On the morning of Dec. 23, 2007, the Browns boarded buses outside their hotel on Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati for the five-minute ride to Paul Brown Stadium for their all-important game against the struggling Bengals.
All the 9-5 Browns, winners of two straight and four of their last five, had to do in this next-to-last regular-season game to clinch an AFC playoff spot was defeat a 5-9 team that had lost two of its last three, including a 20-13 decision eight days before to a San Francisco 49ers club that would finish just 5-11. In the teams' first meeting, back in Week 2 in Cleveland, the Browns prevailed in a wild one, 51-45.
From the moment of that return match until now, not much of anything good has happened to the Browns. It's been almost entirely a long series of negative events, one right after the other, that has caused the Browns to stand at 1-8, with a four-game losing streak, a historically inept offense and their first-year head coach, Eric Mangini, possibly fighting for his professional life, as they get ready to play the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.
Talk about a free fall. How did this happen? How could this happen? How could anyone let this happen?
To be sure, how did the Browns fall so far so quickly?
Here's a look at some of the events that have taken the Browns from the brink of only their second playoff berth in the expansion era – the heights of all heights -- to maybe headed for their worst finish even—the lowest of all lows:
*The Browns are stunned 19-14 by the Bengals, who take advantage of back-to-back interceptions off Derek Anderson at the end of first half to score two touchdowns and blow out to a 19-0 lead. "Blow" out is a good term, because offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, for whatever reason, keeps ordering passes despite a strong, swirling wind that made it extremely difficult to throw. What occurred that day adds credence to several beliefs held by some close observers of the team that Chudzinski was more interested in building his resume than doing what is right for the team, that head coach Romeo Crennel was asleep at the wheel at times, letting those play calls go through his headset without vetoing them, and that Anderson locked onto receivers too much, causing interceptions, especially near the goal line. He threw four picks in all on the day, including one that took place at the start of the third quarter on a first-and-goal from the Cincinnati 9.
*The Browns beat the San Francisco 49ers 20-7 a week later to go 10-6, the same record as AFC North champion Pittsburgh and their best mark since 1994, but failed to make the playoffs, losing out on tie-breakers for the last wild-card spot to the 10-6 Tennessee Titans.
*Even though they were getting an offer for first- and third-round draft picks for restricted free agent Anderson in the ensuing offseason, they kept him by deciding to sign him to a three-year contract. When that happened, it meant that Brady Quinn, a first-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, would be relegated – at least for the first part of the year -- to a second straight season being glued to the bench. It made many people question why the Browns had drafted Quinn in the first place.
*Believing they were close to making a run not only at the playoffs but also the Super Bowl, the Browns traded their second-round choice in the 2008 NFL Draft for Green Bay defensive end Corey Williams, and their third-round choice to Detroit for nose tackle Shaun Rogers. They had dealt their first-rounder to Dallas the year before to be able to draft Quinn. Not drafting until the second day, at the start of the fourth round, the Browns chose linebacker Beau Bell, who played in just four games in 2008 and then got cut this year, and in the fifth round took tight end Martin Rucker, who played in only five contests in 2008 and then also got cut this season.
*With a number of national writers and publications predicting big things for the Browns, the team opened its 2008 training camp to the chants of, "Super Bowl! Super Bowl! Super Bowl!" from its fans.
*Injuries at the start of camp limited guard/tackle Ryan Tucker, the Browns' best offensive lineman of the expansion era overall, to just one game – a 35-14 decision over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Also, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius developed a staph infection after knee surgery and never played another down. He eventually pursued legal action against the team
*While running sprints after practice in his sock feet early in camp, Braylon Edwards gets spiked by fellow wide receiver Donte Stallworth, suffering a severe foot laceration that kept him out until the regular-season opener. Crennel laughed off the incident, saying, "Kids run around in their sock feet all the time."
*The Browns go 0-4 in the preseason, finishing winless for just the second time in team history, and the first since 1972 (0-6). Included in that is an embarrassing performance against the Giants on MNF in which Anderson, running back Jamal Lewis and safety Brodney Pool all get hurt in the first hald
*With injuries throwing off the offense's timing, the Browns began one of their toughest schedules – and most celebrated ones, with five prime-time TV appearances -- in disappointing fashion with a 28-10 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys. They followed that up with a 10-6 defeat to the Steelers at Cleveland and another 28-10 setback, this time at Baltimore, going 0-3 for just the second time since 1999. About an hour before the Cowboys game, after the Browns had already announced their de-activations, Stallworth, a key free-agent acquisition in the offseason, begged out of playing with a quadriceps injury that caused him to miss the first four games.
*The Browns had renewed hope after winning two straight and three of four to get to 3-4, then lost back-to-back games at home in a period of five days to Baltimore (37-27) and Denver (34-30) after they had big leads. That sealed their fate in the playoff chase. Anderson got benched, and Quinn started against the Broncos and played well. Quinn had two more starts before suffering a season-ending finger injury. Anderson started the next game and then was lost for the season as well with a knee injury.
*Tight end Kellen Winslow ended an injury-plagued season on the Injured Reserve List after just eight starts. Earlier, he had been hospitalized with a staph infection and then got into a screaming match with general manager Phil Savage outside the Browns locker room. Winslow told Savage that the GM treated him "like a piece of meat."
*Savage received a negative email from a fan following a come-from-behind 29-27 win at Buffalo on MNF and responded with an obscenity. Savage told the media a few days later that he had talked to owner Randy Lerner, apologized to him, the team and the fan, and that the matter is closed. He then made a joke about the incident during his weekly interview on a Cleveland radio station. Also during one of those interviews, he made critical remarks about the coaching staff, saying at one point when asked about a coaching decision, "If I'm going to do that, I might as well put on a headset and go down and stand on the sideline." In a closed-door meeting, he reportedly blamed the coaches for the team's poor play, saying the staff had enough good players to work with to produce a winner.
