The Old Cleveland Browns Are Gone. We Remember the Worst Moments From a Wild 20-Year Ride of Failure

click to enlarge The Old Cleveland Browns Are Gone. We Remember the Worst Moments From a Wild 20-Year Ride of Failure
Illustration by Aaron Sechrist

When did you know it was over? When the Browns traded for the most exciting wideout in the league at the peak of his career? When safety Damarious Randall flipped an intercepted ball to Bengals assistant (to the) head coach Hue Jackson? When you saw the cover of Sports Illustrated?

Sometime in the last 365 days, an era of Cleveland Browns football met a merciful end.

I knew it was over last December. I was in the cheap seats at Mile High Stadium in Denver, watching the team I'd seen lose so many close games pull out a 17-16 win, as was obvious would happen.

During the fourth quarter, a Broncos fan behind me tapped my shoulder and smirked.

"Same old Browns," he said. "You getting that old familiar feeling?"

I was not, and told him as much.

"Buddy, John Elway is up there chewing on a bale of hay and making plans to draft another Brock Osweiler. You got Case Keenum down there; we got Baker Mayfield. We're gonna horsewhip your asses like the guy cleaning Elway's stable shoulda horsewhipped him for shitting his stall with Paxton Lynch."

It was a great day to be a Browns fan and I immediately knew there would be many more.

But, as we prepare for the most exciting Cleveland Browns season in four generations, we're also saying goodbye.

The Browns we knew — and ... well, not loved, exactly, but certainly obsessed over in a way that an unwell person might mistake for love — are gone.

Even the twits in the national media know it. These guys, who don't really understand Cleveland sports fandom, have framed a national narrative about what one New York magazine writer described as the "joyous masochism" of Browns fans who wear "pain as an emblem of honor, a sign of their loyalty and fortitude."


I understand the appeal of this narrative, and why it resonates with people who have not been paying close attention to a failing franchise. Not everyone has, like me, watched pretty much every single Browns game for 20 years — including most of the preseason games.

The Browns have been mostly bad for 20 years, sure. And that badness culminated in a two-season stretch of historic ineptitude. But, in many ways, the winless season was far less awful than all the almosts. And, yes, there were plenty of almosts. Moments of hope, moments of actual joy, and plenty of genuine surprise at our misfortune. Cleveland fans don't expect to get our teeth kicked in. We're not Cubs fans. That's just what tends to happen, and then we get back up — because fuck 'em, that's why.

I realize that my 4-year-old daughter will never know the Browns that I did. In all probability, this year she will attend the AFC championship game at Arrowhead, a few miles from our house, and watch the Browns advance to the Super Bowl in a 35-27 victory over the Chiefs. Then Chiefs fans will give her high-fives and wish us luck in the Super Bowl because, yes, they are just that nice.

After the Super Bowl parade, the history of the modern Browns will be condensed into two eras: monumental ineptitude typified by Hue Jackson's historic futility and Baker Mayfield planting a flag in the skull of whatever woebegone NFC team has the misfortune of encountering the dark magic of that little elfkin in the Super Bowl. The only real debate will be whether Sashi Brown was a villain for tearing down the team and drafting Corey Coleman, or a hero for accumulating the draft capital that allowed John Dorsey to draft Austin Corbett without shame. This abridged narrative has the flavor of truth, but it leaves out so much of the weirdness, wonder and woe of the past two decades.

This year's Browns are a new thing, and the old thing is gone. Certainly, we are in no position to mourn. But I want to remember. So, we seek here to memorialize the first 20 years of this franchise which the national media believes we enjoyed watching rip our hearts out as "an emblem of honor."

