenever the Browns lose at home in regulation and fail to score even a single touchdown in the process, the team should recognize that fans did not get anything passably close to what they paid for. Fourth-quarter scores that don't narrow the deficit to within 14 points don't count. Ticket stubs should be redeemable for $30 toward a future ticket purchase.
It would show solidarity between management and the team's most devoted supporters. It respects fans' desire to align themselves with winners, or at least with those who go down with some combination of aggressiveness, coordination, and excitement. Through action, not words, it embodies empathy and gratitude toward those who defy the economic climate, and the climate itself, in hopes of seeing something worth cheering. And it would put more butts in the seats, reducing the likelihood that the broader community won't even be exposed to games at all.
As for its cost, in the very low seven figures per instance? It's negligible to someone like Lerner, who has paid exponentially more just to ditch the detritus of his past poor decisions. And the cost of not doing so may be much more damaging come time for season ticket renewals.
And, hey, if the Browns will save multimillions by not letting their homestate quarterback develop on the field where fans can see him, who deserves that savings? If they need the team's sole star attraction, its heart and soul, the NFL's career record-holder in kick return touchdowns, to further prove himself before maybe paying him market value, what market are they valuing anyway?
The credit should be valid for one calendar year and apply to any game or package. Just prevent redemption for games against the same opponent, to mitigate the possibility of, say, Steeler fans being further encouraged to show up in Cleveland for another beatdown.
So that's my pitch, constructed with care to prevent coaching or player shenanigans. But I'm open to better ideas. Believe me, at this point, improvement of any type would be most welcome.
Ace Davis, blogging since the Browns were a playoff team, was recently glad to escape the stadium in Buffalo unharmed.