*After Anderson went down, Ken Dorsey, who began the season as the No. 3 quarterback, started three games before getting hurt himself and being lost for the year. Bruce Gradkowski, a Toledo product, is signed off the street and starts the finale at Pittsburgh, a 31-0 loss. With injuries throughout their offense, not just quarterback, the Browns suffered two shutouts in a row to end the year, did not score an offensive TD in their final six contests and finished 4-12, a decrease of six wins from the previous season. Savage and Crennel were both fired immediately after the season.
*During a rare closed-door, question-and-answer session with the media a few days later, Lerner heard that head coach Eric Mangini was available after getting fired by the New York Jets and became instantly intrigued. In whirlwind fashion, he hired Mangini shortly thereafter and then, at the coach's insistence, hired George Kokinis away from Baltimore as general manager.
*Stallworth, who caught just 17 passes for 170 yards and a TD in 2007, did time in prison and was suspended for the season by the NFL after running over a man in Miami in the offseason and killing him.
*Starting the 2009 NFL Draft with the No. 5 overall pick, the Browns traded down three different times, finally ending at No. 21, where they selected Cal center Alex Mack. In the second round, they picked wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, passing up USC linebackers Clay Mathhews III, the son of former Browns star linebacker Clay Matthews, and Ray Maualuga in the process.
*An open competition between Quinn and Anderson for the starting quarterback job was held throughout the 2009 training camp and the preseason, with Quinn eventually being named the winner. Quinn held the job only until halftime of the third game, at Baltimore, when he was benched in favor of Anderson. The Browns started 0-3 for the second straight year, their offense having all kinds of struggles.
*An unidentified Brown was fined the maximum under the CBA, $1,701, for taking a $3 bottle of water from the team hotel without paying for it. The incident made national news.
*Mangini got rid of two players who mouthed off to assistant coach Bryan Cox during training camp, Shaun Smith and Louis Leonard. Earlier, during the OTAs, he had cut University of Akron defensive back Bryan Williams for dogging it after being ordered to run a lap around the practice field for making a mistake.
*For the umpteenth time, Mangini made a trade with his former team, the Jets, this time sending Edwards to them. It came not long after Edwards was accused of punching a friend of Cavaliers star LeBron James at a Cleveland night spot in the wee hours of the morning.
*The 0-4 Browns finally won a game, edging Buffalo 6-3. Another four-game losing streak than began, putting the team, as mentioned, at 1-8 as it goes to Detroit.
*Kokinis was fired by the Browns "for cause." He is reportedly seeking to take legal action against the Browns. Just before this happened, the Browns fired Mangini's hand-picked director of team operations, Erin O'Brien, who had worked with him in New York, and they hired former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar as a consultant, with his chief task, at least initially, believed to be evaluating the struggling offense.
*Lewis criticized Mangini for practicing the team too hard and too long. It came about two weeks after Lewis said the Browns lacked chemistry and a plan for success, and announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. Mangini retaliated by starting to take a look at former CFL running back Chris Jennings in a 16-0 loss to Baltimore on MNF earlier this week.
*Rookie running back James Davis and defensive lineman Keith Grennan were lost for the year to injury during a post-practice opportunity period, causing the NFLPA to investigate the practicality of these sessions. Mangini insisted everything is on the up and up.
*Mangini has been the subject of scorn and unflattering caricatures in national publications, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, as the Browns keep losing and heading toward historic offensive lows.
*A Cleveland radio sports talk show host claimed sources told him there was nearly a free for fall in the Browns locker room at halftime of their game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. With the team trailing 16-0, supposedly there were fights, both physical and vocally, involving players and other players, coaches and players, and coaches and other coaches. An upset Lerner stared down the players and coaches as they came in and out of the locker room at halftime that day, and then said after the game the Browns needed to add a strong, experienced football voice.
*Quinn regained the starting job in that MNF game against Baltimore. Joshua Cribbs was crunched on the last play of the game but somehow avoided injury as the Browns pitched the ball back and forth like schoolboys. The Browns, especially Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, were heavily criticized for running such a silly play, exposing their best players to injury in a game that was out of reach. Cribbs said Mangini and Daboll did not order the play. Also, fans upset at the team's poor play planned a protest for the start of the game, but it didn't amount to anything. However, some fans are now wearing paper bags over their heads at games in their form of a protest.
*Punter Dave Zastudil and tight end Steve Heiden were placed onto the IR List on Wednesday, joining the team's two tackles leaders, linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton. Rumors are circulating that Zastudil's injury, to his left (punting) knee, might be because of being overworked. He and Phil Dawson were the only kickers and have to do all the punting and kicking during practice. Dawson missed five games this season with an injury to the calf on his right (kicking) leg. His absence caused the Browns to eschew a try at a potential, 57-yard, game-winning field goal at the end of regulation because his replacement, Billy Cundiff, lacked his range.
*Only one of the last three home games – against Pittsburgh on Dec. 10 -- is sure to be a sellout. Thus, the Browns, who have never had a home contest blacked out locally because it didn't sell out, could have that fate befall three games – Dec. 6 against the San Diego Chargers, Dec. 27 against the Oakland Raiders and Jan. 3 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
*The Browns, who won 63 percent of their home games during the 50-year existence of the original franchise from 1946-55, have lost about 63 percent at home during the 11-year expansion era. However, the problem has become exacerbated because the Browns, dating back to 2008, have currently lost nine in a row at Cleveland, tying the team record set during the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
It's now Nov. 20, 2009, almost 23 months to the day later from that fateful afternoon in Cioncinnati. So what's next?
Who knows? But you'd better stay tuned and buckle your seatbelt.