Sept. 8, 1998

Al Lerner gets the team

Everything could have been different, you know. When the Browns returned as an expansion team, Al Lerner was not the only potential owner. In fact, he faced a fierce competitor in Charles Dolan, a cable TV magnate who has sought to own many professional sports franchises without ever closing the deal. Would Charles Dolan have built a perennial contender, like his little brother Larry has done with the Indians? Or would he have somehow made things even worse, like his inept son James has done with the New York Knickerbockers? We'll never know. Instead, we got an old and sickly Al Lerner, who beat Dolan's bid by $30 million, the exact sum of blood money he took as a buy-out from Art Modell after Lerner let him use his private jet to orchestrate the move of the team. Art Modell bawled like a baby after the final vote. Then he got a Super Bowl ring and we got Al's son Randy "The Custodian" Lerner and 20 years of failure.

Sept. 12, 1999

Timmy C tosses his first INT

As dedicated Browns fans know, the team has won only one opener in the past 20 years, with the immortal Butch Davis leading the team to a thumping of the Ravens on Sept. 12, 2004. This was all foreshadowed in the team's first game back, a 43-0 curb-stomping by the Steelers. The No. 1 pick in the draft, quarterback Tim Couch didn't start the game, but he did come in relief of Ty Detmer. Couch's first pass was, of course, picked off deep in Browns territory. The Browns had only two first downs in the game to the Steelers' 32. The Browns had a total of nine rushing yards in the worst loss any NFL expansion team has ever suffered. The inaugural season continued in this fashion through a December game against the Jaguars in which referee Jeff Triplette literally blinded the Brown's best offensive lineman, Orlando Brown, with an errant yellow flag.

Sept. 17, 2000

Chris Gardocki flips off Bill Cowher

Here's the thing: The early new Browns didn't just lay down and take it. Not only did the Browns avenge their embarrassing losses to the Steelers from the previous year with this 23-20 victory, but Browns punter Chris Gardocki flipped off the Steelers sideline. Twice. Gardocki was fined $5,000. When the punter is getting fined for obscene taunts, that's Browns football.

Dec. 16, 2001

Bottles were tossed

Probably the most infamous moment in Browns' history happened at the tail end of their third season, as the Browns were fighting for a playoff spot against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the fourth quarter, the Browns drove down the field. Couch appeared to complete a short pass to receiver Quincy Morgan — I'll be honest, my recent viewings of this play suggest the pass was actually incomplete — and then spiked the ball to stop the clock. For some reason that will never make sense to anyone, all-time terrible referee Terry McAulay decided to review the pass play anyway. Fans, understandably upset by this unprecedented breach of replay rules, tossed plastic beer bottles onto the field in a show of displeasure. The referees called the entire game off and tried to exit the field, at which point they themselves were pelted with beer bottles. Kudos to GM Carmen Policy, who boldly stated that he would not "criticize our fans at all." My take: The pass was incomplete and I would nevertheless smack Terry McAulay in the face with a bottle right now.

Aug. 11, 2002

Jamir Miller's career ends

You may not remember him now, but linebacker Jamir Miller was the Browns' best player in the early years — to wit, he was the only Brown selected for the Pro Bowl between 1995 and 2007. He recorded 13 sacks in 2001. In the preseason opener against Minnesota, his Achilles' tendon exploded. He never played another down. This was the start of a disastrous season that saw the Browns lose their season opener after linebacker Dwayne Rudd threw his helmet in celebration of a play, drawing a penalty that led to a Chiefs win.

Oct. 6, 2002

Fans cheer Tim Couch's injury

Tim Couch, the first new Cleveland Brown, was a bad quarterback. Yes, he struggled behind a lackluster offensive line. But none of those inept right guards caused him to throw the ball to the other team: Couch tossed 67 career interceptions to his 64 touchdowns.

In a 2002 game against Baltimore, Couch suffered a concussion after tossing two interceptions. The crowd — and this includes me; I was at the game — cheered the injury to our own starting quarterback, and then cheered even louder when his backup trotted on.

"For [the fans] to turn on me and boo me in my home stadium is a joke," a teary-eyed and concussed Couch said afterward in a postgame interview no sensible human being should have let him participate in. "It's a fucking joke to me ... it's bullshit."

