The Loser Bowl

I’m nervous—but cautiously optimistic. Since I became a diehard Browns fan three years ago, I’ve never been this close to a perfect season. In fact, if it happens, the 25+ year run of the Loser Bowl will come to an end, because, really—what can top this?

Dave and I have been picking the team that will suck more since the early 90s, in brazen defiance of all the “winning” that people seem to like in their fantasy football leagues. We found, however, that it was much more fun to root for fumbles over field goals, penalties instead of first downs, and interceptions over touchdowns.

You didn’t have to be the worst outfit in the league, just worse than the other guy picked—the tie-breaker was most turnovers. The pigskin prognosticator that won lost the most games would get some memorable gear. Over the years, I’ve been gifted with a very comfy Jags fleece, and even though I’m hoping he doesn’t have them anymore, Dave did own a Dolphins stop sign and a Bengals poncho (although had this been available I would have spent the extra few Jacksons for him).

Of course, if your squad can lose more games, and pull it together to whup the rest of the league in licking taking, then you are a team for the ages.

Up until the Browns current run, my most illustrious group was the Chris Weinke-led Panthers of 2001. They collapsed disturbingly in the opening week, but then went on to cruise through the rest of the season with 15 straight losses. Whether it was some special chemistry in the locker room or missed OTAs I couldn’t say for sure, but they were a team of destiny. A Week 6 performance against winless Washington still gives me chills, with an epic 4th-quarter come-from-ahead loss from 14 points up, and then a glorious defenseless drive to pull it out in OT. It was the highlight of the year.

But this Cleveland operation has sustained such a high-level of dominance over a sustained period of time that they can legitimately claim to be the first true dynasty of the Loser Bowl era. They’ve always been a solid pick since returning to the league in 1999, with at least 10 losses in all but four seasons (and two of those seasons had nine losses). I was feeling especially confident about picking them after watching Johnny Manziel’s debut late in 2014. He came in with a reputation for the hard work needed to succeed in the league, yet it wasn’t clear how this would translate when he started playing with pros instead of bros. It was very apparent that Johnny Football had the makings of a Hall of Shame career with his focus on alcohol, commitment to partying, and ability to shrug off good throws. How long he would be able to sustain this echelon of unmitigated arrogance would be the X factor. Yet his leadership and fortitude shined through. He immediately stepped in and helped right the ship on what could have been an awful campaign, after the Browns blew seven of their first 11 games. In his two weeks as a starting QB he could do no wrong, racking up a love-30 shutout to the Bengals (10-18, 80 yards, 2 INTs), and a season-ending injury in a Week 16 game against the Panthers after a promising 3 for 8, 32-yard performance. Manziel was a key part of five straight losses to end the year, and the players rallying around him kicked off a tremendous amount of hope in the 216 heading into the offseason.

And while most of the Cleveland football world was concerned about Manziel continuing to play at such a high level, I knew he was the Losing One. Given the chance, he really seemed like the kind of kid who could keep his head on straight and handle everything that would come his way, whether it was overthrowing receivers or slamming tequila shots until 4 am.

There were some good omens even before I picked Cleveland in the preseason (since Dave had won the previous Loser Bowl I got to choose first—one of the gentlemanly aspects of the league). Early in 2015, the Browns already looked strong, with a Josh Gordon year-long suspension for a fifth failed drug test and Johnny Jack Daniels entering rehab. On top of that, radical new uniforms were introduced that changed the traditional orange color to—a different shade of orange. But what really topped it off was the Browns name down the leg—a first in NFL uniform history. Why they needed these sartorial diversions with what was going to be a potentially momentous season is beyond me, but who was I to question ownership when it continued to produce on the field.

As I had hoped, the 2015 campaign more than lived up to expectations. Manziel was as bad good as advertised, and the QB troika of Manziel, Josh McCown, and Austin Davis was able to cobble together a gritty 13-loss season (tied for league-worst with the Titans). With Cleveland’s front-office seemingly committed to Manziel and his sobriety-free ways in 2016, I was feeling reckless enough to forgo some Browns Zubaz pants and go double or nothing with Dave. He didn’t have anything to win at this point, but was a little daunted by the sheer magnitude of what had been unleashed. We agreed that he would have to make his pick immediately after the Super Bowl in order to get this one-time break in the rules. This meant he wouldn’t be able to scout in the preseason to land a team with a major injury or whoever picked up Brian Hoyer. I was in line for an upgrade—an official Browns helmet—with the new orange. He wound up picking the Dolphins, who turned in the most catastrophic, first-of-its-kind horror show in Loser Bowl era—making the playoffs. Ryan Tannehill, who had so much potential, had let Dave down.

