There is something unnerving about being a fan of a downtrodden and inconsistent team trying desperately to get on its feet. You never quite know where you stand. One day, you're up, the next day, you're down. Trust is fleeting. You want to buy in but you don't want to be ripped off. You want to kick the football, but you don't want to have it pulled out from under you like the countless times before. You know the consequences of your actions but no amount of familiarity with your surroundings can deter you from the bait in the trap. You hope to someday be rewarded for your faith but you can't keep setting yourself up for disappointment.
It's maddening. Like having your hands tied behind your back while someone repeatedly punches you in the stomach. No matter how hard you try, you can't turn away and there's nothing you can do to stop it. You just have to wait patiently for the bully to get tired and stop picking on you. You hope each day they will pick on someone their own size. Such is the life of a Cleveland Browns fan.
While many may raise an eyebrow at the insinuation that the Browns could be considered a bully to anyone, I think you might find the comparison appropriate. You see, a bully doesn't pick on the bigger, tougher kids in the room. A bully picks on the weak and the fragile, the vulnerable. A bully toys with his victims and engages in a brand of torture that is not only physical, but psychological as well. Oftentimes, the bully will embarrass their target one day, and the next day they'll invite them in and pretend to be a good friend. Desperate for acceptance, the victim begins to let down their guard, only to have the bully strike again, compounding the torment and feelings of frustration within oneself.
In this regard, the Cleveland Browns have been much like a bully to their loyal fan base over the last 13 years. Instead of beating the Baltimore Ravens or the Cincinnati Bengals (the tougher kids on the block), the Browns (0-4) continue to tease their fans and punch them in the collective gut. A fan base that, at this point in the process, is already fragile and weak from repeated torture. Only this form of torture is more psychological than physical, which, studies have found, is often much worse. There is little wonder why some fans have had enough and refuse to be victims of the abuse any longer. Though, I often wonder if they have truly found tranquility pledging their allegiance elsewhere. I have my doubts.
Since they returned to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been so historically inept that they have virtually "lost" an entire generation of fans. You have to be at least 25 years old to have a legitimate memory of the last time the team was consistently good. It is the fading memories of yesteryear, however, that keep most fans from severing their ties altogether. "Why can't things be like they used to be?" one might ask. Like those good old days back in elementary school, when times were simpler and everyone used to be friends. Fortunately for us, we have our good friends at the NFL Network to remind of those times and oh, what could have been.
It's come to the point now where many Browns fans have developed a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor, just to cope with the embarrassment they feel. You see it on Twitter, printed on T-shirts, and broadcast on YouTube clips gone viral for the whole world to see. Like the kid who is so desperate for people to like him, he acts like a clown to get everyone to laugh, unaware that his classmates are just laughing AT him, not with him. Any attention is better than no attention at all. The irony lies with the fact that the victim is doing the bully's work for him by now. The damage is done.
While the comparison may be a bit dramatic or over-the-top, it's hard not to feel heightened frustration after watching the Browns squander away another opportunity to show their fans that they are truly worth believing in. It's exhausting for fans who want to point to signs of growth only to be repeatedly trumped by a zero in the win column pointed to by the fans who insist on seeing results. When all is said and done, a win is what matters. And the Browns have none.
On a short week, on the road at a division rival, in front of a raucous crowd, in the pouring rain, the Cleveland Browns continued their pattern of doing just enough to stay in the ballgame but not enough to bring home a win for their hope-starved fans. In a game that most of the free world believed they had no chance of winning, the Browns managed to hang with their oft-revered AFC North counterparts. In the end, however, self-inflicted mistakes got the best of them and they ultimately fell, 23-16, to the Baltimore Ravens.
While oftentimes, the stats don't tell the whole story, one needs only to look at the numbers to see reason for optimism yet cause for concern. Quarterback Brandon Weeden completed less than half of his throws (25 of 52) but still managed to become the first Browns rookie to ever throw for over 300 yards twice in a season... and its only Week 4. Running back Trent Richardson only ran the ball 14 times for 47 yards but was able to drag defenders for yards after the first brush of contact, and score a touchdown in his third consecutive game. Wide receiver Greg Little caught 4 passes for 77 yards, including a beautiful sideline grab on a rope from Weeden, but had three credited drops on the night; the most inopportune of which was a pass right through his fingertips that would have brought the score within a field goal in the fourth quarter.
The Browns defense has yet to give up a rushing touchdown this season and held Ravens Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to just 49 yards on 18 carries. They sacked quarterback Joe Flacco four times and came away with an interception in the end zone on a beautifully read play by undrafted rookie linebacker Craig Robertson. Unfortunately, they also allowed Flacco to complete 28 of his 46 pass attempts and gave up 356 total yards through the air, including a touchdown to budding receiver Torrey Smith.
The Browns overall had fewer penalties than the Ravens but also lost the battle on turnovers, first downs, and time of possession. As has been the case with the Browns time and time again, they gave their fans a reason for hope embedded within the reality of another loss.
The results of this up-and-down season, and many seasons past, have seemingly split the fan base in half. There are those who see the signs of hope and progress and those that refuse to fall for what they perceive to be a trap once again. At this point, the Browns, true to form, haven't done enough to tip the scales completely one way or the other. While an optimist might point to signs of improvement, despite the obvious youth and inexperience, the more apprehensive of the bunch predictably revert back to the record and the fact that the NFL is a bottom-line league. It's a point that is hard to argue.
The common thread we all share is that we want the Browns to be good again... and soon. However, we are also tired of being the victims in this one-sided affair. We are fed up with the abuse yet we crave a show of appreciation from the same entity. We need to start seeing a return on our investment of time, money, and emotion -- though most of us aren't ready to deliver on empty threats of leaving once and for all. While we may disagree on the road we've embarked on, we are united on the front of craving success. We recognize the Browns may be winless but they are not talentless. We pray it's only a matter of time before they who can crawl will finally stand up and walk. It's the moment we are all waiting for. Still, while we collectively hope for better days ahead, there remains a question everyone must answer for themselves. How long can I continue to do this? How long can I stand by helplessly before the bully decides to pick on someone their own size? If you're like me, the question has already been answered. See you Sunday.