Monday, December 31, 2007

It Only Hurts When I Smile

I think that maybe the wisest thing ever said about sports came from Heywood Broun, in a column he wrote about the Dempsey v. Carpentier fight in 1921. After witnessing Georges Carpentier's heroic but ultimately futile struggle against the greatest heavyweight of the Jazz Age, Broun wrote that "the tragedy of life is not that man loses, but that he almost wins."

I think that sums up how Browns fans feel this morning. I mean, to have watched the team play so well and come so close, and to see the playoffs slip away... Ouch. Was there anyone watching the Baltimore Colts and Houston Oilers play last night who didn't immediately think about the missed opportunities in the Raiders game, or the Cardinals game or, of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas?

While wallowing in the misery of the Browns near miss is certainly in keeping with tradition, I think I'll take the high road, and try to keep things in perspective. First, nobody, locally or nationally, believed that the Browns were going to win 10 games this season. Hell, I thought that they had a very high risk of starting 1-5. Also, if you told me that Braylon Edwards was going to transform himself from the "mouth that roared" to the "guy who scored," and shatter 40 year old receiving records, I'd have laughed out loud. Sure, guys like Braylon have all of the potential in the world, but we all know that guys like him don't realize their potential playing in Cleveland.

Then there's the biggest surprise of all. If you'd told me before the season that the Browns' QB would be the first alternate for the Pro Bowl, I'd have said "see, I told you that Charlie Frye could play if you put some blockers in front of him." To me, Derek Anderson was a curiosity -- a guy with size 17 feet and a cannon arm, but not somebody I thought they'd turn the reigns over to in lieu of a guy they'd already invested almost two seasons in developing.

I was wrong on both counts. But it looks like I had some company on the Browns' coaching staff, given the farcical QB competition that the team wasted all training camp on, only to dump the winner of that competition after the Pittsburgh fiasco in week one. In addition to making the Browns the laughingstock of the league, the disasterous loss to the Steelers and the sudden ouster of Frye gave me the opportunity to write what, in hindsight, were some of the stupidest posts I've ever written.

How stupid? Well, check out this one and then take a peek at this one. I'll tell you what, it's a darn good thing I'm pretty, or else nobody would read anything I write. Hey, I admit it, I thought the team was pressing the panic button; instead, they were about to prove the truth of the old adage that "Fortune favors the bold."

Anyway, the Browns may have been the league's laughingstock when they offloaded Frye, but the laughing stopped when Anderson started slinging the ball in the direction of Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, and Joe Jurevicius. When their talents were combined with those of Jamal Lewis, (not to mention some pretty slick offensive schemes from the coaching staff) the Browns had an offense that at times could only be described as fearsome --and when was the last time anything about the Cleveland Browns could be described as "fearsome"?

That offense owed no small measure of its success to what quickly became the best offensive line we've seen in this town since Cody Risen retired. Going into the season, we all knew that the potential was there, thanks to the signing of Eric Steinbach and the selection of the best first round pick chosen since the Browns returned, Joe Thomas.

Still, offensive lines usually take some time to gel, and I thought we really couldn't hope that the line would solidify until after the first month or so of the season. Thankfully, I was wrong about that, too. With Derek Anderson's pocket presence and quick release, and Jamal Lewis's willingness to stick his shoulder down and run people over, the line had everything it needed to get real good, real fast, and the Browns were off to the races on the offensive side of the ball.

The defense, however, was another story, and many of the Browns early season victories looked more like track meets than football games. However, the defense showed some real improvement over the last four weeks of the season, as Shaun Smith (24 of his 62 tackles came in the last month of the season; 15 of them came in the last two weeks) began to emerge as a possible solution at NT, and the secondary began to solidify as players like Brandon McDonald emerged as real talents.

Finally, there were the Browns special teams. What can I say about Josh Cribbs that hasn't already been said? He was simply spectacular. What I like most about Cribbs is that he not only has the ability to run around defenders and score touchdowns, but that he's one of the best kick returners in traffic that I've ever seen. Remember the Baltimore game, where he pushed a pile of Ravens defenders at least 10 yards to take the ball out past the 40 yard line and set up the Browns' game winning scoring drive? When you combine those attributes with an incredible open field tackling ability and total fearlessness, it's just possible that the Cleveland Browns may well have the greatest all-around special teams player in the history of the game on their roster right now.

Then, last but not least, there's Phil Dawson. The last member of the class of 1999 and a team captain, Dawson remains one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, but Dawson had a rocky year in 2006, and after a few preseason miscues, people were starting to question his future with the club. He proved his worth again this season. Sure, the 51-yard kick against the Ravens will be the one that most people remember because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding it, but to me, the measure of what Phil Dawson means to the Browns will always be the 49 yard field goal that he kicked against Buffalo in the blizzard. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- it is the greatest athletic feat by a kicker that I've ever seen.

I took my family to Rochester, NY to visit relatives last week, but I got everybody up at 5:00 a.m. yesterday to drive back to Cleveland so I would have enough time to get to Browns Stadium in time for the kickoff. Sure, I'm a die hard, but I don't think I'd have made the trip in seasons past. Frankly, that kind of extra effort just wasn't worth it for the teams we've seen in recent years. They didn't give a damn, so why should we?

This team on the other hand, was worth the extra effort. Yesterday, the Browns were saying thank you to fans with their customary giveaways; I got up in the darkness and drove 300 miles to make damn sure I said thank you to them in return.

Thank you, 2007 Cleveland Browns, for bringing the team that we remember back to the lakefront. Thank you for winning, thank you for being thrilling, and thank you for playing hard, every week, win or lose. Thank you for the knots in our stomachs, thank you for the hoarseness in our throats, and thank you the chills down our spines. And most of all, thank you for giving us reasons to believe that the best is yet to come.

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