Let this sink in for a moment: the Cleveland Browns are favourites to win the AFC North. No, seriously, this isn’t a wind up. In a division containing Ben Roethlisberger’s Pittsburgh Steelers and the defensive powerhouses that are the Baltimore Ravens, dear old tragic Cleveland are heading the market.
Which is a very unusual state of affairs.
Because, for the most part, instead of being involved in lofty pursuits such as divisional shakeups, over the years the Browns have excelled rather more at losing games, hiring terrible staff and generally just being crapper at football than anyone else. Rubbishness, for better or worse, has been their calling card.
This brilliance at being bad peaked from January 1, 2017 until September 9, 2018, when 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 the Steelers, which they followed up with yet another loss, bringing the winless run to 19.
For a very, very long time the Browns were, it’s fair to say, quite scandalously awful. But then, on September 30, they actually managed to win, beating the New York Jets 21-17 at home. Finally, for the first time since 2016, then-head coach Hue Jackson got to make a victory speech after an NFL game. Now, the universe faces into a reality where the Browns, under Jackson’s successor Freddie Kitchens, are actually expected to win matches – divisions, in fact.
It’s all a bit ludicrous. Pundits are going so far as to warn that Cleveland are “overrated”, that Baker Mayfield, OBJ and the lads might only emerge with six or seven regular season victories instead of the predicted 9.5 betting line. This completely disregards the fact that the Browns have barely strung together six or seven victories in the last four seasons, let alone in one campaign. Still, notions like this illustrate that expectations have certainly been raised among Browns fans, though in light of past performances anything other than abject humiliation in 2019-20 is a bonus.
Or is it? For fans not based in Cleveland – where the desire was surely only ever for success, relative or otherwise – there was something endearing about the Browns during their multi-year voyage through the choppy waters of the Sea of Boundless Ineptitude. Their battle with their own limitations drew the adoration of many non-Clevelanders attracted to a lost cause, this writer included.
Rooting for the underdog is an old cliché, but the incompetence of the Browns was the most heady cocktail imaginable for those who champion the little guy. There must be something in the some sports fans’ psyche that makes one exult in misery. Maybe it’s a perverse sense of reverse glory-hunting. Kudos gained through steadfast perseverance.
So it was for the band of masochists who found joy in their adopted team being the perennial perineum of the NFL. Alas, we now stumble dizzily into the Competent Browns era. Exit Believe-land, enter Achieve-land. But how can you support a winning team if you only started to love them because they were a losing one?
Of course, the truth is, it’s great, if a touch disconcerting. The experience of winning regularly will be a strange one for pretty much all Browns fans, who face the future with unexpected and previously unheard-of optimism. Thoughts turn to, perhaps, a deep run in the playoffs for the first time since human beings stopped having tails. Not this year, assuredly, but maybe over the next couple of seasons.
The personnel are there. Mayfield, while callow, is undeniably gifted. The Hall of Fame awaits – possibly. Meanwhile, Beckham Jr is precocious, the supporting cast is improving and the coaching looks, well, not calamitous, which is pretty much the best a Brownian can hope for.
All of which begs the question: is this real life?