Tim Couch got over this, and is currently a decent broadcaster for the Browns' preseason games. This is more than we can say for another Browns quarterback who got cheered upon injury, Derek Anderson, who has remained a crybaby about Cleveland to this very day, whining that "the fans are ruthless and don't deserve a winner."

Derek Anderson got paid millions of dollars to play a game and holds a career passer rating of 70.4, having tossed 60 touchdowns and 64 interceptions. Sorry we didn't retire your number, bro.

Oct. 23, 2002

Al's gone

Despite some bad breaks, the Browns were looking good under coach Butch Davis. And then owner Al Lerner died of brain cancer, leaving the team to his son, Randy Lerner. In 2012, Randy Lerner was nicknamed "The Custodian" in these pages. This is a good nickname insofar as if America was actually a meritocracy this billionaire's son would have been scraping chewing gum off desks at a local elementary school. Instead, thanks to lax inheritance taxes, he owned the Browns. The team would have its best season in 2002, making its only playoff appearance, a crushing (but not embarrassing!) 36–33 road loss to the Steelers.

The penny-pinching Lerner boy, who has the rare distinction of washing out of the NFL and crippling a British soccer club that suffered deregulation under his stewardship before he sold the team at a loss, blew it all up.

"The son tells me, 'We're no longer doing this my dad's way,'" Davis later recounted. "His father told me, 'You got 10 years to turn this franchise around.' The son says, 'We're not doing one thing the way that my father did.' We just went to the playoffs six weeks ago. He says, 'You're $33 million over the salary cap; you got five weeks to get under.'"

April 27, 2003

The Davis Drafts

How close were the Browns in 2002? So close that the infallible Butch Davis drafted long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand in the fifth round. No one has ever used such a high draft pick on the guy who tosses the ball back on kicks, and Pontbriand became the best long snapper in the league and made the Pro Bowl before developing the yips in 2011.

How close were the Browns in 2004? So close that the legendary Butch Davis used the No, 6 overall pick in the NFL draft on a tight end from the U, Kellen Winslow Jr. Winslow was signed to the largest rookie contract for a tight end in league history. And then, in the second game of the season, Kellen broke his leg trying to recover an onside kick against the Dallas Cowboys. The following May, after making a full recovery, Winslow destroyed the same leg in a motorcycle accident. Then he got a staph infection. Then he played a few more years before committing a series of horrific rapes.

Dec. 1, 2004

Butch Davis quits

The darkest day in the history of the new Browns, as iconic coach Butch Davis does the only honorable thing a man in his position could do, and quits in the middle of the season. He remains to this day the only Browns coach to go to the playoffs, or to draft a Pro Bowl long-snapper.

Dec. 24, 2005

Mallett time

On Christmas Eve 2005, the Browns suffered one of their most humiliating defeats, a 41-0 beatdown by the Steelers. In the stands, invading Steelers fans whipped their terrible towels and cheered their team in broken English.

One Browns fan stood up in a way none of the cowardly players on Romeo Crennel's team would, running onto the field without a helmet or pads as an act of pure defiance. That brave man's name was Nathan Mallett, and while he was body-slammed by known scumbag James Harrison, becoming what we would today know as a meme, he showed more heart than literally any Brown on that team — a team which somehow did not fire Crennell for three more years.

July 27, 2006

The Bentley crashes

It will seem weird to some Browns fans wearing Beckham jerseys but, once upon a time, Browns fans were incredibly stoked about the signing of a free-agent center. LeCharles Bentley, a hometown hero, was arguably the best center in the league with the Saints. Unfortunately, the highly touted free agent destroyed his knee on literally the first day of training camp. Then, he got a staph infection and never played another down. Upon learning that he would be called upon to start, backup center Bob Hallen, another hometown hero hailing from Mentor, immediately quit the team citing a back issue that had not previously been documented.

Sept. 9, 2007

Charlie Browns and the football

As an Akron U man, I am obviously a Charlie Frye stan. But even someone who went to "school" at Kent State would find fault with the way coach Romeo Crennel handled his quarterbacks in the 2007 season, which for my money was a garbage fire that burnt even brighter than Hue Jackson's "perfect" season.

