Cleveland clears the mess: The NFL laughs seriously

Cleveland clears the mess
The laughing stock of the NFL is serious

By Heiko Oldbod

The Cleveland Browns usually only know the National Football League playoffs from their couch. But now the club is back in the knockout round for the first time since 2003. And now, of all times, important staff is missing due to Covid-19.

In Cleveland they have used the Internet search engines copiously in the past few days. What was going on around the turn of 2002? Who topped the charts in early January 2003? Which film was number one in the cinemas? And which new invention was the really big thing 18 years ago? For the sake of completeness: Eminem with "Lose Yourself", "The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers" and the first mobile phones with cameras.

The reason for this journey through time are the Cleveland Browns. After 6580 days they are finally back in the playoffs of the National Football League. No other NFL club had to wait that long. On January 5, 2003, the Browns lost 33:36 at the Pittsburgh Steelers. And there, just under two hours' drive southeast, they are now making their knockout round comeback.

The decisive win came a week ago, against those Steelers. At the end of the main round, Cleveland prevailed at home 24:22. Pittsburgh spared regular players like playmaker Ben Roethlisberger because the playoff qualification was already over. But that did not spoil the joy in Cleveland. Quarterback Baker Mayfield, for example, spoke of "a very important win for this city".

Cleveland and his Browns – it's a very special relationship. One full of love, but also with a lot of suffering. The greatest successes were four championships in the forties in the All-American Football Conference, a former opponent of the NFL, and four other NFL titles between 1950 and 1964. Later, the Browns were stopped three times within four years on the preliminary stage to the Super Bowl – the last time in 1990. Since then it has been almost all downhill.

Reality has always been despair

What has the club made its great fans suffer. The performances were often as miserable as the weather between October and April in the city on Lake Erie – and often even worse. The Valley of Sorrows was deeper, wider and more agonizing for Browns supporters than for fans of other clubs. When it came to the league's laughing stock, many immediately pointed to Cleveland. No matter how great hope and confidence may have been in the meantime, the reality has always been despair and depression. Often enough, the fans received not only a slap in the face from their Browns, but also a kick in the stomach and a kick in the buttocks. The low point was reached in 1995 when owner Art Modell relocated the club to Baltimore and renamed it Ravens.

Four years later they were back, the Cleveland Browns. And with them defeats and disappointments. One of the few highlights was the 2003 playoff game against Pittsburgh. Of the 288 games since that defeat, the Browns have only won 91. Only in 2007 was there a positive result with 10: 6 wins. And when they thought that the lowest point had been reached in 2016 with a statistic of 1:15, total embarrassment followed a year later. The Browns even lost all games. Only the Detroit Lions have made it in the long history of the NFL.

Pittsburgh has won the Super Bowl twice since the last playoff duel and was in the final a third time. Cleveland wore 26 quarterbacks in the same period. However, the club also found its current playmaker in Baker Mayfield. In North America's professional leagues, clubs do not buy their talents, they are assigned to them. Draft is the name of this annual exchange of the best young players, where the worst teams of the season that has just ended can be the first to access. The aim is to achieve parity as much as possible and avoid boredom like in the Bundesliga with a subscription champion FC Bayern Munich.

After their 0:16 season in 2017, the Browns were allowed to select the first club in the 2018 draft – and decided on Mayfield. He has so far fulfilled the hopes placed in him. Around the 25-year-old Texan, an ambitious and quite remarkable team has emerged in Cleveland, with two excellent running backs in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubbs and a strong defense.

Trainer missing due to Covid-19

But the Cleveland Browns wouldn't be the Cleveland Browns if everything went according to plan in preparation for the most important game since 2003. Head coach Kevin Stefanski will be absent from Pittsburgh. He has Covid-19. And he's not the only one in the club. In addition to Stefanski, four of his special coaches are out – and with Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson two important defenders.

Because of the pandemic, the entire training site was closed on Tuesday. He has not thrown a single ball this week, Mayfield noted on Thursday. One day later it was possible to train again. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry emphasized that all these circumstances "should not be used as an excuse, as something that hinders us", but "still have to find a way to victory". Nevertheless, Cleveland is considered an outsider in Pittsburgh.

The last playoff win was on January 1, 1995. The Browns won against the New England Patriots 20:13. They were coached at the time by a relatively unknown 42-year-old who was previously responsible for special parts of the team at various NFL stations and who was in charge as head coach for the first time in Cleveland. One who, after the turn of the millennium with New England, would reach the Super Bowl nine times and win it six times within 17 years. A certain Stephen William "Bill" Belichick. Kind of typical of the Cleveland Browns.