The number 18 is a rather significant number in many ways. 18 is the number of wheels on a semi tractor trailer. 18 is the number of holes on a standard golf course. 18 is the age at which people become of legal age and earn voting rights. And perhaps most appropriately for this week, 18 is the number of years between playoff appearances for the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns’ last postseason appearance was in 2002. Their run to the playoffs that year was oddly reminiscent of the 2020 campaign in that they were an upstart team on the rise following a losing season the year previous. And much like 2020, adversity lurked around every corner. The Browns opened the season in ignominious fashion, as a last play helmet throw by defender Dwayne Rudd led to a penalty and an untimed final play in which the Browns lost to Kansas City 40-39. This ruined what had been an otherworldly performance by quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who was 27-39 for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns. The bad mojo continued as the franchise lost team owner Al Lerner on October 2nd. A couple of weeks later the team was sitting 2-4 after losing to eventual Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay.
But then the tide turned. Thanks to contributions by players like defensive end Kenard Lang, safety Robert Griffith, cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, and even kicker Phil Dawson — who executed a pair of onside kick recoveries against Tennessee and Baltimore — the team won 4 of the next 5 games. After a brutal home loss to Carolina, the Browns trailed 20-14 very late at Jacksonville. On the game’s final play, quarterback Tim Couch threw deep to the end zone on the right sideline, and wideout Quincy Morgan came down with the ball for an improbable walk off 21-20 win. I should add that LOTL’s Dan Ford and I watched this game in a friend’s basement, and Dan had absolutely nothing good to say the whole afternoon until the Hail Mary.
In Week 16 at Baltimore, the situation looked bleak once again as Browns trailed 13-7 with 2 minutes left. Backed up on their own 8 yard line with no timeouts, Couch hit big play after big play against the Ravens’ stout defense, culminating in a game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Mark Campbell with 29 seconds left. That come-from-behind win eliminated the Ravens and set up a win-or-go-home final game against Atlanta. Again, the game was not without a lion’s share of adversity. Tim Couch broke his leg in the 2nd quarter, and the Browns trailed 16-10 early in the 4th. Punter Chris Gardocki pinned the Falcons on their own 2-yard line, and then the defense came through with a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Gerard Warren on 3rd and 1, setting up a short field. Kelly Holcomb then threw a touchdown pass to take the lead. Then came a defensive stop. And then came the season’s defining play, the 64-yard touchdown run by William Green that prompted radio voice Jim Donovan’s “Run William Run” call.
What happened next was a bit of symmetry in many ways. The Browns’ wild card playoff game was in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. Holcomb had arguably the greatest game of his career, throwing for 429 yards and 3 touchdowns, helping the Browns build a 24-7 lead midway through the 3rd quarter. But then the Steelers, led by quarterback Tommy Maddox, mounted a comeback. The Steelers’ stout run defense held William Green to just 30 yards on 25 carries a week after he had torched Atlanta. Unable to run the clock, the Browns fell apart late, succumbing to Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s game-winning touchdown run in the final minute. The Browns’ season was over, losing 36-33 to their archrivals. The season ended the same way it began, with Holcomb no doubt wondering how another of his great performances was for naught.
The sting from that defeat was one that most observers thought wouldn’t last long. Under coach Butch Davis, the Browns had improved from 3-13 in 2000 to 9-7 (and a playoff appearance) in 2002. The team seemed to be on an upward trajectory. But poor player decisions torpedoed the team’s upswing, and by 2004, the team was 4-12 and Davis was gone. Then Romeo Crennel came in and led the Browns to a pair of listless seasons before the team almost made the postseason again, this time in what would have been more unexpected than in their 2002 run. The 2007 Browns — led by quarterback Derek Anderson, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow, returner Joshua Cribbs, and rookie left tackle Joe Thomas — hit a major hot streak in midseason after starting 1-2. Sitting at 9-5 going into the penultimate game of the season, the Browns only needed a win against the 2-12 Bengals to end their postseason drought. But in what some would call “typical Browns fashion,” Anderson threw four interceptions and the Browns lost 19-14. The Browns, despite a 10-6 record, were undone on the final night of the season when Indianapolis sat their key players, allowing the Tennessee Titans to beat Indianapolis and eliminate the Browns via tiebreaker (the Colts later got what they deserved, losing their divisional playoff game to the Chargers).
