Currently, the Cleveland Browns are bottom of their NFL division, the AFC North. If they remain in that position until the end of the Regular Season, it will be the eighth time in succession that they have finished at the foot of the divisional table. Plus ça change, one might think. But that doesn’t tell the full story.
Losing games is just something the Browns do. From January 1, 2017 until September 9, 2018, they racked up an impressive 17 defeats on the bounce, the joint sixth-longest losing streak in NFL history. The streak-breaking 18th game, famously, was an agonising tie against rivals Pittsburgh Steelers, which they followed up with yet another loss, bringing the winless run to 19.
All things considered, it was pretty remarkable stuff. The team’s haplessness must even have become vaguely humorous to the players. Or maybe not. Some observers began to talk of them being the worst team ever. For readers not overly familiar with gridiron, if you think of Derby 07-08 and Sunderland 05-06 rolled into one and shoved into a horribly gaudy brown kit you’ve got something approaching the 17-loss Browns.
It got so bad that at the start of the current season, the Browns even green-lighted a ‘Victory Fridge’ publicity stunt with Bud Light:
You’ve stood by us through it all. We love you for it, and so does @budlight.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 14, 2018
They were, it’s fair to say, ridiculous. But then, on September 30, the Cleveland Browns actually managed to win, beating the New York Jets 21-17 at home. Finally, for the first time since 2016, head coach Hue Jackson got to make a victory speech after an NFL game:
How the Jets must have felt at losing to Jackson’s team one can only imagine. They will go down in infamy for being bad enough to lose to one of the most widely pilloried teams ever to compete in the league. But the die was cast; the Browns were no longer the worst team in the NFL.
Which was a little strange. There had been something endearing about them throughout their nigh-on two year voyage through the choppy waters of the Sea of Boundless Ineptitude. Rooting for the underdog is an old cliché, but the Browns brought being bad to a whole new level. Their incompetence was a heady cocktail.
At some stage towards the middle of the 2017 regular season, I found myself keeping an eye out for their results – which, admittedly, was unnecessary, as it was invariably a big fat ‘L’. Quickly, I became attached to this unswervingly, apparently determinedly awful team. Perhaps it’s easier to identify with a collection of millionaire sportsmen when they’re patently dreadful at what they do.
An allegiance was born. The Browns may have been losers, but they were now my losers.
Every interception they chucked; every fumble they popped lovingly into the hands of an opposing Defensive End; every tackle they missed with the insouciance of a toddler clutching at an evasive kitten; every time their offensive line parted wide to allow a crushing sack on whichever unfortunate soul was playing quarterback that week, I was watching them. And with a great deal of joy.
There must be something in the sports fan’s psyche that makes one exult in misery. Maybe it’s a perverse sense of reverse glory-hunting. Kudos gained through steadfast perseverance.
Of course, it couldn’t last. It was sadly inevitable that, eventually, the Browns would beat someone and the spell would be broken. All the more so considering the NFL’s insistence on strengthening avowedly crap teams via the Draft.
After that very socialist event took place in April, in as first pick came Baker Mayfield, a precocious and confident Texan, and pretty soon the whispers started. In truth, they’d already begun long before Mayfield put pen to paper: the Browns might actually be decent in 2018, wrote the football cognoscenti among the US media.
It was a troubling thought. How can you support a winning team when you only started to love them because they were a losing one?
I needn’t have worried. After that victory over the Jets, on Mayfield’s first regular season appearance, there was only happiness. But, of course, how could it be any other way? Even fans of other teams were expressing their profound enjoyment at seeing the Browns win.
Now, Browns fans face the future with previously unheard-of optimism. Mayfield, while callow, is undeniably gifted; a dynasty awaits. Maybe. A fortnight ago, the team won for the second time this season, on this occasion versus the despised Baltimore Ravens, and go into Sunday evening’s game against Tampa Bay Buccaneers with every chance of making it three.
It seems that my affection for the Browns can survive them being, if not good, then at least vaguely competent. But when, in January 2021, Baker Mayfield is holding aloft the Vince Lombardi trophy with tears in his eyes, I won’t forget where it all began – with a losing streak of 17 games.