Since my father died in 2013, it feels like my love of pro football has been taken up several notches. In particular, the love of the Cleveland Browns, which trust me, is a tough love to have. But I finally broke down and got my first player jersey a couple of years ago (for the Browns’s star TE at the time, Jordan Cameron…he’s now in Miami), and have begun listening to podcasts from the ESPN Cleveland radio network about the team. Right now, I would say the Browns are definitely my favorite team over the Atlanta Falcons, but my love of the Falcons is still the same. It’s just that while the Falcons are my adopted team, as they became when we moved to Georgia in 1988, the Browns are my all-time home team. My grandparents had season tickets for many years, my dad went to some games (I only went to one preseason game back then). I’m a born and raised Browns fan, and will remain one until I die, despite the many miseries I’ve had to endure on account of that fandom over the years (The Drive, The Fumble, The Move…and just about every season since 1999).
I find myself thinking that it was fitting that I turned to the Falcons when we moved to Georgia. They have provided a similar emotional roller coaster for me over the years, mostly on the negative side, but several times it was more positive than not. The excitement of Deion “Prime Time” Sanders. Watching them beat the 49ers in the season finale of the 1995 season with my father and grandfather at the Georgia Dome. That amazing 1998 Super Bowl run, and the tears I shed when they beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship. (I called my grandfather shortly after, and with the Browns “de-activated” at the time, he shared my joy in Atlanta’s doing what the Browns couldn’t in the ‘80s. That the Falcons lost to the Broncos, and John Elway, in the Super Bowl felt like those AFC title games all over again.) The early years of Mike Vick and the DVD backfield, including being the first-ever road playoff team to win in Lambeau Field. But, there were many negative times, arguably no more so than in 2007. The Falcons brought in Bobby Petrino as coach to elevate Vick’s game, and fans were pumped about the season. But shortly before the season started, Vick was indicted on federal dogfighting charges, and the rest of the year went to Hell in a handbasket. Petrino was brought in to work with Vick, not cast-offs like Joey Harrington and Byron Leftwich. The season was a disaster, with the capper being Petrino resigning with three games left to go coach Arkansas with no warning. Would long-time fans argue that, for all the losing the Falcons have done, no season felt more hopeless than 2007?
In 2008, however, things started to turn around. They brought in Mike Smith as head coach, Thomas Dimitroff as GM, drafted their QB of the future in Matt Ryan, and picked up RB Michael Turner along with having a weapon in WR Roddy White. The next season, they surprised everyone by going 11-5 and winning the division, and in 2009, they brought in a future Hall of Famer in TE Tony Gonzalez and had the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. They wouldn’t have another losing season until 2013 and 2014, after which Smith, who holds the best winning percentage in franchise history nonetheless, was let go, and though Dan Quinn presided over a rough 8-8 season last year after a 6-1 start, it feels like we’ll be back to 10 wins soon enough.
The past week or so, I couldn’t help but think that that two-year period of 2007 and 2008 for the Falcons is a good thing to look back on and relate with for Browns fans after this past year. In 2015, we saw our best WR in Josh Gordon suspended for the year due to countless substance abuse issues. Our “franchise” QB of the future in Johnny Manziel checked himself into rehab, and our GM, Ray Farmer, was suspended for four games over texting coaches during the games the year before. During the season, Manziel continued to be a distraction both on and off the field, despite leading the team of two of their three wins on the season, leading to a benching and “concussion” in the last week of the season, injuries took away many of our better players, and we had four field goals blocked, including one against the Ravens that ended up losing us that game with a runback for 6 that made you go, “That’s so Browns.” Despite owner Jimmy Haslem’s insistence that he wouldn’t “blow it all up” at the end of the season prior to the year, that’s exactly what he did after they got crushed by the rival Steelers at the end of the year.
Cut to four months later. The Browns lost their four biggest free agents on Day 1, and waited two days to finally cut ties with the headache that was Johnny Manziel. Josh Gordon, who set a team record for receiving yards in 2013, is still suspended until August 1, and may not even be back at that point. Haslem got the coach he wanted this time out with Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, and decided to shake up the front office on an epic scale by promoting someone in charge of contracts (Sashi Brown) to be de-facto GM, and hired a baseball analytics expert (Paul DePodesta) to be Chief Strategy Officer. They were quiet on the big-money free agency market, and brought in a former rookie of the year winner who was on the bench this past year in QB Robert Griffin III. (The “Moneyball” jokes have been flying ever since.) On the surface, a lot of this seems like a harbinger of pains to come, but every indication I’ve heard is that the culture behind-the-scenes has been changing for the better. Out of their 14 draft picks, there are none of the red flags that have plagued Manziel and Gordon’s reputation in the city, and a lot of production, including a much-needed attack on the wide receiver position. I’m not willing to say that the Browns will be getting 10 or 11 wins, but I’ll take 6 to 7 with promise for the next year. In the long run, could we see the Browns get more consistent in their progress like the Falcons did after 2007? As someone who still hopes to see them win a Super Bowl in my lifetime, I’m thinking we could witness a dramatic turnaround for a franchise seen as the laughingstock in the league. I can’t wait to have the last laugh on this one.
