It has been a while since I've written you from center of our fine state, but my duties with the Columbus Crew have greatly interfered with my Browns-writing abilities. In 2008, our run to the championship had me tied up through early December, and then in 2009, I compounded matters by simultaneously working on a book about the 2008 team while covering the 2009 team, which also conveniently had a few Sunday afternoon games scheduled in the fall. So for the last two autumns, until the Crew's season ended, it's been mostly soccer and little football for me. I know that this sort of thing would normally cause you to stage an intervention, but…well…given the state of our Browns, I probably come across as the sane one.
But just because I haven't written you any letters lately, it doesn't mean I haven't been paying semi-close attention:
* I was as flabberghasted as anybody when noted football maven Randy Lerner began interviewing coaching candidates himself, probably via email. ("Eric, as a coach, is your goal to win football games or lose them? RL" / "Randy, I can't comment on that. Belichick may have installed a key-logger on my computer. EM" / "Good point. I will assume it's win, which is what I have here on my checklist. That's about all I have. It's yours if you want it. I'll let you introduce yourself to the media tomorrow. Feel free to bring along a GM if you know somebody. RL")
* I thoroughly enjoyed the draft, where I became convinced that the Browns were going to continually trade down until they had the final 55 picks in the draft. ("Browns 2009: New coach, new team!") Of course, that plan probably went out the window when the guys the Browns were targeting at pick numbers 200+ were picked in the early rounds by Oakland.
* After the transparency of Romeo's coin flip, I greatly appreciated Mangini's cloak and dagger approach to being noncommittal in the quarterback controversy. All I could think of was how Minnesota's coaching staff was at a total loss leading up to the opener—"Do we fire 90 mile-per-hour rockets at the secondary's chest all week? Or do we just give them the whole week off? If only we knew!"
* I used to think it was cool to have an offensive coordinator named C.H.U.D., so I thought it was cool once I realized that the Browns now had one named "Daboll", which sounds like something they put in an I.V. drip on death row, or something Alex Rodriguez may have injected into his butt cheeks ONLY WHILE PLAYING FOR THE TEXAS RANGERS AND NOT BEFORE OR AFTER HIS TIME WITH THE TEXAS RANGERS. Of course, these lethal injection and/or performance enhancement metaphors will take on a whole new meaning if and when the Browns' offense can consistently put up more points than, say, the Saints' defense.
* As for one of the major high points in the season, I did not get to see the Browns' riveting and dramatic 6-3 victory in Buffalo, as it was not shown in Columbus. I shouldn't complain since the game was also blacked out on the Sunday Ticket Red Zone channel.
* When Cliff Lee of the Phillies and C.C. Sabathia of the Yankees hooked up in the first game of the World Series, a coworker told me that he heard that (then-benched) Brady Quinn was going to start in game two. I said it would obviously be for New York since that's the only team Mangini will trade with.
* And after all those numbing blowout defeats, I was as elated as anyone when the Browns gave us a true Browns loss in Detroit. Not only did they dust off an old classic whereby a defensive penalty gave the other team an extra untimed down to win the game, but they added a new twist by calling a timeout so that the other team's injured quarterback could re-enter the game for that untimed down. A rusty backup might not have gotten it done. With that loss, I felt that Mangini was really getting the hang of this Browns thing.
Speaking of Mangini….I miss Romeo. He was easy to root for. I laughed with him even as I laughed at him, and now I feel somewhat bad since I've learned that many of his curious coaching decisions and dazed sideline demeanor were likely brought on by sleep deprivation caused by incessant refrigerator hoopla from those talking Coors Light cans. Mangini, meanwhile, is no fun whatsoever. What P.J. O'Rourke once said about major party platforms at political conventions holds true for all interactions with Mangini: "They're as bland as club soda soup; as vague as a television commercial for condoms." A Dictatorship of Boredom, indeed.
Anyway, my point is that while I have not had a chance to file regular dispatches from Central Ohio, I have been kinda sorta paying attention when it is convenient.
Which brings me to last Thursday. I have no idea why, but I was absolutely convinced that the Browns were going to win that game. I had not been this unwaveringly positive about a prediction since I predicted that the Ravens defense would outscore the Browns offense on Monday Night Football. The law of averages had to be on our side, right? There's no way Pittsburgh could win 19 out of 20, right? Just by dumb luck, a team has to beat another team once out of every ten, right? I realized that if there would ever be an exception to the rule, it would be the Browns against the Steelers, but nevertheless, I remained convinced that victory was imminent. I became emboldened when the office Steeler fans were preemptively offering excuses about injuries, poor form, Super Bowl hangover, etc. This was the day. For sure.
