This week’s guest prognosticator is Vince Guerrieri, a newspaper editor in Northern Ohio as well as the author of Ohio Sports Trivia. He has begun writing a second book, about the Fremont-Sandusky high school rivalry. Poking around on his Web site, I saw that Vince also contributed to Tim Russert’s Wisdom of Our Fathers. He is also a Cleveland sports fan.
WFY: Well look at that, the Cleveland Browns have a little streak going. What in the name of Gerald McNeil is happening on the shores of Lake Erie – are they getting better, lucky or both?
VG: A little of both. The Browns had the good fortune to play the Steelers’ third-string quarterback at home, and play the Raiders and Chiefs, two teams that are going nowhere fast. But then again, the Browns have demonstrated an aptitude to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, so any win for them is a good win. At the same time, they’ve got the youngest team in the NFL, they’re getting good production out of the rookies (Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson…and Josh Gordon looks like a steal), and Joe Haden’s back to do good things on defense.
WFY: Did you have any expectation in 1995 that Art Modell was going to move the Browns? What was it like during the end of that season after the announcement? What about the 4 years before the new Browns arrived?
VG: None whatsoever. Negotiations were ongoing, but Modell himself said he wasn’t going to talk about a new stadium until after the season. Word leaked out very shortly after the World Series (which featured the Indians for the first time in 41 years), it just pulled the rug out from under a season that could have been good. The Browns were coming off a playoff berth (and a playoff win, the most recent in team history) and Bill Belichick had assembled a pretty good team and a pretty good coaching staff (although defensive coordinator Nick Saban left for Michigan State. I wonder what he’s doing now?). I went to the Browns-Steelers game the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was my first and only game at Municipal Stadium. The place was like a wake. Ads were pulled, the crowd was muted (even the Steelers fans that bought scalped tickets were low-key). People called me like it was a death in the family.
The three years before they came back (or as I call them, the three years the Browns went undefeated) weren’t too painful. We knew there was an end in sight, thanks to the deal brokered by a hotshot lawyer for the NFL named Roger Goodell (I wonder what he’s doing now?). After word got out of the move, lawsuits started flying. The city was going to sue Art Modell for breaking the lease, and season ticket holders were ramping up toward a class action lawsuit against the Browns and the NFL. So Goodell and the NFL worked out the settlement that the Browns could keep the name, colors and records, making the Ravens for all intents and purposes an expansion team, and the next expansion team would come to Cleveland if the city built a new stadium.
WFY: Are you pleased that Randy Lerner cashed out and sold the Browns to Jimmy Haslam ?
VG: Y’know, I was never a Lerner hater. He was the anti-Modell: He wasn’t spending other people’s money, and he had no problem staying out of the football side. But it kind of became obvious that he held on to the team for as long as he had to (when Al died, he left it to his son as long as he owned it for 10 years, and the deal was approved by the league almost 10 years to the day of Al Lerner’s death) and was highly disinterested in it. He bought Aston Villa; he inherited the Browns (and made Holmgren the de facto owner, representing him at NFL meetings).
Haslam seems like a decent guy (although if he and Joe Banner are dumb enough to hire Mike Lombardi, I’d almost rather have Lerner back) and will definitely take a more active role in the team. We’ll see if that’s better.
WFY: How has Browns fandom changed since your childhood, both personally and throughout Ohio?
VG: It’s actually become less painful. In the 1980s, the Browns were tantalizingly close to the promised land, losing three AFC Championship games and a couple other heartbreaking playoff losses. Now, well, dead bodies don’t suffer. I’ll sit and watch the games, swear a little, and wait for cartoons on Sunday night. Besides, they moved. Nothing sports-related will ever hurt that bad again.
WFY: Is it tough seeing the Baltimore Ravens as a model franchise? Do you hold a grudge against them or did that go away when Modell sold the team?
VG: It’s hard for me to consider any franchise whose public identity is so deeply intertwined with a guy who escaped prison time as a model franchise, but they definitely do a lot right on the field. And I think that’s a tribute to Ozzie Newsome, the Browns hall of famer who actually started in the front office of the Browns before the team left. I can’t begrudge him any of his success. He was a great player and is a great guy.
