Browns fans are resigned to losing in legendary fashion, which is what made the kick-six loss to the Ravens almost routine. Two long-time Cleveland observers weigh in on the crushed morale. Plus, reader email

By Peter King
December 01, 2015

God has a voodoo doll. It has a Cleveland Brown jersey on. And He stuck another pin in it Monday night.

For Clevelanders, I don’t know how a loss can be more brutal than this one.

Cleveland 27, Baltimore 27. Three seconds left, Browns lining up for the game-winning field goal. You’re on the verge of sweeping the team you hate the most, the despised Ravens, the team that you’ll always think was stolen from you and kept your city without football for three seasons. The kicker, Travis Coons, is 18-for-18 as a Brown. In another miserable year at the Factory of Sadness, there’s about to be a highlight. A single, solitary, sort of pathetic highlight in a meaningless game, but a highlight nonetheless.

The kick is up, and WHAP … some Raven lineman got a hand on it.

Bummer. But if a Brown falls on it, overtime can be salvaged. The ball bounces to Baltimore safety Will Hill, but there’s a traffic jam in front of him. Okay, just get the guy down.

“Hang on a minute,” says Cleveland’s own Dave Zastudil, the former Browns’ punter, now an insurance man in Akron, watching in bed at home. “Somebody better tackle that guy.”

And there went Hill, weaving through a few players, then sprinting down the left sideline. The 40, the 30, a bad angle taken by one last Brown, the 25, the 20 …

The 10 …

The 5 …

Will Hill ran 64 yards and turned a Cleveland victory into a Baltimore victory.

“Fans aren’t mad anymore,” said Browns beat writer Jeff Schudel, who has covered the team since 1981. “That’s the scary part. They are resigned to this.”

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How can you be resigned to losses like this? This has to be the worst. Just has to be.

Browns fans hung around after watching their team lose to Baltimore at the last second.
David Richard/AP

“It’s not,” said Zastudil, who grew up in a Browns’ season-ticket family in suburban Bay Village. “‘The Fumble’ was worse. ‘The Drive’ was worse. I mean, people had John Elway stickers on their cars, and a line through his face.”

“It’s not,” agreed Schudel. “Opening day 2002. There was still hope then. The Browns are home, playing Kansas City, and they’re ahead [39-37] on the last play of the game. Dwayne Rudd thinks he’s sacked Trent Green, the quarterback of the Chiefs. Rudd is so excited he takes his helmet off and throws it across the field in celebration. Penalty. Unsportsmanlike conduct. The clock says zero zero zero, but Kansas City gets the penalty yardage, and then one last play. I believe it was a Morten Andersen field goal, right?”

Right. Thirty yards. Chiefs 40, Browns 39.

“The fans were angry that day—I remember that,” Schudel continued. “But today? They’re just numb. They’ve seen it all.”

I know it has happened before—only once, in a 1985 Denver-San Diego game, though that kick-six happened in overtime—but just watching it, as a neutral observer, I found myself thinking how incredibly stunning it was. It’s so surprising to see a game, even a meaningless one, change in the blink of an eye so decisively and so strangely. I couldn’t imagine being a fan of the Browns and feeling that gut-punch after so many others have been delivered, week after week, season after season. Or being a player for the Browns.

“There is never a good way to lose,” Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas said after the game. “But this is the worst way.”

* * *

Will Hill's touchdown return of a blocked field goal is just the latest in a string of legendary losing moments in Browns history.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

I ran into Schudel in the Cleveland press box last month after another desultory loss, by two touchdowns to Arizona. I was leaving and said goodbye to him.

“Peter, I’ve been covering this team [since 1981],” he said. “And I’m sitting down to write the same story I’ve written every week for all those years.”

On Tuesday, when I phoned to ask him how the city was taking this one, Schudel said: “They’re numb. The city is numb. They’ve seen this so often. Listen to this stat: From 1950 to 1973, the Browns had one losing season. From 1990 to the present, they’ve had three winning seasons. The fans, they just want everyone fired. They want the coach [Mike Pettine] fired. They want the GM [Ray Farmer] fired. But look at the history. Does that help? The Steelers, three coaches since 1969. The Browns, three coaches since 2012.”

Obviously, coaching changes don’t get old. They happen in Cleveland all the time, just like quarterback changes. But the losing doesn’t change. Zastudil has seen years of it.

“My dad had three season-tickets to the Browns in old Municipal Stadium. Big poles there, and you had to look around them. So far away from the field because it was a baseball stadium, but it didn’t matter. The city was enthralled with this team. Brian Sipe, the Kardiac Kids, Bernie Kosar. Football in Cleveland in the eighties was everything. Year round, you lived and died with the Browns. The Browns gave the city a boost, a sense of hope, that things would turn around. The Art Modell thing, moving to Baltimore, crushed the morale of the city. It affected people in their everyday lives.”