For my Brownies, however, the losses in all directions continued to pile up—just slightly more than the Trump administration’s Communications Directors. After what seemed like a short-sighted move in releasing Manziel, firing coach Mike Pettine after 22 losses in two years, and booting GM Ray Farmer (who had been suspended by the NFL for the first month of 2015 for illegal texts during games), the Browns’ brass quickly showed that they did have a plan by signing glue guy Robert Griffin III. New coach Hue Jackson, RGIII, and Cleveland general counsel-turned-GM Sashi Brown were a Holy Trinity of ability and expertise. Josh Gordon also made a brief re-appearance, calmly failing another drug test to keep his suspension intact. But the Browns were not concerned about the no-show wide receiver slowing them down if he ever was reinstated. In fact, the front office seemed a tad bombastic. Their new hashtag, #DawgPound, really encompassed the pride, perseverance and factual definition of a part of their stadium that filled 2016 with such promise. Other finalists were #LakeCheery and #12outof13losingseasons.

After being named the Opening Day starter, RGIII eased into a shoulder injury against the Carson Wentz-led Eagles that caused him to miss the next dozen games. The ensuing chaos opened up a tremendous opportunity for another year of double-digit losses. Ironically, the Browns were able to see up close the bullet they had dodged had they not traded away their number two pick that year. They likely would have been saddled with Wentz, who certainly would have killed their season. The Loser Bowl theory goes: why draft a dangerous rookie with the possibility of detonating your team’s chances when you can grab a consistent loser who hadn’t been injury-free his whole career? Another master stroke. And look at where Wentz is now—nosediving the Eagles into the playoffs before turning things around with a torn ACL. Fortunately, the Browns salvaged that number two pick by selecting WR Corey Coleman later in the first round, who has proceeded to break his hand in each of his first two seasons and has missed nearly half of Cleveland’s games to date.

The 2016 season had barely begun, but was already looking even more auspicious than 2015. Ultimately, it would make that 16-game grind look downright lackluster in comparison. With RGIII out, Cleveland demolished their next 11 opponents, underscoring them by a 187 to 323 margin with rookie phenom Cody Kessler and crafty veteran McCown taking turns at the helm. Griffin did return in December to lead them to losses against the Bengals and Bills by a comfortable margin of 23-56, and really was never in danger of pulling off the win. The Browns were now 0-14 and entering rarified air. Two more losses and they would wipe the smirk off of the 2008 Lions, and their unchallenged record as the only group to ever complete a perfect 16-loss season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had gone 0-14 in their first season–a shorter one—in 1976, but they had so many things going in their favor as an expansion team. The Lions had to overcome Calvin Johnson’s dreadful year, but not even Megatron could withstand the entire organization banding together to make the Ford Field fans proud. Now, less than 100 miles across a minimally-frozen Lake Erie, another challenger arose.

The Lions were staying positive but were appropriately agitated, like the 1972 Dolphins that would sneer at each and every team that dared approach their mark of futility. But Detroit couldn’t pop the champagne unless the Browns somehow melted down against the Chargers or the Steelers. Perhaps the stirring losing streak and paltry attendance had the players thinking they could mail in those two losses, but they clearly were overconfident and somehow won their next game when San Diego’s Josh Lambo missed a game-tying kick—wide right—after having a previous FG inexcusably blocked three minutes earlier. The Cleveland defense was gassed and beset with problems all day, allowing a season-low 17 points in what was their most heartbreaking, and only, win of the year. The fans were delirious with rage, yet they still gave their boys a rousing ovation for how close they had come to vanquishing all of their foes. And even though he was happy to get the L, a despondent Mike McCoy showed a lot of class for the brown-and-brighter orange faithful in describing how his squad had tried to pull it out to keep the Browns extraordinary run going, and that even a 10-loss juggernaut losing to the Clowns was unacceptable. A surprisingly close defeat the following week against the Steeler backups, who were barely trying after disappointingly making the playoffs yet again, closed out the year. But it still didn’t take away the stench of what could have been.

