We were sitting in a car outside a suburban Detroit sports bar, waiting for it to open. The sky was gun-metal gray and threatened rain. On the car radio was Christmas music, specifically Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
just like the ones I used to know ...
The sentimental tune is a staple of typical cloying holiday radio fare, but it also triggers a snide chuckle from me because it was that song that the U.S. Embassy in Saigon used in April 1975 as a coded trigger to warn all remaining Americans that the final evacuation was under way before South Vietnam finally collapsed and fell to the communists.
I say snide because I couldn't think of a more appropriate song, in that historic significance, to herald the start of Sunday's Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals game, a contest I knew was lost months before the kickoff. I flipped off the radio and we trudged into the bar – a local dive frequented by some of the Motor City's Cleveland expatriates on Sundays, but better known as an Ohio State alumni safe zone on Saturdays.
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
to hear sleigh bells in the snow ...
Inside it was dark and just a few nondescript patrons sat at the bar. One was in a replica Browns road jersey. The others were faceless men in plain, rumpled sweatshirts and coats, slumped over beers or leaning back on their bar stools to watch with dead eyes the mind-numbing drivel of the NFL pregame show. Probably auto workers and they looked like they'd always been there, installed with the bar top and taps. No one was talking. We sat down at a table between the long bar and the booths. The game didn't start for another 10 minutes.
The walls were festooned with aging Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons paraphernalia, mainly the glass beer advertisement pictures you can find in every dingy roadside American bar between Boston and Portland. There were a few posters of hockey and basketball players long since retired or traded. A Steve Yzerman picture was autographed with thanks to the bar owner. I couldn't make out his name. I noticed only because Stevie Y wore number 19, and as a Kosar-ite Browns fan, that number is dear to me.
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
with every Christmas card I write ...
The waitress, who looked like she'd fit snugly into a grimy Charles Bukowski booze tale of hard-bitten skid row characters, took our orders with little enthusiasm and less interest. Another set of soulless eyes on a grim day. Beer, cheese and nachos – a sort of last supper of the damned.
There were at least a half dozen big flat-screen televisions mounted along the bar's walls, and each of them was tuned to the Browns game. Because I live in a historic high-rise apartment building in downtown Detroit, I can't get the NFL Sunday Ticket satellite package, so I'm forced to find places like this bar, or wait for Cleveland to show up on national television. That was no problem last season, when the team had something like 72 games broadcast to the entire world, and showcased why the Browns should never be viewed outside Cuyahoga County.
Eventually, the beers arrived and the game started. We had been at Ford Field the previous Sunday – guests in a posh suite complete with free booze and chow – so I knew watching this game on my own dime was guaranteed to be a complete and utter letdown. My heart, covered in the scars of four decades of Browns despair, told me there was about as much chance of Cleveland winning as there is of Art Modell getting in heaven. Which is none.
On the bright side, I knew that no matter the outcome we were having a better Thanksgiving weekend than Tiger Woods, his wife, his SUV and his image. Delighting in the misfortune of others – schadenfreude, the educated types call it – is as American as credit card debt, drunken holiday family fights and cheating on taxes, and I'm no exception. Tiger's woes are a slow-motion disaster movie, and I'm in the front row. At least for me, it takes a little of the sting out of the Browns gloominess.
Unfortunately, I was also in the bar's front row for Sunday's shamble of a football game. It was unrealistic to expect Brady Quinn to repeat the excellent day he had a week before at Detroit. In terms of game experience, he remains a rookie and the team around him has no business being on an NFL field. It showed.
On the other hand, it was realistic to expect an NFL quarterback, or any starting quarterback, to not consistently throw the ball at the receiver's feet or wrong shoulder – that is, when the receiver had bothered to run the correct pattern or make the proper blitz adjustment. Quinn may turn out to be a worthless turd of a passer on the level of a Mike Phipps, but it's unfair to judge his full performance with this motley collection of practice squad garbage around him. But it is fair to say that his inaccuracy is worrisome.
We finished our plate of bread, cheese and nachos, along with the beer and other drinks, but none of that took the edge off my annoyance. The same weaknesses remained evident Sunday – and I knew they would, so it's not like I was surprised – that we've seen for a decade now: This team isn't as smart as other teams. Nor is it fast, strong and disciplined. Recognition is slow. Receivers have trouble shedding defenders. They arm tackle. They make boneheaded mistakes. They get overwhelmed physically. They can't run, block, throw, catch or tackle with consistency. The very basic fundamentals of the game seem tantalizingly beyond the grasp of the Cleveland Browns.
Sure, there are some players who are NFL-caliber, but their performances are lost in the maelstrom of terrible play around them by roster-trash that (hopefully) will be on CFL, af2, UFL or unemployment rosters next year.
Oh, and then Shaun Rogers got hurt and lost for the season. Touche, karma. You're a real son of a bitch.
By the waning moments of the fourth quarter, we were finished. So was Cleveland. The Browns technically could have mounted a comeback, but the odds of that were so monumentally against them that I felt safe leaving before the final gun. We paid the bill and shuffled outside. By now, it was a steady downpour and the sun was fading into the western skyline. A grim day was breathing its last and I wasn't sad to see it go. Losses by a hopeless Browns team demoralize me and cast a pall over the remainder of Sunday. This one was no different. But up here, hours later, the bars would soon be filled with cheering Red Wings fans, and the lonely cadre of faithful (if dispirited) Browns refugees would quietly disperse into the night, far from home with little to cheer about.
May your days be merry and bright,
and may all your Christmases be white ...
Bill Shea is The OBR's Detroit bureau chief. He can be reached at DocGonzo19@aol.com