So I went out with Rob the Bengals Fan, who had a vested interest in Pittsburgh's demise, to watch the game at a local establishment. Irrationally confident, I shrugged off the bad omens as the night went on. For example, the game wasn't even seven minutes old when Brady Quinn hit Evan Moore for a 24-yard gain. It was Quinn's third completion of the night, for 43 yards. The Browns entered the game with a record of 0-11 when their quarterback completed 3 or more passes in a game. They also entered the game with a record of 0-11 when their quarterback threw for 24 or more yards in a game. That pass to Moore was a double whammy of certain doom, but I pressed on.
(Speaking of Moore, was that guy lights out against San Diego or what? Quinn would throw the ball in his vicinity and then Moore—get this— would stick his hands up and then use them to squeeze the ball in such a way that it would not bounce off of him and then hit the ground. Even on TV, I could tell that Browns fans quickly became enamored with his unorthodox approach to receiving, which he must have picked up in Green Bay before they cut him. Or as Rob pointed out, maybe it's the benefit of not having watched Braylon Edwards every day in training camp. Either way, based on that performance, I actually went to Dick's on Monday to see if the shelves were already full of Moore 89 jerseys.)
(Oh, and the other thing I like about Moore is that he puts the team above himself. In the midst of his legendary 6 reception, 80-yard game against San Diego, he even let a pass hit him in the side of the head while he wasn't looking, just to show his teammates how they had been doing it wrong all year. Then he later made a terrific grab on that fourth down pass to show them the right way. I could almost hear him in the huddle…"SEE? HANDS! NOT HELMET!" Evan Moore is equal parts Ozzie Newsome and Mr. Miyagi. This is the type of brilliant signing that the GM could be proud of if the team had a GM.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, bad omens. With the Browns leading 13-0, the NFL Network decided to get cute. First came the promos for the re-airing of a classic game, which happened to be The Drop. The NFL Network was basically saying, "If you think it's fun to be up 13 points in the second quarter against the Steelers, remember when you were up by 17 late in the third quarter of a playoff game against the Steelers….and LOST! Mwuhahaha!" And then after the Steelers eventually cut the lead to 13-6, the NFL Network sadists ran a graphic that stated that, since 1998, the Steelers have won only two games after trailing by 13+ points, and both were against the Browns. Thanks. When Pittsburgh got the ball back with a few minutes to go, I am shocked that the NFL Network didn't staring airing footage of The Drive. (The Browns are up by 7 with less than five minutes to go. Then again, they've been in this spot before….[show Drive montage]….now let's see what THIS #7 can do to the Browns!")
But I didn't let it worry me. It was the Browns' night. One of my favorite parts of the evening was when Chris Jennings scored the game's only touchdown, and the referee on the sideline started to raise his arms, but only raised them part way and left his palms turned toward the sky. It was the classic "I dunno" shrug. It was as if he were thinking, "I dunno what I just saw, but I think it may have been a Cleveland touchdown. They're gonna think I'm crazy. Should I raise my arms the rest of the way?"
Then, of course, the play had to be reviewed. I imagine the footage was viewed with as much curiosity and skepticism as the famous Patterson Bigfoot video. ("On the surface, it appears to be a so-called Cleveland Brown scoring a touchdown, but would a Cleveland Brown actually keep his foot inbounds like that? Much less cross the goal line? This is likely a hoax.") But after two solid minutes of futilely attempting to find a telltale zipper on a fake Browns suit, they let the touchdown stand.
That touchdown was all the Browns would need, as the Steelers foolishly ignored the frigid and windy conditions, playing a vertical passing style that left their quarterback horizontal for most of the night. The Browns racked up 8 sacks, and it was the final sack on the final drive that made for the highlight of my night.
See, Rob and I did not detect the Steeler fans at the table next to us. That's because they did not adopt the typical dress and mannerisms of a Steeler fan out in public, as illustrated below:
Instead, they watched the game in near silence, cowardly playing their allegiance close to the vest until such time as they could safely crow about their team's success. Since that never happened, they were silent all night so as to conceal their hidden shame.
Well, until that final drive. When Findlay, Ohio's own Ben Roothesleleebbrggeuer got sacked at the Pittsburgh 48 on the Steelers' final set of downs, one of these seemingly neutral guys broke his three-hour vow of silence, punched the table with all of his might, and then shouted, "THROW THE BALL, YOU FINDLAY F***!"