First, the Browns drafted catalog model Brady Quinn in the first round only to see the Notre Dame quarterback stage a holdout — yes, someone not only drafted a Notre Dame quarterback in the first round but neglected to talk to his agent! This set up a camp battle between Derek "Crybaby" Anderson and the likable, workmanlike Frye. Frye won the battle but after a rough first half in the first game of the season was benched and then traded for a sixth-round draft pick two days later.

The Browns had a solid season, but missed the playoffs. Sadly, there were no reinforcements coming because GM Phil Savage had inexplicably traded away every pick in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft.

Oct. 23, 2008

Savage laws

Remember Kellen Winslow, that guy Butch Davis drafted? Well, he's still somehow in the mix four years later after two season-ending leg injuries and a staph infection that almost killed him. Winslow spoke up about that staph infection, which he thought the Browns could have avoided and was — yes — suspended from the team.

"The Browns are bigger than one person, bigger than Randy Lerner, bigger than Romeo Crennel, bigger than me and bigger than any player on this team," GM Phil Savage said. "We couldn't and won't allow one person to tear down the organization, so we had to do something."

What if that something was to clean your facility so players stop getting life-threatening staph infections, you dumb motherfucker?

A few months later Savage was caught in an imbroglio involving his own lack of discretion after sending a profane email to a fan. He suffered no punishment.

Nov. 3, 2009

Even more savage

Phil Savage and Romeo Crennell were eventually fired after a 4-12 season. Just 11 months later, Savage's replacement, George Kokinis, was frog-marched out of the team's offices. To this day, the situation remains mysterious. A month later, owner Randy Lerner made one last pathetic stab at relevance by hiring Mike Holmgren as GM. Unfortunately, this walrus was functionally retired and just showed up to collect checks and belittle reporters. "Don't come to me for extra playoff tickets," he bellowed to those reporters at a news conference. (There were no playoff tickets.)

Jan. 28, 2012

The Custodian's last mop-up

Throughout all these painful years, Browns fans have been blessed to watch one elite talent: the best beat reporter in the NFL, Tony Grossi. Grossi spent most of that time with the Plain Dealer before being fragged for an errant (though truthful) tweet about Randy Lerner being "pathetic" and "irrelevant." The thin-skinned Richie Rich and the glass-jawed Plain Dealer then took him off the beat and the rest of the sports staff forgot the lessons of Billy Elliot and scabbed over. Grossi is at the local ESPN radio affiliate now, a blessing as he does what he always did while the Plain Dealer/ turns everything into a video without subtitles, which no one anywhere on the internet wants.

April 16, 2013

The J raid

In August 2012, Jesus finally smiled down upon the Browns and smote Randy Lerner, who sold the team to truckstop king Jimmy Haslam. Haslam was, most Browns fans reckoned, an affable Southern man who would be obsessed enough with tasting victory to invest in the infrastructure that separates winners from losers in a league with a hard salary cap. And then the FBI descended on his Flying J's corporate offices to bust up a rebate scam wherein the billionaire's company was scamming truck drivers.

Oct. 4, 2013

Losing the Legend of Lakewood

When the national media conflates 20 years of Brownsdom into nothing but misery, this is the type of moment they're forgetting. The 2013 season started with Lakewood-bred quarterback Brian Hoyer going 3-2 under coach Rob Chudzinski. Josh Gordon had just returned from suspension and was utterly unstoppable. It was an exciting time, as the team appeared to be rapidly rounding into form. The zenith was a game in which they beat the Baltimore Ravens on a nationally televised Thursday night game. Unfortunately, in that game Hoyer tore his ACL and the team had to play Brandon "Big Slug" Weeden, who threw passes with a Hideo Nomo windup and couldn't hobble more than a yard in any direction without somehow falling into a defensive lineman.