Dave was reeling at this point, so I gave him one more chance to clear the slate while upping the ante. If the 2017 Browns did threepeat—unprecedented for any Loser Bowl team—then we would have to be in the Dawg Pound to kick off Opening Day 2018 watching someone other than Josh Rosen leading the troops, and reveling with the true fans who know how to appreciate their once-in-a-generation crew—and can also spell.

But in this age of parity, any team can go on a demoralizing winning streak, so it takes a seasoned eye to evaluate the talent needed for the kind of consistency needed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Undoubtedly, the most dependable doormats of the league are the Patriots, who have countervailed the winds of winlessness ever since Tom Brady cursed the franchise. And they only have themselves to blame for stubbornly sticking with Tommy Terrible for this long. Even Bill Belichick, who had a taste of greatness as Cleveland’s head coach but could not bring his losing ways to Foxborough, was let go after a steady five seasons. Over that time, he averaged a very respectable 9.75 losses in four of those years, but bizarrely led the Browns to a playoff anomaly—a depressing Wild Card victory over the heretofore mentioned Pats—in 1994. In 2000, Robert Kraft took a chance on Belichick based on his Cleveland track record, but has been mostly rewarded with a trail of misery. And for the Browns, the fiasco of that five-loss season must have laid the groundwork for their triumphant escape to Baltimore two years later, leaving a battered fan base with only fond memories of dropped passes, distant field position and timely injuries to sustain them. But good riddance! The Ravens have made the playoffs 10 times since relocating to Charm City in 1996 and have won two Super Bowls—a stain that the latest iteration of the Browns has worked hard to make people forget.

Gearing up for ‘17, a few more pieces fell into place—MVP-candidate Brock Osweiler rolled into town, and first-round pick Myles Garrett got hurt and was sidelined for four weeks. Sadly, Osweiler never made it out of training camp, and eventually slunk his way back to Denver in what has turned into a great season for a proud franchise steadily run by the disgraced John Elway.

But let’s now flash forward to this runaway train that is sitting pretty at 0-15, and it’s hard to express how proud I am of this group of warriors. Over the locker room entrance hangs the theme for the season: NO DISTRACTIONS. And the Browns are relentless in all three phases of the game, dropping 48 of their last 52 contests, the best stretch in the NFL—ever. Even the expansion Bucs only managed to prevail on 39 of their first 52 games in existence. Feeling bad for Dave’s lack of loss propensity, I decided to give him a mulligan halfway through, when his Jets sputtered out to a 4-5 start—which included a gut-wrenching victory in Cleveland. Josh McCown, the new J-E-T-S Q-B who presciently had been cut by the Browns at just the right time, noted with Cutleresque sarcasm, “It took me three years and two teams. But dang gummit, I got me a win at FirstEnergy Stadium.”

Remarkably, it seemed like the Browns would clinch it before Thanksgiving. I suggested Dave take the Niners and their concurrent 0-8 record (the 1-6 Giants, although a strong pick at the time, were wildly inconsistent and not to be relied upon). Of course, after San Francisco got the news, they immediately and inexplicably traded for Jimmy “GQ” Garoppolo, who has steered Santa Clara’s finest to four straight wins in the same number of starts, and the Niners have won five of their last six since their impressive first half. Poor Dave.

So here we are again, poised for greatness. The Browns wreaked their revenge on the Chargers for beating them last year, jelling at just the right time to not let the specter of another letdown keep them from going 0-12. Two games in particular have been extremely fulfilling as I’ve watched them from my Maryland perch, where for some reason, the Browns are not on consistently as the Game of the Week. No prime time for this gang, which keeps the melancholy at just the right levels. In Week 14 against Brett Hundley-led Green Bay, Cleveland showed their mettle, even with the home field disadvantage. Down up by 14 late in the game against the Pack, things were looking grim. Josh Gordon, in his second game back from multiple suspensions over nearly three years, scored a touchdown and looked rusty. My friend Ben has been following along with great interest as we chase perfection. Here’s our running chat at the end of the game with Cleveland mounting a comeback and Green Bay knocking on the door:

Ben: Don’t let them rain on your parade.

Me: Trying to pull out the loss

Special teams is keeping us in it

Ben: I don’t know – this looks like a Bernie Kosar led offense.

Me: Josh Gordon is a cancer

But what a team effort

Ben: 17 seconds left.

Can they pull this out in OT?

Me: Too much momentum all year to stop us now!

