Browns' misery over last 20 years remains utterly unmatched

Thursday April 3rd, 2014

The Cleveland Browns have lost at least 10 games in 10 of the past 11 seasons.
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, Kevin Costner never got around to pointing out the obvious while doing a national conference call with sportswriters this week to promote his new NFL-themed movie, Draft Day. But doesn't it just figure that the Cleveland Browns would wind up owning the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft -- considered the deepest draft in decades -- only if it was a work of pure fiction?

These are the Browns we're talking about. So the movie's feel-good plot can't possibly be inspired by a true story. While at the same time, you have to admit, most of what has transpired in Browns franchise history over the past 20 years or so simply can't be made up.

Here's hoping Costner's latest sports flick, in which he plays Browns' wheeler-dealer general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., boldly maneuvering his way up to the draft's No. 1 pick, is a welcomed spring diversion for Cleveland football fans. You know, to distract them from what I consider the most tortured two decades in modern NFL history -- bar none, with no apologies offered to the early and extended suffering of those expansion Saints or Bucs.

So maybe the Browns really are No. 1 in a sense after all.

Consider the unprecedented depths of misery that have been Cleveland's NFL fate since the close of the 1994 season, a year in which the Browns went 11-5, earned a wild-card playoff berth and saw fourth-year head coach Bill Belichick record the franchise's most recent postseason victory:

• The 1995 Browns, picked by Sports Illustrated to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX, started 3-1, but by early November had sunk to 4-5 by the time team owner Art Modell made his blockbuster announcement that he would move his club to Baltimore in 1996. Then all hell broke loose, with Cleveland collapsing to 5-11 by season's end.

• Left without a team for the three seasons between 1996-98 -- in retrospect, the Browns' salad days -- Cleveland began anew with its '99 expansion team. In the 15 seasons of the "new'' Browns, Cleveland has lost in double digits 12 times, endured 13 losing seasons, finished last in the division 11 times and made the playoffs once, a one-and-done appearance as an unlikely 9-7 wild-card team in 2002. That year, even team president Carmen Policy essentially gave up on his club's playoff hopes after it lost in Week 15 to fall to 7-7.

• The 2007 Browns were that rare ray of hope in Cleveland, but they beat some long odds, managing to go 10-6 and still miss the playoffs. Alas, it was another mirage for Browns fans (as was the emergence of Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Anderson), and Cleveland has followed up that strong 10-win showing by going either 5-11 or 4-12 in each of the next six seasons. All told, the Browns have lost at least 10 games in 10 of the past 11 years.

• The only constant in Cleveland football these past two decades has been change. The Browns since 1999 have featured eight head coaches, eight general managers or football czars, and three owners (Al Lerner, Randy Lerner and Jimmy Haslam). A staggering 20 quarterbacks have started at least one game over the course of those 15 seasons.

Where have you gone Tim Couch, Charlie Frye, Jeff Garcia, Ken Dorsey, Ty Detmer, Kelly Holcomb, and so many more? Drafting a quarterback/savior hasn't worked out too well, with Couch, Frye, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden all finding failure after being groomed to be the face of the franchise. Oh, and who can forget quarterback Spergon Wynn, taken 183rd overall in 2000, a mere 16 spots ahead of Tom Brady?

It's an unbelievable tale of woe, and the lowlights are almost endless. The Browns under Mike Pettine in 2014 will feature their third head coach in three seasons, and fifth in seven years. The front office in that same span has blown through the management teams headed by Phil Savage, George Kokinis, Mike Holmgren/Tom Heckert and Joe Banner/Mike Lombardi, with new GM Ray Farmer now in charge. Haslam bought the team from the Lerner family amid great fanfare in the fall of 2012, but even his brief tenure has been chaotic, and marred by the federal investigation into criminal acts by his Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J Travel Centers business.

You can talk all you want about the 20-year playoff drought Saints fans endured at the start of franchise history from 1967 to '86, or the record-breaking 26-game losing streak and 12 consecutive double-digit losing seasons compiled by the Bucs in their pre-Tony Dungy era of 1976-95, but nothing really matches the width and breadth of the Browns' ineptitude from '95 on. After making the playoffs seven times in the 1980s, with three trips to the AFC title game, Cleveland has experienced three winning seasons, two playoff trips and that lone postseason victory from 1990 on.

Let Costner try to make an entertaining movie about that track record. Sonny Weaver Jr. might have perpetual job security as the make-believe Browns general manager, but in real life, no matter who has run the show in Cleveland, the show quickly closed, like a bad production on Broadway.

"I watched that organization since I was little,'' Costner said of the Browns on the Monday conference call, promoting the movie that opens April 11. "I remember Leroy Kelly running, remember that team. I never equated Cleveland to the joke it's made to be.''