I’d still root for North Korea if they played the Ravens. My wife’s a Steelers fan, and the common ground we have on NFL Sundays is despising the Ravens.
WFY: Did you ever see a game at Municipal Stadium? It looked great on TV, but in person the sightlines couldn’t have been too great in the lower level. How is Cleveland Browns Stadium?
VG: Municipal Stadium was actually the first stadium built toward multipurpose use, in 1932. It seemed to have better sightlines for football than baseball, which is really damning it with faint praise. Regardless of the sport, you were quite distant from the action.
Browns Stadium, built on the same site, is kind of like new Yankee Stadium. There are lots of places where it’s an improvement over the old venue, but it just seems a little more sterile. Something seems missing. Of course, if the Browns string together a couple 10-win seasons, it might come back. Who knows?
WFY: After 2 winning seasons and one playoff game since 1999, are the Browns headed in the right direction yet? How big a deal would a Browns championship be? How did the Browns manage to not win a conference championship with Joe Jurevicius?
VG: Jurevicius was on the best team the Browns have had since they came back, that 2007 team that won 10 games but didn’t get into the playoffs (the 2002 wild card team had nine wins) because 1. Derek Anderson started to believe his press clippings and started making rookie and second-string linebackers for the Bengals look like all-pros (that win would have given the Browns the division) and 2. Tony Dungy decided to give the Colts Week 17 off, and Jim Sorgi couldn’t beat the Titans, which would have given the Browns a wild card. The Colts, the top seed in the AFC, went one-and-done in the playoffs. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
The problem the Browns have had is no real consistency in coaching and the front office. Tom Heckert’s been able to put together a couple good drafts, and they appear to have improved defensively from Rob Ryan to Dick Jauron. I think they’re on the way up, but we’ll see if Heckert keeps his job. As I said, I do not think Mike Lombardi would be an improvement. He had some monumentally shitty drafts for the Browns in the 1990s, culminating in the 1995 draft, which has been declared the worst draft in team history by Draftmetrics. The first-round pick was traded down (Lombardi supposedly talked Belichick out of taking Warren Sapp) and the Browns ended up taking Craig Powell (I wonder what he’s doing now? No, seriously, I do). But his journalism contacts (he’s written for Pro Football Talk and Sports Illustrated) have left him dialed in enough to get blind items dropped about him being the next general manager.
WFY: Other than occasional orange pants and jerseys and an unnecessary return to gray facemasks, the Browns uniforms have been static. Do you like them? Was the Browns wearing nothing but white jerseys last season a microcosm of Lerner’s ownership tenure? Are you concerned the uniforms will be modified (ESPN Cleveland)?
VG: Love ‘em. I went to Bowling Green State University, which is where the colors allegedly came from (the Browns held training camp there for the first five years of their existence). A lot of the lasting memories fans have of the Browns is of them wearing white uniforms. They experimented with brown pants in the Mangini era, and I wasn’t a fan. I wouldn’t mind seeing orange pants again, if they were the Cardiac Kids flat orange from the early 1980s and not the bright orange they’ve worn for a couple preseason games recently.
I’m not too concerned about modifications, because it sounds like they’ll be relatively minor. As long as they keep the colors, it should be all good.
WFY: Who is the greatest Brown of your lifetime? I know Jim Brown gets the overall nod. What about the expansion Browns?
VG: Of my lifetime? Ozzie Newsome, no question. Followed closely by Clay Matthews.
As for since 1999, there’s only one player who’s been with the team that long, and he’s been brilliant: Phil Dawson. It’s kind of funny: Dawson’s proven himself to be so great (he now has the team record for field goals, consecutive field goals and field goals in a game) because the team’s offense is so bad. If it was a better-scoring team, nobody would have any idea who he is.
WFY: Where do you get your Browns coverage? Do you listen with the sound turned down and the radio turned up?
VG: I live in Northwest Ohio, which is technically Lions country, so I’ll listen to the game sometimes because it’s not televised (like this week). I love Jim Donovan, and I’m glad he’s doing better after getting treated for leukemia.