Dec. 1, 2013

Josh Gordon shatters the record

Again, it's not like this team did not have glimmers of greatness: for example, Josh Gordon's insane 2013 season, which found the troubled wideout breaking all sorts of records while making 87 catches for an NFL-best 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in only 14 games. While catching passes from Big Slug! In this game against the Jaguars, he became the first player in NFL history to have 200 receiving yards in consecutive games. We were witnesses.

May 9, 2014

Jimmy Haslam hires the league's first homeless GM

Why did the Browns draft Johnny Manziel even though he was tiny, had never opened a playbook and had serious substance abuse problems? Because a homeless guy told Jimmy Haslam do that, of course. The story is that Haslam was having dinner out in Cleveland and a guy — in my imagination it's the "golden voiced hobo" who was trending in the same era — told him to "draft Manziel." So he did, as he told an ESPN reporter shortly thereafter, who then relayed that information to a stunned fanbase.

September 2015

Hardcore porn blares on the TVs at team HQ

Examples of amateurish failure in the early years of the Haslams are legion, as they burned through six coaches and five GMs in six years. The ultimate example of the dysfunction was a chestnut unearthed in a deep dive into the team's strife by ESPN's Seth Wickersham, in which it was revealed that inept team employees blared hardcore porn on TVs around the team offices after using the wrong hashtag on Twitter.

Jan. 3, 2016

Billy Manziel

There are so many great Manziel Moments — even a few on the field, as Johnny proved unpredictable having not read the first page of Mike Pettine's playbook. In June 2014, the team's franchise quarterback was photographed drunk in Texas, riding an inflatable swan. But the best of all was the final game of the 2016 season, which Johnny Football missed because he was in the concussion protocol. Rather than sitting around in a dark room watching his team play the Steelers (boring!), he hopped a flight to Vegas, put on a blonde wig and fake mustache and grabbed a seat at a blackjack table inside the Planet Hollywood casino. After returning to his room far too late to make a timely return to Browns HQ by the next day, he simply shut his phone off and went to sleep.

Oct. 31, 2017

Trick or treat, Sashi Brown-style

The Hue Jackson years were plagued with infighting, largely because the media-savvy Jackson managed to deftly leak information to make sure everyone else ended up under the bus while transcriptionists dutifully reported Jackson's claims that he'd wanted to draft every successful quarterback and avoid every bust.

In the middle of his 3-36-1 run, Hue had a major hard-on for Cincinnati backup AJ McCarron, lobbying hard for Sashi Brown's front office to acquire him. A deal was apparently struck right before the trade deadline, then scuttled by a paperwork snafu. According to reports at the time, the Browns were "too busy celebrating" the trade and forgot to send paperwork into the league office.

In the wake of the undone deal, people around the league claimed that Brown had intentionally sabotaged the deal. Brown of course denied this — if he didn't, no one would make deals with him.

Did Sashi Brown intentionally squelch a completed deal by bungling paperwork? Or were the Browns so beset by infighting that the GM had to appease the coach with a bad deal and then weasel out of it? It's possible we'll never know.

click to enlarge The Old Cleveland Browns Are Gone. We Remember the Worst Moments From a Wild 20-Year Ride of Failure
Photo by Emanuel Wallace

Dec. 31, 2017

We secured a parade

The Browns cap their "perfect season" with a parade of angry fans that lapped the stadium once in the bitter cold. Hue Jackson, forever trying to suck the joy out of things, made good on his promise to jump into Lake Erie. His baptism did not occur until July, though plenty of fans would have been happy to drill holes in the ice for him. Jackson turned his moment in proverbial pillory into a charity event, and printed special T-shirts. It was my worst moment as a Browns fan.

Martin Cizmar is the editor of 435, the city magazine of Kansas City. He is an unapologetic hooligan who was asked to not return to the Steels Corner Road Damon's following the 2002 playoff loss, once damaged a Bengals fan's minivan while fleeing an angry mob on the streets of Cincinnati, and received a large number of death threats from Pittsburgh sports talk radio listeners after trolling Steelers fans on behalf of the Arizona Cardinals.

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