Two hours before kickoff last Sunday between the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings, I bumped into a Browns fan in the hotel lobby. He wore a bright orange Browns shirt and white Browns cap. In his right hand, he clutched a cigar.
"Celebrating already?" I asked as we walked toward the door.
"I better smoke it now," he said. "Probably won't get to later."
By the end of the day, his fatalism was rewarded in a 34-20 loss to the Vikings, highlighted by Adrian Peterson outrunning (and pushing around) Cleveland's defense in the second half and Brady Quinn's struggles under center.
The Browns, who travel to Denver on Sunday, dropped to 1-10 in season home openers since 1999, but the loss seemed to portend trouble and gave rise to more questions: Is Quinn really a better quarterback than Derek Anderson? Can the stern coaching style of Eric Mangini (long practices, no talking on cellphones in the locker room, running laps for mistakes) translate into victories?
Two years ago, the Browns were a play or two away from making the postseason. Since then, they have been beset by lethargy and mistakes -- dropped passes, turnovers, mindless penalties.
"It's one game," Browns receiver Braylon Edwards said after the loss to Minnesota. "That's what we have to tell ourselves. It's one game and we have 15 left."
Said Joshua Cribbs, whose punt return for a touchdown was a rare bright spot: "It's very disappointing, but we've seen a lot of good things. You have to put two halves together."
While Quinn made some positive plays in the first half against Minnesota, his errors helped sink the Browns late. (His third-quarter interception and fourth-quarter fumble led to 10 Minnesota points.) It's fair to wonder if Mangini's extended quarterback competition, which included splitting repetitions between Quinn and Anderson in training camp, hurt Quinn's timing Sunday.
"I felt extremely comfortable going into the game, with the game plan we had going in," Quinn insisted in his press conference Wednesday. "At certain times, especially at the beginning of the season, you're going to be able to work on chemistry [with receivers] by working with one another, being together in practice and games. You're never going to hear me say I played well enough, especially when we lose. I always feel the onus is on me. I didn't play well enough for us to win. I have to do a lot of things better across the board for us to win."
Quinn said it isn't fair to judge the Browns based on their Week 1 performance or their up-and-down preseason.
"This offense is still young," he said. "You don't necessarily put a label on a young infant when it's just starting out. We're still growing, we're still getting better and better. We're an offense that's going to try to push the ball down the field in a methodical way, whether it be through making smart decisions, running the football or taking what the defense gives us. We're not going to force things. We're going to play smart football."
A high football IQ has been one of Mangini's biggest selling points in his time in the NFL, but he is 23-26 as a head coach and there have been questions about how his brand of discipline manifests itself on the field.
"The one thing that I learned from all the head coaches that worked for, whether it was Ted [Marchibroda], Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick or some of the other guys who went on to become a head coach is you have to do what you think is right and what's best for the group to move forward," Mangini said. "The motivation is always based on that."
On Sunday in Denver, Mangini will stand across the field from another of Belichick's coaching protégés, Josh McDaniels, and attempt to lead the Browns to their first win since November. The Browns have dropped seven straight and nine out of their last 10. The fan base is restless. The AFC North is a bear.
The postgame victory cigar, long a symbol of sports success, may have to wait.