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Zastudil went to college three hours south, in Athens, at Ohio University, and became the nation’s best punter. In 2002, on the second day of the draft, during the fourth round, his phone rang. It was Ozzie Newsome, one of his childhood heroes. Now he was GM of the hated Ravens. Zastudil recalled: “He said, ‘Dave, welcome to Baltimore. You’ve been drafted by the Ravens.’ So many of those guys on the Ravens’ staff had moved with Modell. So many were from Cleveland. I tell people I was lucky enough to play for the old Browns and the news Browns.” That new Browns chance came in free agency in 2005. “The money was about the same,” Zastudil said, “but I thought this was probably the only time I’d be able to fulfill my dream of playing for the Cleveland Browns.”

Zastudil went on to play for Arizona until he got waived in camp this year. He came home, and now is with Amer Insurance in Akron. He also works for the Browns’ pre-game show, and was at the stadium before Monday night’s game, then went home to watch on TV.

“As the game got near the end,” Zastudil said, “I’m thinking, ‘Good for them. They come off their bye week, play well, get a win in a rivalry game, and it’s the first time they’ve swept Baltimore in a long time. I was close to Mike Pettine when I played in Baltimore, and so I was really happy for him—he’s worked so hard to turn things around. Finally they were having a big moment on national TV.”

The kick is up, and WHAP.

The Browns are 2-9.

Soon, the talk shows will be focused on LeBron James and the Cavs. And the NFL draft.

Some things never change.

Now for your email...

* * *

SYSTEM FAILURE

I feel that you may have been a bit off base by allowing Dr. Ellenbogen to pronounce that the system worked in Ben Roethlisberger's case. Big Ben took a brutal hit from Michael Bennett with seven-plus minutes left in the game. After I saw the replay my wife (a casual football fan) and I looked at each other and said “concussion protocol” but apparently no one else in the stadium did. Instead, Ben played for the remainder of the drive and only came out when he went to the trainer and said he had a headache. How is it that, much like Case Keenum, the average fan knew to get him out of the game to be checked but the trainers and doctors didn't? If you can't trust the UNC to ask that a player come out of the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit, then why have them? What happens if Ben chose not to mention the headache to anyone? Would the system still have worked?

—Tom M., Littleton, Co.

Most of what happens on the field has to be policed by the spotter above the field. This is because that person, usually a certified athletic trainer, has a monitor to watch the game, including replays, and has the best view of the entire field. Although the UNC is watching the game, from field view it is often difficult to see exactly what happens because of the traffic in front of the UNC on the sidelines.

I don’t think the Roethlisberger case is like the Keenum case because Keenum clearly was woozy and wobbly and though it took Roethlisberger a few seconds to get up, he didn’t appear—at least on the replay—to be struggling significantly once he got up. Now the camera didn’t stay with him for a long time after he was up but that again is something that the spotter upstairs has to see. I am assuming that the spotter saw that and deemed it not a significant enough of a hit to have Roethlisberger removed from the game. I think you could argue that the spotter should have called down and there should have been intervention to look at Roethlisberger immediately. But I don’t think it rises to the level of the Keenum play. The one question that I would like to hear answered from Roethlisberger is how he felt immediately after that hit. Ellenbogen told me that the effects of the hit took a few minutes to show up.

I understand the tremendous emotion about this and the skepticism from fans that the league simply isn’t doing enough to get concussed players off the field. The league certainly has the infrastructure in place to do better than it did in the case of Case Keenum. They may get to a point where if a player takes two or three seconds longer than usual to get up, that the sideline medical people will immediately take him off the field. But I think you have to be careful to not overreact to a poor handling of the situation with Keenum so that now you do too much with other players.

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COLTS QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY

There is no doubt the biggest quarterback controversy of the year may be in Denver when or if Peyton Manning gets healthy with Brock Osweiler playing such solid football. But what about the Colts? Matt Hasselbeck has played very well and the Colts have not lost a game that he has started this year. If Andrew Luck gets healthy but Hasselbeck leads the team to the playoffs, who gets the starting job?

—Chris, Stamford, Ct.

That’s becoming an interesting question. Andrew Luck has started seven games this year and thrown 12 interceptions. Matt Hasselbeck has started four games and thrown two interceptions; three of his four starts have been interception-free. The one nagging problem that has surfaced with Luck this year is that he continues to take chances downfield like a rookie quarterback, and not a very smart one. Of course, Luck is a very smart quarterback who has made some poor decisions. It might come down to this week. Hasselbeck and the Colts play at Pittsburgh on Sunday and it is the toughest remaining game on the Indy schedule. If the Colts win, and Hasselbeck plays mistake-free, I actually think the Colts should consider playing Hasselbeck even when Luck is healthy and ready to go.

A YEAR OFF

Your feedback on the phone call with Adrian Peterson prompted a question. Ever think a running back would proactively consider taking a year off? Think about it. A running back comes out of college and plays three years under his rookie contract, signs a second contract for two to three years and is now 28 years old in good (not great) health and decides to take a full year off. He enters his 30th year refreshed, in great shape, and healthy. What does that running back give up vs. what might they gain? Adrian did it because he had to and now look at him. Even he admits to what that year off did for his body and health wise. If it prolonged a running back’s shelf life by two or three years or one more contract, why not?

