Sunday, December 30, 2007
I didn't watch.
In the British version of Fever Pitch (aka, "the good version," with Colin Firth), there's a great sequence with Firth's character, a long-suffering Arsenal soccer fan whose team is finally in the championship game. And he can't watch. Every good play elicits a mixed response of elation and dread: "That's just like them!," he yells. "They raise our hopes only to smash them down in the end!" He sits down and stands up, sits down and stands up, paces around the room, eventually has to leave his apartment when the pressure gets too intense. When it seems like Arsenal might pull off the improbable victory, he tries to get back into his apartment, but is locked out. His friend opens the door just in time for him to see the final, winning play, and elation erupts.
Being a Browns fan is kind of like that, generally minus the elation. I remember "The Drive" of the '86-'87 season, when John Elway broke our hearts in the AFC championship game. I remember "The Fumble" in the AFC championship game a couple of years later. I remember the screams of anger that echoed around our unfinished basement when Clay Matthews' bizarre fumble recovery/lateral pass almost cost us a playoff victory.
And those are the highlights of the last twenty years. Since the Browns returned in 1999, we've suffered through six losing seasons in eight years, a crappy offensive line, several coaching changes, innumerable quarterbacks (many of whom might have been great if they'd had any line protection), and the clang! of a ball bouncing off the uprights on a sad post-christmas final game in 2004. It was like watching the Detroit Lions.
When Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage arrived as head coach and GM, respectively, my hopes were raised. At last! Smart guys with championship experience! I held out hope through two up-and-down years (even after a devastating pre-Thanksgiving loss to the hated Steelers last year that utterly deflated the team) that they were building something for the long haul. I wondered if ownership would give them time to finish it.
This year was the payoff. Picked to go 5-11 (at best) by most commentators, the Browns remained true to form in their opener, offering their butts to the Steelers for a ritual kicking, 39-0. Local sportscasters who'd declared this "a season of dreams" were mocked by other local sportscasters. Charlie Frye was traded a couple of days later. It looked like Brady Quinn might start soon, despite a contract holdout that had cost him most of training camp. The Romeo Crennel Deathwatch had begun. Everyone talked about signing Bill Cowher for next year.
Then, the next week, Cincinnati came to town, and everything changed. I was at that game, and it was extraordinary, an epic, emotional shootout where the Browns put up 51 points and still made it a nailbiter. Beating the Bengals seemed to energize the team-- it was their first divisional win in ages, and against a hated, hated rival, and suddenly Braylon Edwards, Derek Anderson and Jamal Lewis looked like a potent offensive unit. They would drop a game they should've won to the Raiders the following week, but would follow it with victories over the Ravens, the Seahawks and others. Even a close loss to the Patriots and a closer loss to the Steelers seemed like progress, because the team played well.
They dropped a game to the Cardinals that they should've won (and might have, if not for a controversial ref's call at the end). They won an insane Snow Bowl against the Bills to guarantee a winning season for the first time in five years. All they had to do was beat the Bengals again, and they were in the playoffs.
Well...they didn't. As Colin Firth might say, "of course!" They got off to a sluggish start, and a valiant comeback couldn't wipe out Anderson's four boneheaded interceptions. At least the defense played well. Still, it was a reminder of the heartbreak the team could create. So, I didn't watch today, even though I thought the Browns would win, especially when I read that former FSU star/AARP member Chris Weinke was starting for the 49ers.
And like Colin Firth diving into the room at the last minute, I wish I'd seen the game. All reports say the Browns played a solid game, the defense was strong, and Brady Quinn finally got to play. It's this last item that most excites me-- I like Anderson, who's had a great year, but I saw Quinn play in exhibition, and he energizes the squad in a way that Anderson just can't. Training camp should be really interesting next year. Now, we wait for the Colts to defeat the Titans, to see if we make it into the playoffs.
" 'We won! We won!,' " Jerry Seinfeld used to mock in his pre-credits stand-up routines on his sitcom. He'd add, "No-- they won. You watched." I always tell my students to avoid the second person, to not presume a sense of community or agreement in their writing, that there's an ethics to accepting the first person, to taking responsibility for your opinions and desires. And yet, I write in the second person when I write about the Browns, I feel a sense of attachment even when I don't watch the game. I can dispassionately analyze their play afterwards, but that's not my experience of it, which is far more fraught and emotional (I wonder if I have it better or worse than Jonathan, whose team must achieve perfection for this season to be a success. Is that more, or less fun to watch?). In a response to an earlier post on writing and obilgation, Dave wrote, "I also wonder if there is a more dialectical relationship here--that only upon feeling the drag of obligation that you all describe does one's best writing come out. That is, only after feeling the obligation--and the dread one rightly associates with it--does one find the energy to return to writing with the kind of vigor one sets out with in the first place!" I think that's true, and I think it also describes my relationship to sports fandom, especially with the Browns. Do I need that dread, that avoidance of viewing, in order to follow and enjoy my team? Is that an obligation, or a strange desire? For Cleveland fans, it often feels like the only victories that count are the Pyrrhic ones: we want to be Eyores who revel in our post-game complaining as much as our intermittent victories. But I think this year-- playoffs or no-- is one to be proud of. 10-6, after 5-11 predictions? An actual future to build to? A real, live quaterback controversy to look forward to in the fall? Whoda thunk it?