I can't make up my mind. Did the Browns blow a game they should have won five times over? Or were they fortunate to even have a chance in a game in which they got their butts kicked? Or both?
Last Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Browns' heretofore unstoppable offense put together just one legitimate drive, and the Browns' heretofore abominable defense proved once again to be as effective as a fishnet condom. Final yardage? 401-163, Pittsburgh. Rushing yardage? 159-40, Pittsburgh. Time of possession? 38-22, Pittsburgh. About the only stat not dominated by Pittsburgh was "return yardage by Joshua Cribbs."
Yet when the clock hit 0:00, the Browns were a foot away from forcing overtime. That foot belonged to Phil Dawson, whose otherwise perfect kick was knocked down just short of the cross bar by a foul-smelling Pittsburgh breeze. It would have been a record-long kick at Condiment Coliseum, where good kicks (and signs of human civilization) go to die.
When it was over, I was disappointed, but oddly calm. There are a few sporting events where I maintain that only the score matters to me. There are no moral victories. These include such match-ups as Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees, Columbus Crew vs. D.C. United, Ohio Bobcats vs. Miami RedHawks, Euclid Panthers vs. Mentor Cardinals, and, of course, Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers.
This felt like an exception though. On the surface, it seems maddening. In the first legitimate match-up in this rivalry in five years, the Browns blew leads of 21-6 and 28-24, depriving themselves of a share of first place. That sounds awful, doesn't it?
But for the first time in eons, it actually felt like the Browns belonged on the same field as the Steelers. Pittsburgh may have dominated most aspects of the game, but the Browns countered with the type of big-play capability that could negate all that in the blink of an eye. The Steelers were like a Scrabble player consistently churning out 20 and 30-point turns, while the Browns were like the player who keeps making words like "ant" and "in" and then occasionally empties his rack to drop something like "quixotic" across two triple word scores.
The other reason that it didn't feel as emotionally damaging to lose this game is that there is so much else to look forward to this season. The Browns are winning games. They have exciting players. They are fun to watch again. In past years, the team and the games were so dreadful that praying for a victory over the Steelers was the only thing that could add a dash of meaning to the season. Last year's fourth quarter meltdown against the Steelers sent me over the edge because it was a rare shot at finding any redemption in another lost season. This year, a 4th quarter loss to the Steelers is just an annoying bump on the thrill-a-minute road to becoming The Worst 12-4 Team In NFL History.
My cousin Jessica, bless her heart, still felt the sting. Moments after the final gun, she sent me the following text:
Other thoughts on the game…
* Three more touchdown passes for Derek Anderson. I am still trying to wrap my head around this one. Prior to Labor Day, could you imagine any scenario in which terms like "franchise tag" and "long-term contract" would be used when discussing the guy who was empirically worse than Charlie Frye? (Extra credit if you delved deep into your Cleveland Fan psyche and thought, "Yes, but only after getting waived and then inexplicably lighting it up for someone else, like Brandon Phillips in clown shoes.")
* Which was more improbable? That Romeo won a replay challenge? Or that Braylon dragged both toes on that touchdown catch? It took a mind-boggling display of concentration and talent to make the impossible possible on that catch. I am convinced that the only reason Romeo threw the challenge flag is because he thought, "There's no way in hell Braylon got both toes in." (I am almost positive that Romeo is confused about the process and thinks that you're supposed to throw the flag as a show of support when you believe that the referees got a big call correct.)
* With Joshua Cribbs, I thought the Browns were going to win in The Metcalf Game, Part II. Remember in 1993 when Pittsburgh dominated statistically but had no answer for the return genius of Eric Metcalf? Remember when Pittsburgh took a 4th quarter lead, and then Metcalf killed them with a late punt return to the Dawg Pound to win the game for the Browns? That's what it felt like on Sunday. When Ben Rothliesbuergr (or whatever) ran a 17.4-second 30-yard dash to give the Steelers the lead, Cribbs answered by flubbing the kick-off, chasing the ball back to the goal line, and then racing 100-yards up the sideline, Metcalf-style, to give the Browns the lead. It was Cribbs' second 90+ yard kickoff return of the game, just as Metcalf's was his second punt return TD of the game. Even the scores were almost identical. Metcalf's return was the final scoring in a 28-23 win. Cribbs' return gave the Browns a 28-24 lead. It sucks that the Browns lost, but a hearty thank you to Joshua Cribbs for mirroring a legendary performance from one of the most exciting Browns victories of my lifetime.
