I’m girding myself for the worst this fall, another lousy season of Cleveland Browns football. It is not the play I fear, but the welling anger of the fans, stoked to a frenzy in sports bars and on talk radio over the summer.
In the face of this historic revolt, Randy Lerner opted for the Browns' best play: He punted, selling the team to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam III.
Spend some time at my favorite sports bar, the Winking Lizard on Miles Road in Bedford Heights, and you'll understand the move. The wrath over the Browns' treatment of quarterback Colt McCoy has been the subject of ugly blowback for months.
The Lizard has become a microcosm of the morose.
Things got so bad last season that Lenny, the head hunter, would leave Browns Stadium for the bar at halftime to seek consolation in Crown Royal. This year, he gave up his season tickets.
John Dunbar, the sultan of scrap, insisted on watching Dallas Cowboys games. Patty Downs used her cell phone for sports trivia. Lawyer Tim Nolan explained libel law to Al Cook, whose campaign against the Browns front office became a siege.
Cook, enraged like no fan I've ever seen, spent his summer emailing members of the local media, accusing them of bias against McCoy. For anyone who cared to listen, he named a litany of sports writers that he vowed never again to read, and sent emails to the banished, questioning their integrity, intellect and idiocy. One sportscaster called him a man possessed. Cook did the same with the Browns' management, which never responded. This was months before practice began.
There are many reasons for this anger. The most obvious is that the Browns have become the Afghanistan of the National Football League, a dreary, colorless team, short on talent, with a future like an endless stretch of desert with no water in sight.
The last four years have been particularly trying. The team went 18-46, with no sense of direction or improvement.
This is an extremely critical year for the Browns — especially with the ownership change. I believe they are on the verge of losing their fan base unless they show improvement on and off the field. Despite the enthusiasm this year over the draft, at least one expert gives the Browns the worst power ranking in the NFL.
It was once unthinkable that the Browns could ever alienate their fans. In 1999, when the new team came to town, Clevelanders thought the glories of seasons past would be a bridge to a new and triumphant saga. Alas, 13 years later, the town's historic romance with the Browns is going flat the way a tire does from a slow leak. The team has tried everything: new coaches, new general managers, new quarterbacks and finally a new owner. Even the most faithful have grown weary of another autumn of false hope.
Fans are more combustible and caustic because they are more knowledgeable and self-reliant than ever before. ESPN has given them access to more expert commentary, while Twitter, texting and the smartphone have disabled the news cycle. Fans can communicate directly with players, the media and each other at will.
The Browns were completely unprepared for this new era. The front office's poor communication about player injuries last season left fans wondering if top officials were clueless about the team's physical condition. That only fueled the emotions caused by ineptness on the field. Texts and tweets ridiculed the team as foolish and confused.
Lapses in communication make perfect fodder for sports talk shows, which enjoy taunting fans to create ratings. "Listening to more than 12 minutes of that stuff has the same effect as a concussion," a veteran radio executive told me.
Sports used to be one of the great bonds between father and son. Oral histories passed down through the years made lifelong fans. Good players made up for bad seasons by becoming familial symbols. Free agency has erased that bond. Mercenary players shift from team to team, feigning fan allegiance the way a politician hawks for votes. Peyton Hillis was so popular that he made the cover of the Madden NFL 12 game and was gone the next year. McCoy may face a similar fate.
If your team doesn't win, its roster is hollow and faceless, precisely the way many fans view the Browns. I grew up with Otto Graham and Jim Brown. Those who think Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson are reincarnates have had too many drinks.
Maybe those glorious fall Sundays we knew in Cleveland are a thing of the past. A new generation of sports fans are more interested in tailgating, loud music, light beer, ESPN highlights and angry sports radio than the game itself.
Despite the promise of new ownership, I dread the autumn. For thousands in this gritty city, the Browns once symbolized an escape from routine and reality. Now they have become as real and tormenting as anything in our lives.