Just for a little perspective, Leroy Kelly was a rookie running back on the 1964 Browns, the last major Cleveland pro sports team to win a championship. The franchise and the city will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that NFL title -- the Browns beat Johnny Unitas and the Colts 27-0 in that game -- in December of this year. The Browns and Lions remain the only long-time NFL franchises to never reach the Super Bowl, along with recent expansion clubs like the Jaguars and Texans.

Ernie Accorsi was the Browns general manager from 1985 to '91, when Cleveland made five consecutive trips to the playoffs, losing three excruciating times in the AFC title game (each time to John Elway and the Denver Broncos). That makes him and then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer the last Browns decision-makers to know what it felt like to win consistently in that football-mad town. Accorsi seemed like the man I needed to talk to about where the lost-in-the-wilderness Browns have been these past two decades, and I'm pretty sure he knows more football than Costner.

"I still root hard for the Browns,'' said Accorsi, the former Colts, Browns and Giants general manager, who retired from New York after the 2006 season. "I'm still a great Browns fan. So, yeah, it hurts, because I love the town, I love the history of the franchise. It's sad, because we came so close. It's something most nights before I go to bed I still think about, those three championship games. Two of them were about as heartbreaking as you can possibly get.

"I've hated to see this, where the franchise has gone in recent years. It's been a long haul and I just hope now they can start their way back. It's been a shame, it really has. To this day, I root for the Giants and the Browns. It really hurts me when I hear them say the Browns and Lions are the only two old-guard teams to never make the Super Bowl.''

Accorsi, of course, in some small way adds to the pain felt by long-suffering Browns fans. He succeeded George Young as the Giants GM and wound up making a Super Bowl trip with New York in 2000. In that game, his Giants lost big to the Baltimore Ravens, the transplanted Browns who spurned the city of Cleveland. The Browns have endured the Ravens winning two Super Bowls, with Modell in ownership of the team for the first title and a former Browns' icon -- tight end Ozzie Newsome -- the GM architect of both championship clubs. They've watched as Belichick, who was fired after the ill-fated 1995 season in Cleveland, went on to become a Hall of Fame-bound coach in New England, earning three Super Bowl titles.

And there's more misery for Cleveland's faithful on the Super Bowl front. Holmgren, Savage, Dwight Clark, Policy, Chris Palmer, Romeo Crennel, Butch Davis, Kokinis, Banner and Lombardi all have taken turns leading the franchise as either coach or high up in the front office. All have made Super Bowl trips, with many earning rings, in their coaching, playing or personnel management tenures in the NFL. Some of those came before they got to Cleveland, and some of those came after they left the franchise. But none of that glory transpired while they were Browns.

Cleveland used to be able to at least count on the Bengals, their in-state division rivals, for company in terms of consistent failure. But Cincinnati -- the 1968 AFL expansion franchise legendary ex-Browns founder, owner and coach Paul Brown created to stick a thumb in the eye of Modell, who fired him in 1963 -- has now become a playoff perennial, making the postseason three years in a row and four times in the past five seasons, while Cleveland continues to scratch and claw for just four or five wins a year.

Is there no end to the humiliation? It's enough to give a franchise and a city a complex, almost 20 years in the making.

"With Browns fans, there's a bond there between them and that team,'' Accorsi said. "They go so far back together, and they're so loyal. I think what sets it apart in a unique way, and what makes it more difficult is that from 1946 to '90, all they did was win, in varying degrees. They went to the playoffs a lot over the years. It's a proud history, and sure it's not the same franchise. But in a sense it is. It's the same name, same uniform, it's still the Browns.

"That's what makes it tougher I think. All that success makes this harder to take. For a long time in Cleveland, when the Indians were down after 1954, there wasn't anything else really, but the Browns. And while the new stadium's wonderful, there was nothing like that old stadium packed with 81,000 on a cold December afternoon. Nothing like it, the way it held the noise inside. It's been such a passionate love affair with that team in that city."

When the real 2014 NFL draft -- not the movie version -- rolls around in early May, the Browns will again hold a high pick, at No. 4. They've got the No. 26 selection as well, thanks to the heist that was the Trent Richardson trade with the Colts last October. And Cleveland will again likely be searching for a new franchise quarterback to build around. The Browns' draft picks won't even have been alive in 1989, the year Cleveland won its most recent division title.

In the movie, Costner's character rolls the dice by trading a whopping three first-round choices to acquire the coveted No. 1 pick after the franchise experienced a 13-year "unlucky streak.'' The move is designed to save football in Cleveland and give the moribund team a spark. OK, so some of it sounds realistic.

"Three first-round picks?'' asked Accorsi. "Well, I gave up two [first-rounders] to go from No. 4 to No. 1 to get Eli [Manning from San Diego on draft day 2004]. And that worked out.''

But this is the Browns. And in Cleveland the past two decades, things just seem to have a way of not working out.

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