Wow. Just wow. So the quarterback who led your team to a dramatic Super Bowl winning touchdown drive all of 10 months ago is now, and I quote, "a Findlay f***." It's amazing how spoiled SteelerFan has become. Those Appalachian squirrel-munchers will turn on you in the blink of an eye, especially after a few Ahrn's.
Seriosuly, could you imagine a Browns fan in the late 80s referring to Bernie Kosar as a "Boardman b****"? Never. And Bernie never so much as made it to a Super Bowl in Cleveland. Meanwhile, 10 months removed from a dramatic game-winning Super Bowl drive, Routhlsbrguer is getting called out by teammates for not playing through concussions and his Yinzer fans are calling him names like "Findlay f***." I'd feel bad for him, but that's the price he pays for the company he keeps.
Then again, after the game, Beat Ben offered these gracious words in defeat: "Give them credit, I guess."
What a Findlay f***.
And then there is Joshua Cribbs, who is not only everything one could hope for in a Cleveland Brown on the field, but he is loaded with all of the intangibles off the field. He is the first genuinely all-time great Cleveland Brown in a long time. And what I love is that after such an emotional and overdue victory against the Steelers, he found a way to talk smack that strayed from the usual braying of the professional athlete. Instead, his smack talk was laced with humility, acknowledging that he's been on the short end and knows what the Steelers are going through.
"They're going to hear that bus engine all the way back," Cribbs said. "That's a lonely ride. I've ridden that ride for five years now. It's time for them to hear that engine all the way home while they look at the stat sheet."
Mmmm….listen to the Stiller bus purr….
Before I go, here are two random coaching thoughts about the game:
1. At 1-1, Eric Mangini is now the most potent "Stiller Killer" since Chris Palmer (2-2) made Iron City trickle down every Yinzer's leg. Now he can probably hire his own GM again. Holmgren better suck up while he can.
2. Will Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin get to keep his job? Dick Jauron lost to the 2009 Browns, and look what happened to him. The Browns were truly inept on Monday Night Football in a 16-0 loss to the Ravens, which caused Bills owner Ralph Wilson to remark, "Thank God we get to play Cleveland this year." When he was informed that they had in fact already played and that the Browns had won, Jauron was fired the next morning. (At least that's what I told Ed the office Bills fan when Jauron was fired.)
Well, that's all for now, Barry. I suppose I should give you a quick update on the status of BengalFan. They were most appreciative of our victory over Pittsburgh, mainly because they were worried about the Steelers sneaking into the playoffs and then injuring all of Cincy's best players on the first snap from scrimmage, just like in 2005. So out of concern for Cedric Benson's ACL, they were excited to see Pittsburgh get dumped. On the other hand, the Browns' victory did come with a little sadness. As my co-worker Ryan the Bengal Fan said, "I was so pumped when we swept the division, with four quality wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but now it looks like nobody in the division is any good. And we're not even .500 outside of the division." So we simultaneously helped out Bengals fans and riddled them with self-doubt. I'll take it.
As for SteelerFan, I will leave you with this. After the game, it became de rigueur for Yinzers to spout off some variation of the following: "You guys have no right to talk s*** until you beat a GOOD Steelers team."
This absolutely kills me every time I hear it. If they applied that statement to themselves, upstanding individuals like you and I would not have been subjected to 20 solid years of chest-beating, towel-twirling, and incomprehensible mountain babble.
Your long lost Columbus friend,
PS- I know you'd never read a book about a soccer team, but in case you need a gag gift for an office party or some stabilizing object to level out a wobbly table or chair, "A Massive Season: Sirk's Notebook Chronicles the 2008 Columbus Crew" is available now at Amazon.com.
Steve Sirk, once Art Bietz's co-conspirator at the TruthCenter, has taken to sending occasional letters to OBR Headquarters about life as a Browns fan struggling in the NFL mixing pot of Central Ohio. At some point in life, Sirk determined that suffering through the nexus, dips, valleys, and various low points of being a Cleveland sports fan within geographic proximity of Cleveland itself did not create sufficient emotional pain. Sneeringly dismissive of even basic survival instincts, Sirk elected to reside in Columbus, Ohio, so that he could better be surrounded by fans of winning franchises who could mock his very existence. If you wish to contact an individual of such clearly questionable judgment, you may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org