—Doug, Atlanta

Great question. I would also have to add one pretty major if. If Peterson played last year, how much of an impact would that have had on Minnesota’s season? They finished 7-9 and had very narrow losses to Miami, Detroit, Green Bay, Buffalo and the Saints. Let’s present an argument that if Peterson played last year, Minnesota would have been in the thick of the playoff chase. The NFC’s two wild-card teams last year were both 11-5. In training camp this year, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, in an offhand comment to me, said the addition of Peterson meant that he would win three games by himself. That is a flippant comment, of course, that shouldn’t be taken as gospel. But once you get into a team being in the the 10-6 range and competitive for a playoff spot against some quite beatable teams, I don’t know how you could have made a logical, valid argument before the 2014 season that Peterson should sit out and get pristinely healthy for 2015, when he would be 30.

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FISHER ON HOT SEAT?

A quick question from someone who’s generally been supportive of Jeff Fisher because of the improved talent he’s assembled here. Is Fisher on the hot seat, and if he’s not, why?

—Dan, St. Louis

I think if this season continues on the same course, Fisher could well be on the hot seat and it would be hard to argue with him being there. In fairness and with a nod to journalistic ethics, I should tell you something I have admitted several times in this space: I share an agent with Jeff Fisher. Many people rightfully have brought that up in recent years when I discuss Fisher so I will understand if you look at skeptically at my opinion. The owner of the Rams, Stan Kroenke, likes Fisher and trusts him. But the Rams appear to be on their way to their fourth straight sub-.500 season with Fisher as coach. No owner is going to look at that and think categorically that his team is on the right track. I think what is particularly troubling for Fisher’s future is the fact the Rams have had a zillion draft choices since trading the pick that became Robert Griffin III, and they might be in the worst situation of any team in football right now at the quarterback position. So will Kroenke hold Fisher and GM Les Snead responsible for that and take action this year? I don’t know, but my gut feeling is that Kroenke will give that team of Fisher and Snead one more season to get the quarterback and the team right. But it is going to be a tough sales job to the fans wherever the Rams are in 2016 and beyond if Kroenke keeps Fisher next season and the Rams don’t win fairly big.

THE MEANING OF UNAFFILIATED

When you write: “Last week, in the wake of the Case Keenum concussion debacle, the NFL granted permission for one of its unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants to speak to me about the process during a live NFL game.” This seems like a contradiction—why would the NFL have to grant permission for someone they are unaffiliated with to speak to you? I think it’s more than semantics, and it’s the reason why a lot of fans don’t feel that many people truly are “unaffiliated” with the NFL on issues like this.

— Andrew, Fairfield N.J.

That’s a very good point. Richard Ellenbogen is the co-chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee. He is affiliated with the NFL. But I think the point is that he is not affiliated with a team. Even though he is on the sidelines at games in Seattle, he does not work for the Seahawks. He does not take his direction from the Seahawks. He takes his direction from a protocol that he and other NFL medical personnel have drawn up. There is skepticism around this program to be sure, but I don’t have the same sort of skepticism that many readers and people on Twitter have. They would think that it is in Richard Ellenbogen’s best interest to keep marginally injured players on the field so that the teams don’t lose players during important games. I suppose that in a perfect world that every person involved in this program, from the spotter to the brain-trauma specialist on each sideline, would be people who never have met an NFL coach or player or in fact have never been to an NFL game. But is that what you really want? Don’t you want someone sitting upstairs who has experience with professional athletes, specifically football players? Don’t you want these spotters to have been to multiple NFL games or college games and seen how players react when they have a violent collision? I think the fact that the NFL Players Association has a voice in this should provide some assurance that people like Ellenbogen are dedicated to not keeping brain-injured players in NFL games.

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LAYNE, STABLER AND MANZIEL

Your comparison of Johnny Manziel to Bobby Layne and Kenny Stabler is interesting. The world and the NFL have changed dramatically since Layne and Stabler played. Back then, excessive drinking was considered good, clean, boys-will-be-boys fun. Film study was for obsessive coaches, not players. Defenses and offenses were much simpler. The season was shorter, conditioning was haphazard, and the game wasn't nearly as fast as it is today. Do you believe that Layne and Stabler could have played at their customary high level in today's NFL, living their lives as they did back then?

—Joe C., Morris Plains, N.J.

Great question. I doubt it. In fact, Stabler didn’t play really well until his fourth season in the NFL. I don’t think many teams would be as patient as the Raiders were with Stabler in today’s game (Stabler was drafted in 1968 and didn’t become Oakland’s regular starter until 1973.) I guess my only point on Manziel is that the Browns have invested a first-round draft choice and several million dollars in him and yet the only thing they know about him as he reaches the end of his second year, is that he has shown signs of being unreliable. But the Browns are going to have to make a decision about the quarterback position this offseason and I just believe that without having more evidence as to whether Manziel can play or not is a disservice to the long-term interest of what is today a bad football team playing for nothing the rest of the year.

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