LeBron James returned to Cleveland earlier this year with the stated goal of giving the city a winning team.
No one thought it would be the Browns.
But there they are, sitting atop the AFC North, the toughest division in football outside the SEC West. The Browns’ 6-3 record has even spurred talk of — dare they say it — the playoffs. And when’s the last time you read “Browns” and “playoffs” in the same sentence?
The Browns caught the nation’s attention last Thursday with a rare primetime appearance. Only the Lions and cast of Saturday Night Live have logged less time during prime viewing hours. In fact, since returning to the league in 1999, the Browns have played in less than half of the NFL average of primetime games.
With good reason. They’ve been hideous.
But that’s what happens when the owner can’t beat city hall, moves the team to Baltimore and lets Cleveland begin anew with an expansion team.
In 15 seasons, seven head coaches produced exactly one playoff appearance, and that, of course, was a loss. The Browns’ 2002 season ended with an excruciating 36-33 loss to the Steelers, after the Browns led 33-21 with only five minutes left.
The Browns have changed owners and front office personnel, too. Most recently last February, when Ray Farmer became the new general manager. With each new regime came a new style of play, and another high draft pick wasted on a quarterback who wouldn’t fit in with the next regime.
For 15 years, it was two steps forward, two steps back. The Browns were as awful as they once were sublime.
They came into existence in 1946 as part of the old All American Football Conference. The Browns were so good that they destroyed the league, winning all four championships.
In 1950 they joined the NFL, defeating the defending champion Eagles in their first game. They won the championship that first year, too. They played for the championship the next five years in a row, winning in ’54 and ’55. And in 1964, led by Jim Brown, the greatest running back ever to carry the ball, the Browns gave Cleveland its last championship of any kind, destroying the Colts, 27-0, in the championship game.
Fifty years, including agonizing near-misses as the Browns lost back-to-back AFC championship games in ’86 and ’87; the Indians lost the World Series in ’95 and ’97; and the Cavaliers lost the NBA Finals in ’07 and the Eastern Conference finals the next two years. Fifty long, championship-less years.
So you can certainly understand why the Browns have turned the good people of Cleveland a bit giddy. Especially after Thursday’s performance. The 24-3 lambasting of the division rival Bengals resembled a dismantling; a breathtaking and dominant performance worthy of the Browns of yesteryear.
They held the Bengals to 165 yards, half their normal output. They reduced Andy Dalton to a quivering jelly who posted a quarterback rating of 2.0. That’s no misprint. They intercepted three passes. Cornerback Joe Haden held A.J. Green, who was targeted 10 times, to three catches for 23 measly yards.
“This is definitely rare air, man,” Haden told Pat McManamon of espn.com. “But I think this team and this coaching staff and the players we have, they’re ready for it.”
How could they be? They had lost 17 division road games in a row. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Browns had taken 90 offensive snaps with a double-digit lead on the road. Total. Thursday night, they took 58.
And have we mentioned that it’s been 20 years since the Browns were all by themselves in first place this late in the season? Or that they haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007?
“We’re not the old Cleveland Browns,” safety Donte Whitner told Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, actually referring to the Browns of recent vintage. “We understand everybody wants to put that label on us, but we work too hard and have too much character and talent on this football team to believe what outside people think of us.”
Credit new coach Mike Pettine with changing the mindset in the Browns’ locker room, which was no small task. Given his first chance to be a head coach, Pettine challenged his new team to aim high.
“It was our goal in the beginning of the year to be a playoff team,” he told Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer. “Why not us? We talked about the number of teams — 11, 12 years in a row, teams had gone from worst to first, at least one worst to first in the division, and the number of teams that didn’t make the playoffs one year that made it the next.
“We weren’t going to hide from it. But at the same time, they have to know that in order to accomplish that, we have to be extraordinary. Each week. I think as long as you talk about playoffs in the context of the next game is the most important one, and it’s a step towards that direction, then I think it’s OK.”
Veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby, an 11-year veteran in his first year with the Browns, is spreading the word.
“Bright lights give us an opportunity to shine,” he told McManamon. “We didn’t make no statement. We got a lot of football yet to play.”