Bonus coverage on fox!

Ben: Hope they stay with it to the end.

Me: Browns win the coin toss setting up for a pick-6

Ben: God willing

 I N T !!!

Me: What a throw

Ben: That is talent that can’t be coached.  

Me: Rookie panic move? Rookie pro move

These announcers are terrible

Can’t recognize greatness

Defense really playing strong in the 4th and OT

Ben: Almost looks like they are trying to play for the tie.  Sad.

Me: They look focused

Look at those sagging shoulders. That’s what you look for

Missed tackle just like we drew it up! Clutch loss. But we have to pull it together for Chicago

Ben: Amazing!  True greatness.

They have the eye of the tiger.

Me: More like the eye of the sloth

Probably the most gratifying loss I’ve ever been privy to. But I should have remembered that Cleveland knows how to close.

And in this holiday season, the Browns are the gift that keeps on giving. The week after the Green Bay miracle loss, the Browns played the Ravens, so I had the privilege of watching my boys live (on TV of course). I brought in the huge piles of laundry to fold that had been accumulating, and settled in for the three plus hours of joy I hoped to witness; I felt pretty good about our chances as Baltimore was wasting their energy by pushing for the playoffs. DOMESTIC TIP: no girlfriend or wife will ever complain about your watching a sporting event if they know there will be folded laundry when the final whistle blows. Getting it into the drawers is another matter. And fitted sheets are a non-starter.

There is one sequence of plays from the Ravens game that really sums up why this is a team of Providence. Early in the second half, the Ravens are driving, in field goal range already but pushing for a touchdown, which should be no big deal for the Browns porous defense. But Flacco somehow gets sacked to take them out of FG range—they may have to practice squad the guy who let Flacco not elude his grasp.

The Ravens punt and down it inside the Browns five yard-line. On the next play, Browns rookie QB DeShone Kizer drops back into the end zone, Spencer Drango abandons all pretense of blocking the blind-side rusher, and Za’Darius Smith pops Kizer to force a fumble—and the Ravens recover in the end zone! What could have been just three points given up is now seven. You can’t coach talent, and we’ve got a talented coach.

Owner Jimmy Haslam is the lynchpin of this first-class organization on and off the field that other clubs continue to try to emulate with varying degrees of success. Even though there has been some pressure to shoo Hue, Haslam has expressed his faith and commitment to Jackson for 2018, even though there is no question that the man has definitively proven he has what it takes to succeed at this level. Why would anyone dare suggest replacing him? No coach in NFL history has lost 30 of his first 31 games. Got to hand it to Jackson—he really has that locker room under control. Focused, professional—you rarely see this kind of dedication to a shared goal. Of course, a +28 turnover ratio can’t hurt.

So as we head into the final 60 minutes of the season with a gutsy, hard-fought defeat to da Bears in the rear-view mirror, and having secured the number one pick in next year’s draft that will create fear joy in the heart of anyone they have their eye on, we can now wipe away the lump of coal that was the Christmas Eve disaster of last year. And we have to thank the Patriots for somehow blowing their game to the Steelers last week. This year, Cleveland’s marble shot will likely go up against Pittsburgh’s bumble bee-clad starters roaming the field so they can complete another disastrous season and have a chance at getting the ignominious number one seed. The Terrible Towels will be waving wildly in hopes of being part of this memorable saga that will be etched in the annals of Loser Bowl lore. And if the vaunted “16” does happen, the original Loser Bowl will be no more—but with the sublime knowledge that there will never be another team like the 2017 Cleveland Browns.

Chris McNeil, a self-professed lifelong Cleveland fan, realizes the significance of all of this. Last year, he successfully petitioned the city to throw a parade to show the coaches and players how much they were appreciated in their quest to steamroll through a non-winning season. Los Angeles’ nee San Diego’s untimely performance ruined it, but McNeil has it all ready to go again this year, and everyone (including Vegas) is much more confident about the outcome.

And if it does come to pass, the Browns’ parade of perfection—sponsored by Excedrin—will herald the ending of one glorious institution, just as the USFL came to realize when it was time to graciously go into the night (it’s at 4:49). But fret not, fellow losers. Looking ahead to 2018, will be up and running, with a full-fledged fantasy league for all. Until then, see you at the parade!

Jonathan Gruber is a documentary filmmaker who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. He can be followed on Twitter @blackeyeprod.

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