When Cleveland fans have cried their final tear over LeBron James, the local superstar whose breakup with his hometown Cavaliers couldn't have been more tacky if James had written it on a Post-it instead of announcing it on his one-hour nationally-televised ego trip, they will look to the upcoming NFL season for hope and positive news.
What they will see is a Browns team that managed just five victories last season and has had only one winning season over the last seven years. And rightfully, many will wonder what they have done to deserve such a disproportionate share of sporting heartache over the decades. You know your pain runs deep when it's chronicled in two-word chapters, such as "The Drive," "The Fumble," "The Shot," and on Thursday night "The Decision".But maybe hope is not lost. Jake Delhomme, the veteran quarterback who was signed in 2010 after seven years in Carolina, sees sunshine behind the dark clouds. He said as much last month when he told me he senses the Browns are on the cusp of one of those head-shaking turnarounds. He said it's the same feeling he had in 2003 when he left New Orleans to sign with Carolina.
"When I was a free agent that year, I had two teams that I visited, Dallas and Carolina," he said. "In choosing the Panthers, the thing that weighed on my mind more than anything was that they went 3-0 to start the 2002 season, lost eight in a row, then won four out of their last five. That same season we started 6-2 with the Saints and needed to win only one out of our last three to make the playoffs. We couldn't do it - and it's not like we were playing a bunch of powerhouses." Indeed. The Saints lost 32-31 to a Vikings team that would finish 6-10, and 20-13 to a Bengals squad that would wind up 2-14. Still, it was the 10-6 loss to the Panthers that made a lasting impression on Delhomme, who in his first season with Carolina took the franchise to its only Super Bowl. "When the Panthers came to play us in that last game, they had only six wins and no chance to make the playoffs," Delhomme said. "But they played hard down the stretch and won four out of five. Somebody was doing something right. There was something going on there. This Browns team started 1-11 last year and won its last four games. Are you kidding me? I've been around long enough to know when teams pack it in, and the Browns didn't do that. Somehow, someway, they got it done." There are stranger things than a team going from worst to first in one season. Actually, such turnarounds are common in the NFL. It's happened at least once every season since the NFL went to the current eight-division format in 2002. Heck, the Browns tied for first in the AFC North in 2007, one year after finishing in last place. So there is precedence. It would be easy at this point to tell you all the reasons it won't happen again: the division is loaded with two playoff teams from 2009 (Cincinnati and Baltimore) and the 2008 Super Bowl champion (Pittsburgh); the schedule is brutal (a seven-game stretch features Baltimore, Cincy, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England and the Jets); the wideout corps is young and unproven; and the defense has question marks across the backend.
But Cleveland, let us not focus on that for now. Reporters are supposed to be objective, detached, impartial. But the truth is that a part of me will be pulling for the Browns and their fans in 2010, hoping that the next time I see them cry they'll be wiping away tears of joy, not sadnesss. Now wouldn't that be a sight?