* Back to Romeo and his replay challenges. When the Browns were calling timeout to debate whether or not to risk a timeout by challenging a clear touchdown catch, all I could think of was that old Simpsons episode when Homer and Apu went to the Kwik-E-Mart at the top of the Himalayas to ask the Kwik-E-Mart Mart Guru if Apu could have has job back. The conversation went something like this:
Guru: You may ask me three questions, and only three questions.
Homer: Are you really the head of the Kwik-E-Mart?
Guru: Yes. I hope these answers have been enlightening.
Just like that, Apu was out of much-needed questions and the Browns were out of much-needed timeouts.
The office Steeler Fans were pretty subdued. I think they were all too devastated by the Buckeyes' inexplicable loss to Illinois to talk too much smack about the Steelers.
But really, even post-loss Buckeye depression was more muted than usual. In an uncharacteristic display of rationality, it seems that most people down here actually recognize that the Buckeyes were probably a step below some of the other national title contenders, and quickly turned their focus on beating Michigan and winning the Big Ten. I think many secretly feared that this year's weak schedule was setting them up for another BCS embarrassment. It's the only explanation I can come up with. Normally, when the Buckeyes lose, the demand for Central Ohio funeral services greatly outpaces the supply of existing mortuary infrastructure, so they have to incinerate the bodies of suicide victims in mass open graves. This time, though, while people were upset, they were in full Michigan Week mode by Tuesday. But thanks to the Buckeye hangover on Monday, it spared me a bunch of chest-beating Yinzerbabble.
(In the interest of full disclosure, my interest in the Buckeyes is exponentially more sociological than anything, except for the Michigan game, which is the one day I actually give a crap. If I pay attention to college football at all, it is to cheer on my mighty Ohio Bobcats, and, well, they're back to their not-so-mighty selves again. No bowls for the Bobcats this year.)
(To clarify, I'm sure they've smoked plenty, but what I mean is that they won't be playing in one.)
Well, that's all for now, Barry. I am looking forward to the Ravens game, when Baltimore's immovable offense will meet Cleveland's no-resistance defense. Hopefully CBS will dig up Sir Isaac Newton and put him in the booth for this one, as I'm sure he'd be intrigued.
It's going to be a crazy holiday travel week, but I will still try to write a letter to OBR home base. Also, I'll have to watch the Browns on tape delay, because it is Super Sunday for us soccer nerds. I will be doing my annual MLS Cup game diary, and since that involves a few people, I'll be watching the Houston-New England championship match live at noon, trying my best to avoid the Browns-Ravens score during the second half of ABC's soccer broadcast.
Normally, I just blow off the Browns on MLS Cup Sunday, but…well….this year is different. I dread the thought of missing one snap, one throw, one catch, one kick return, one failed arm tackle, one blown coverage, or one misguided replay challenge.
The Browns may be flawed, but for the first time in forever, they are must-see entertainment.
Steve Sirk, once Art Bietz's co-conspirator at the TruthCenter, has taken to sending a weekly letter to "home base" about life as a Browns fan struggling in the NFL mixing pot of Central Ohio. At some point in life, Sirk determined that suffering through the nexus, dips, valleys, and various low points of being a Cleveland sports fan within geographic proximity of Cleveland itself did not create sufficient emotional pain. Sneeringly dismissive of even basic survival instincts, Sirk elected to reside in Columbus, Ohio, so that he could better be surrounded by fans of winning franchises who could mock his very existence. If you wish to contact an individual of such clearly questionable judgment, you may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org