Here we go again.
Or, as it were, here they go again.
With their season long-since trashed and rumors swirling about the future of their head coach, Eric Mangini, the Browns (1-10), in familiar territory, go to Cincinnati on Sunday to face the Bengals.
Head coach Romeo Crennel's job was in question in the next-to-last game last year when the Browns lost 14-0 to the Bengals at Cleveland. He ended up getting fired, of course.
Butch Davis was in trouble, too, in 2004, and a 58-48 late-season loss at Cincinnati caused him to resign a beaten, shaken man a day later.
But maybe it could have – possibly it would have – been different if things had not been handled as they were following the 2002 season. If there was a turning point in the history of this re-born franchise, then this was it.
With a late push, the Browns went 9-7 and squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card on the final day of that season. It was a monumental step forward for the fourth-year franchise, and the realization of a dream that Davis had when he was hired in 2001 and took over a club that had been just 5-27 combined in its first two seasons.
Things looked brighter still just a week earlier when the Browns gave the Pittsburgh Steelers all they could handle – and then some – in losing 36-33 in a wild-card game. The Browns dominated for most of the way, leading 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 late in the fourth quarter before undergoing a total collapse.
No problem, though. The Browns were on their way. They would be heard from again.
But Davis, citing salary cap restraints, an assertion that was never really proven to be true – or untrue, for that matter -- broke the team apart in the ensuing offseason, releasing a number of the veterans who had carried the team on the field and off it that year, such as center Dave Wohlabaugh, cornerback Corey Fuller, linebacker Earl Holmes, punter Chris Gardocki and long snapper Ryan Kuehl.
Davis was confident he could rebuild a team that would be just as good, but only younger and more cap-friendly.
It never happened. The Browns went 5-11 – a drop of four wins from the previous season – in 2003, then were 3-8 on the way to a 4-12 finish the following year when the Bengals outscored the Browns and drove Davis out the door.
It's been more of the same since. They were 6-10 in 2005, 4-12 again in both '06 and '08 sandwiched around a 10-6 finish in '07 that, while encouraging, never really delivered any rewards as the Browns failed to make the playoffs.
Thus, the Browns have never been back to the playoffs after going in 2002. The promise and hope of that year never materialized.
The Browns, in the 11th season of this expansion era, clinched their ninth losing record with last Sunday's 38-37 loss at Detroit when the Lions, 2-8 and coming off a winless 2008, scored on an untimed down after the clock had run out in the game. In losing their fifth in a row, with no end in sight, the Browns blew a 24-3 first-quarter lead. In a season of low lows, this might have been the lowest.
But what if?
What if Davis had not broken the team apart in the offseason following 2002?
What if he had done a better job of handling the quarterback controversy between Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb?
What if Davis had not fired offensive coordinator Foge Fazio, a good and decent man with a fine football mind, in the second half of that playoff game?
Would the Browns have continued to build off that 2002 season and grow, developing into an even better club over the several years that followed? And would that success carried over even into this season?
It's an interesting series of questions as the Browns experience déjà vu all over again, being near the bottom of the league and trying to figure out how to get it right.
"I really thought we had turned the corner," said kicker Phil Dawson, the only active player left on the roster from 2002. "Then everything changed and we went back to square one."
For a player such as the nearly 35-year-old Dawson, a team-oriented, 11th-year pro who, in a heartbeat, would give up all of his many individual awards in exchange for victories, playoff appearances and championships, it's a change that becomes increasingly hard to live with as Father Time marches on in his career.