One of my favorite movie genres? The underdog sports movie. Given who my two favorite football teams are, is it any wonder why?
The preceding words (written as a Facebook blog in May) make a good prologue for a review of Andy Billman’s documentary, “Believeland,” about the pain and misery of being a Cleveland sports fan. Made as part of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series, “Believeland” looks at the past in Cleveland, Ohio, to shape the present in the context of Cleveland fans’s difficult history with their sports franchises- the Browns (NFL), the Indians (MLB) and the Caveliers (NBA). With interviews by past players, sports writers and commentators from the area, as well as historians and others, Billman tells the story of Cleveland, Ohio as we see the events that have led to not only a rough 50 years as a city and economy, but as a sports town, as well. Among the cities with at least three professional sports teams, only Cleveland has been without a professional championship in the past half century, the last one being the Browns winning the 1964 NFL championship. Teams have been close, but none of them were quite able to seal the deal, as Billman acutely reminds us of. As a Cleveland sports fan, it’s difficult to watch, at times, but by closing the film as prodigal basketball son LeBron James returns to the Cavs, and takes them to the NBA Finals in his first year back after four years in Miami, Billman allows for hope to emanate that maybe, sooner rather than later, that 50-year championship drought will end.
As it should be obvious from the above paragraphs, I’m a football fan, first and foremost, but I’ve been an on and off again Indians and Cavs fan, over the years. I didn’t need Billman’s film, or the commentary by Tony Rizzo, Tony Grossi, Kevin Mack and Bob Golic, to remind me of the touchstones of fandom pain when it came to the Browns- I remember watching The Drive and The Fumble that kept us from the Super Bowl during the ’86 and ’87 seasons, I remember the basic parts of what led to the Browns moving to Baltimore, and being “deactivated” for three years, after the 1995 season, and I’ve watched with difficulty as the team has struggled to win since returning to the league in 1999. But the context provided by Billman and his subjects, which includes city officials and team officials, gives me a better understanding of the place these key moments in the team’s history plays in not just the city, but in the fans and how they react to other events shown in the film. The highlight of the film comes from the riveting interview Billman has with Earnest Byner, the running back whose fumble in the ’87 conference championship devastated the team, and fans, after a furious comeback that had us all thinking we were headed to Super Bowl XXII. He had a brilliant game before that fumble as he was headed to the end zone, and watching the emotions of that moment hit him again is emotionally devastating, and as raw as any feelings anyone has ever seen a sports player show with regards to such a seminal moment. He’s found some peace in the years since, but you can see it still has an effect on him that is profound to experience. In those moments, “Believeland” is as good as any documentary I’ve ever seen.
One of the key interviews in the film is writer Wright Thompson, who lays out the history of the city from a social perspective while also giving us the arc of how the ebbs and flows of the sports team’s histories play into that history. When the Browns and Indians were hot in the ’40s and ’50s, Cleveland was at it’s peak, but as that success waned in the ’60s and ’70s (which is when the Cavs started), the teams were a reflection of that. The ’80s Browns brought the city up in terms of hope as strongly as the way those seasons ended hit you in the gut. The ’90s Indians, with their great new Jacobs Field, showed the city starting to revitalize itself as a post-industrial city even when the team fell just short of titles in ’95 (when they lost to the Atlanta Braves, which is admittedly my favorite baseball team) and ’97 (when a heartbreaking blown save in Game 7 against the Marlins snatched victory from them in a heartbeat). And this century, the Cavs have had their biggest successes with the drafting of Akron native James, allowing them to build on the Indians’s hopes and promises, but James’s “Decision” to go to Miami and team up with two fellow All-Stars, netting himself two championship rings, deflated those hopes, and alienated fans who wanted him to deliver on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland. Thompson has some important perspective on that alienation, though, framing James’s choice as one so many Clevelanders have made for themselves and their families over the years to go where opportunity leads them. I had never thought of it in those terms before, even when his return was seen as a kid graduating from college, and seeing his place as being at his home after growing up a bit. That hope is back, and though the Cavs are currently down 0-2 in their second straight Finals against Golden State, we feel like our time is still going to come soon enough.
I’m biased, of course, in the way this film affects me, but I have no problem being honest about it. As I said, the underdog sports movie is one of my favorite film genres, and even though “Believeland” is a documentary, it still fits in the parameters of a “Rudy” or “Remember the Titans” or “Major League.” The Browns, Cavs and Indians are perpetual underdogs now, and even if one of them breaks this championship drought, you get the feeling the city won’t be taken seriously as a sports town until each of them find success. Andy Billman’s film is about not just one team that’s trying to make it’s comeback run, but an entire city that is just hoping for another run like they had in ’64, or the Browns had in their early years, or the Indians had in the ’40s and ’50s, as one of the greatest players of all-time, Jim Brown, says near the end of the film. Each year is “next year.” Hopefully, though, next year will soon be about finding a way to win it all again rather than just winning it once. This city deserves it, and as people who watch “Believeland” will see, I think we will have earned it when we do win it all.