Then came an extremely long period where the Browns had no shot whatsoever for postseason play. Poor drafting, poor hiring decisions, poor organizational control, and miserable management and execution (both on and off the field) led to the Browns being labeled as the laughingstock of the league for over a decade. Vaunted names like Michael Lombardi, George Kokinis, and Mike Holmgren came in and whiffed time and time again. Ray Farmer was also here, but his claim to fame was sending too many text messages. We even had a pro bowl-caliber wide receiver who decided he would rather smoke weed than make millions of dollars playing pro football. Ownership even turned over when Randy Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Pilot Flying J truck stop company. But any glimmer of hope from this was quickly quashed thanks to a federal investigation into Pilot Flying J for scamming truck drivers out of fuel rebates.
The Browns’ only real glimmer of hope during this period came in 2014, when quarterback Brian Hoyer propelled the Browns to a 7-4 start. The team faded down the stretch in part due to the meddling of owner Jimmy Haslam, resulting in Hoyer being benched in favor of rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel. In the first game Manziel started, the Browns lost 30-0 at home to Cincinnati, a team they had soundly beaten earlier in the season. I submit to you that the Browns have never quit harder in a game than they did that day; it was also foreshadowing of what was to come. The Manziel experiment crashed and burned so hard and made the locker room so toxic that players dreamt of other cities and plotted their path out of Cleveland with regularity.
By the start of the 2018 season, the Browns were at the lowest point in their history. They had just gone 0-16. They had gone 1-31 over the past two seasons. And the kicker was that the coach who presided over this disaster, Hue Jackson, was still the coach. By this point, any child who was born the year the Browns last made the playoffs was learning how to drive a car. A whole generation of children had grown up never seeing a Browns team contending for a Super Bowl. It was setting off a sort of generational divide as well as a geographical one. Kids didn’t understand why their parents hated the Denver Broncos, the team that had denied the Browns trips to the Super Bowl several times in the 80s. They didn’t understand why we had a rivalry with the Steelers, who beat the Browns just about every time they played. They didn’t understand the concept that in fact, the Browns once were a proud franchise. Data collected by Facebook based on posts and statuses by fans of various NFL teams showed that by 2016, the Steelers were the most popular team in Youngstown, and the Bengals were the most popular team in Columbus, and a smorgasboard of teams now shared top dog status in Toledo (clearly people in northwest Ohio weren’t impressed with the bumbling Detroit Lions either).
But that all began to change on a rainy, miserable September afternoon at FirstEnergy Stadium. For a while, the opener of the 2018 season looked as though it would be like so many others. The Browns trailed the Steelers 21-7 in the 4th quarter. But then something strange happened: Tyrod Taylor started dropping dimes, and the Browns erased the deficit. The game ultimately ended in a 21-21 tie, which while not a win, wasn’t a loss either, which was something the team hadn’t been able to avoid since a Christmas Eve 2016 win over the Chargers.
And then came the real harbinger of change. It was a Thursday night in week 3, and the New York Jets were in town. Browns fans were thirsty to taste victory. But as so often happens, adversity struck as the Jets took an early 14-0 lead, then Taylor got injured. Off the bench stepped one Baker Mayfield, who rallied the Browns back with throw after throw, even catching a 2-point conversion pass on a trick play to tie the game. And then came another long drive, punctuated by Carlos Hyde’s game winning 1-yard touchdown rush. The victory set off massive celebrations by Browns fans long into the night, accentuated due to a famous Bud Light promotion where victory fridges were placed strategically around Cleveland and would be opened when the Browns finally won a game. Needless to say the next day, September 21, 2018, was the most unproductive and most hungover autumnal equinox in Cleveland’s history.
The 2018 Browns finished 7-8-1, their best record since 2018. After a successful offseason buildup of talent including flamboyant superstar wideout Odell Beckham Jr., running back Kareem Hunt, and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson among others, the Browns were expected to contend in 2019. But again negativity and adversity struck, this time in the form of a coaching staff that struggled with game planning and installing discipline within the team. 2019 saw many unexpected self-destructs and bad defeats. The Browns got trounced 43-13 by Tennessee on opening day amid a cacophony of penalties and turnovers. Then they lost in Denver to a rookie quarterback who had never previously started an NFL game to fall to 2-6.
How bad did it get? Cue the Steelers once again. Another loss right? Well, it’s not what you think. The Browns were actually about to win, leading 21-7 in the final seconds. This would actually be a crushing defeat for Pittsburgh, dropping them to .500 and out of the playoff spots in the AFC. It was about to be the Browns first win over Pittsburgh in 5 years. And yet, this was ruined as an on-field fight erupted with 8 seconds left. In the defining moment of the 2019 season, defensive end Myles Garrett ripped off the helmet of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and struck him in the head with it. Head coach Freddie Kitchens epitomized the moment by seeming to relish in the team’s crazy attitude by wearing a “Pittsburgh started it” shirt a few days later. In the end, the Browns finished 6-10 and fired both Kitchens and GM John Dorsey. The latter move was highly unpopular as Dorsey had been responsible for bringing in many key players via free agency, as well as drafting other key players like cornerback Denzel Ward.
