CLEVELAND — On an unseasonably warm December day in Cleveland, fans of the city’s professional football team were splashed in the face with icy cold water.
It wasn’t trending toward … this. Entering Sunday’s home finale, the Browns last three games resulted in three victories. A fan base was beginning to believe.
Sunday’s game against the visiting Washington Redskins was supposed to be a culmination of that growing, positive belief. The Redskins were without their stud rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Browns were handed an opportunity to show their fans this group was headed in the right direction.
The Browns even took an early 7-0 lead on a tough 6-yard touchdown run by Trent Richardson. The Redskins looked lost. Browns in the playoffs? Hey, it could still be in the discussion.
A few hours later, reality: Redskins 31, Browns 14.
The familiar doom and gloom has returned to Cleveland. In what has become a consistent occurrence, the team’s final game at Cleveland Browns Stadium leaves everyone heading for the exits early with feelings of disgust toward the home team.
The same scene has been repeated in recent seasons: Nothing but orange seats greeted the Browns as they left their home field for the final time. At least this year it wasn’t at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Remember last year? Steelers won 13-9. Although the final score was close, the Browns never really had a chance. How about 2010? Steelers 41, Browns 9. And 2008? Steelers 31, Browns 0.
This year was supposed to be different. The three-game winning streak wasn’t against the best of the NFL, but it was still proof that the team has progressed.
And … back to reality, which isn’t the happiest of places if you’re a Browns fan.
With the team’s ninth loss, the future of general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur remains in doubt.
They’re not alone.
Brandon Weeden’s last appearance at Cleveland Browns Stadium was just as dubious as his first. In the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Weeden’s day began underneath a 100-yard American flag. It ended with a QB rating of 5.1. Seven games later, Weeden struggled mightily. He finished 21-for-35 for 244 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown — a 69-yarder to Travis Benjamin when the game was clearly in Redskins control.
“I didn’t play well enough for us to win,” Weeden said.
What made things even more unbearable was the play of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. The rookie made his first NFL start and overcame an early interception to finish 26-for-37 passing for 329 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Thanks to the Browns, Cousins is the new Matt Flynn/Kevin Kolb/Scott Mitchell.
The surprising performance by Cousins and the subsequent Redskins victory isn’t just Weeden’s fault. It isn’t Shurmur’s fault.
“It wasn’t a setback (for just Weeden),” Shurmur said. “It can be said for a lot of us on this team.”
In other words, the entire team played poorly Sunday.
Unfortunately, an opportunity was lost for the Browns on Sunday. Sure, the fans will get excited for football come April during the draft and again in August when camp opens. New players and (potentially) new coaches and front office personnel will spur that excitement.
But for a team as young as the Browns, the young corps had a chance to embed themselves and their future with the city. Beat the Redskins, improve to 6-8 and keep the playoff fantasy alive on the north shore one more week. Just play some meaningful December football.
Instead, it was the worst performances by the Browns this season and it brought back memories of failed season finales and failed regimes of the past. What is December football in Cleveland if it isn’t wrought with disappointment and disgust and leaves fans looking for something other than that icy cold water to ease the pain?
“We wanted to give these fans something to cheer about and keep this momentum going,” Weeden said. “When you don’t play well it’s always frustrating and you look back and ask what can we do differently.”
Jimmy Haslam must be thinking the same thing.