Tony Grossi covered the Browns going back to the 1980s for the Plain Dealer, but left the paper after he accidentally tweeted his real thoughts on Randy Lerner (he thought he was sending a direct message, and used the words “pathetic” and “irrelevant”). Tony’s departure might have been a good thing for him, given that the Plain Dealer is going to lay off a third of its newsroom workforce. He’s at ESPN Cleveland, and continues to break news there (he broke news of the sale and Joe Haden’s suspension for Adderall). Tom Reed at the Plain Dealer is the new beat reporter. I used to work with him in Warren, so I make it a point to keep up with him as well.
WFY: Is your hometown of Youngstown divided between Browns and Steelers like other parts of eastern Ohio? Did Bernie Kosar tip it to the Browns?
VG: It’s a fair split. Youngstown’s halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In the 1980s, there was a sizeable contingent of 49er fans too. The DeBartolos, the team owners, were from Youngstown and their corporation was headquartered just outside the city limits in Boardman. At one point, all five of their Lombardi trophies were on display there. Before he worked for the 49ers (and Browns, later on after the magic was gone), Carmen Policy was a mob lawyer in Youngstown.
I don’t think Bernie (a Boardman graduate) tipped it so much as the Browns were doing better at that point. There were more Browns fans in the 1980s, Steelers fans in the 1990s and 2000s. There was also a lot of overlap between Bernie’s career and that of Jerry Olsavsky, who was a Chaney graduate who played linebacker for the Steelers.
Also, I feel I have to mention this, even though I have no idea what impact, if any, it had: The Steelers drafted Congressman and noted convicted felon Jim Traficant out of Pitt in the 1960s. Infer from that what you will.
WFY: What were the biggest traumas of being a Browns fan?
VG: Um, THEY expletive deleted MOVED. Everything else pales in comparison. Browns fans did everything right. The Browns had the highest local television ratings in the NFL the year before the move. The stadium was regularly filled (no small feat, since it was one of the biggest in the league). People wore the shirts. They held up their end of the bargain, and for their troubles they got to watch Art Modell, the man who went into hock to sign Andre Rison because he would be the game-changer and then pleaded poverty and moved the team, hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy while getting a home team that should be on one of those demotivator posters for “ineptitude.”
WFY: What is the best part of being a Browns fan?
VG: You know how when you go through something absolutely awful you feel closer to the people who shared the experience? That’s what being a Browns fan is like. You really feel like you know every other Browns fan personally.
WFY: Brownie the Elf, discuss.
VG: Um… I’m not sure what to say, although if Art Modell was against it, I’m for it. At least it’s cooler than Steely McBeam.
WFY: I suppose it can be argued that no team has more natural rivalries in its division than the Browns. The Ravens, we’ve already mentioned. The Steelers are the next close big city. The Bengals are in the same state. Am I on to something here?
VG: Eh, could be. But for it to be a real rivalry, the Browns actually have to win a few games. The Browns had a winning record in their rivalries with the Steelers and Bengals through 1996. In recent years, they’ve been so bad that both opponents now have the winning record. Stat of the day: No AFC North team has ever lost to the Browns and gone to the playoffs in the same year.
WFY: What would be the quintessential gameday meal and beer for Browns game?
VG: Since Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena opened, lots of restaurants have opened downtown catering to a game-time crowd (I like City Tap or the Fourth Street Bar & Grill). For me, though, I’d make a pilgrimage to the Great Lakes Brewing Company for a couple beverages and something to eat – or get a hot dog at the game liberally covered in Stadium Mustard.
WFY: Do you find yourself thinking “oh, what might have been” with Robert Griffin III, drafted one spot before the Browns pick?
VG: Eh, a little, but I can’t find a whole lot of fault with Trent Richardson, who they got with the third overall pick. He’s a beast of a runner, and has good hands out of the backfield as well. I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea that Colt McCoy wasn’t the answer at quarterback, and really wasn’t happy the Browns burned a first-round pick on a 29-year-old. But Brandon Weeden’s arm strength – the main difference between him and Colt McCoy – has proven particularly valuable, as he’s thrown five long touchdown passes to Josh Gordon.
WFY: Who wins Sunday and why?
VG: Browns, 24-20. They’re on a roll, and either RGIII plays injured (doubtlessly affecting his mobility, his main strength) or doesn’t play at all.