Leaning mostly on advice from advisor Paul DePodesta, owner Jimmy Haslam brought in current GM Andrew Berry and current head coach Kevin Stefanski prior to the 2020 season. Before the Browns could even set foot on the field though, more adversity struck, this time in the form of a worldwide virus pandemic that all but shut down every sports league in the spring of 2020. Unable to have offseason training activities or even any preseason games, the Browns arrived for their season opener in Baltimore with new offensive and defensive systems and yet no in-game experience with them. The Ravens predictably clobbered the Browns 38-6. In the aftermath, all the national pundits buried the Browns as well as quarterback Baker Mayfield, who was being labeled as a bust.
In any normal world for the Browns, the 2020 season would’ve been predictable, with the team finishing 4-12 or 5-11 and us discussing which quarterback to take in the draft by November. But this year was special. The Browns replicated their September Thursday night magic in week 2 to defeat Cincinnati, then put on fireworks offensive displays in defeating Washington, Dallas, and Indianapolis (a team that had the league’s No. 1 defense at the time). Cue those doggone Steelers once again, who brought the Browns back to reality with a 34-7 drubbing in week 6. The negativity continued in Cincinnati, where Odell Beckham Jr. was lost for the season to injury on account of the Bengals’ turf monster. The malaise seemed to be complete with the Browns losing 34-30 with under a minute left but a furious last minute drive, punctuated by Mayfield’s 5th touchdown pass of the day to Donovan Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from a crushing defeat.
Following a defeat to Oakland in which this amateur meteorologist learned the definition of “graupel” (ie: precipitation that forms when supercooled water droplets are collected and freeze on falling snowflakes), the Browns rediscovered their form, defeating Houston, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville before exacting revenge on the Titans for their opening day 2019 drubbing. The Browns continued to light up the scoreboard in the rematch against Baltimore, but a miraculous series of events and plays by Ravens NFL MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson denied the Browns victory in what was likely the NFL’s game of the year. Despite the defeat, the Browns were 9-4, and the road to the postseason was simple: beat the lowly Giants and Jets, the latter of whom were 0-13, and the Browns would finally end the 18-year postseason drought.
The first trip to New York went as planned. The Browns played a complete game and beat the Giants 20-6, leaving only the Jets to beat. But then on the eve of the game, adversity again reared its ugly head as 7 Browns starting players were stricken with coronavirus and could not play, including linebacker BJ Goodson and all of the Browns starting receivers, including star wideout Jarvis Landry. Faced with having to bring in makeshift receivers and not given any assistance from the league in terms of postponement, the Browns suffered against the lowly Jets. The 23-16 loss under controversial circumstances raised the specter of the Steelers getting the chance to knock the Browns out of the season in week 17.
It is because of all of this: this entire 18-year journey through the lowest valleys a franchise can traverse, that made last week’s 24-22 victory over Pittsburgh so significant. For once, no amount of bad coaching, bad drafting, bad luck, even a global pandemic, would keep the Browns out of the playoffs this time. Jim Donovan said it best when the team was in victory formation and he said “the only thing that is missing is all of you.” For the old school folks, it was a return to prominence for a team they watched contend for the Super Bowl when they were growing up, or when they were getting married, or even starting their own businesses. For the youth of the CLE, it was a moment they had never experienced before. It was a moment many thought quite frankly would never come. During the winless campaign of 2017, I had said on more than one occasion that it was more likely that the Browns would move out of Cleveland again than they would ever make the playoffs. I am so glad that prediction never came true.
Given all the crucial moments between the teams throughout history, it is appropriate that the Browns playoff opponent is Pittsburgh. It will even take place in the same venue the Browns last visited in postseason play, Heinz Field. Adversity has struck the team yet again, the virus forcing out head coach Stefanski as well as left guard Joel Bitonio, receiver Khadarel Hodge, and cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson. But facing adversity is the Browns MO. They haven’t backed down from a challenge in 2020, and they won’t this week either. Win or lose, this franchise has given us an incredible ride in 2020, and most importantly, brought the 18-year road of despair to an end. Let’s hope that 2020 is the start of a new road for the Browns, filled with prosperity and perhaps even a championship. The Cavaliers showed that winning it all in Cleveland is in fact possible. If Lebron James opened the hole, perhaps Baker Mayfield can run through it to Super Bowl glory.