There is a palpable irony to having a stadium branded with “FirstEnergy” be barren by the start of the fourth quarter in what is billed as a “rivalry” contest. With wind chill measures in the lowest of double figures and a Cleveland Browns point total stuck at the lowest of offensively-derived possibilities, the death march out of the venue began earlier than any game in recent memory. This wasn’t a stadium-wide attempt at beating traffic. Those who decided to not let their previously purchased tickets become a sunk cost were not in some hurry to get home in time for the four o’clock kickoffs1. This was a fan base who had been punched in the face by apathy, walking out on their team at halftime. A cursory look at the scoreboard would signal that the game was well in reach; an extended look at the field of play dictated otherwise.
To this point, these fans had watched their Cleveland Browns cross their opponent’s 40-yard-line just once in two quarters of play. They watched as a text book third-down conversion fell to the ground. They watched favorable field position be turned over by the way of a fumble. Passes soared over the outstrected arms of receivers. Several plays in a row, the football could not be advanced beyond the point of reception as multiple players had to take to the frozen ground in order to make a play. The running game was was a running joke. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t even bother to change out of his sweatpants until well after the National Anthem had come to a close, was barely touched.
In the midst of a game which allegedly pitted bitter rivals against one another, one could make out conversations from a section or two over despite having layers of clothing draped over his or her ears. The din from the south side of the stadium made its way over to the north side without friction. The occasional play would lead to a short cheer or, later, one of the Bronx variety, but the vast majority of fans sat still, quiet, simply baffled at what was unfolding before them. Sure, there were the sparsley placed groups who spent most of their stay by screaming obscenities at the team or officials. As the game progressed on, their voices became more hoarse, their statements, less comprehensible. The very moment that Browns quarterback Jason Campbell went down following a blow to his head, one could feel the life, what little life that had remained to this point, get sucked out of the stadium with savage fierceness—team included. In what was perhaps the most telling of moments, the most raucous of sound came from Browns fans who have made lobbing boos at quarterback Brandon Weeden the very second he steps on to the field an actual event, doing so well before the second-year steward of the struggle bus had the chance to one-hop a pass in the direction of wide receiver Davone Bess.
“All you can do is go out there and march down the field and throw a touchdown—I didn’t hear any boos after I threw that touchdown,” said Weeden, obviously ignoring the fact that the paying fans who did make it to the stadium on Sunday afternoon had vacated the premises long before the marching took place. At some point between Jason Campbell being knocked out of the game, the stadium’s public address announcer not announcing Weeden’s return, and the interception which was returned for a Pittsburgh touchdown, the fans threw in their towels, giving way only to those who stuck around waving their infamous yellow versions.
Throughout the week leading into Sunday’s debacle, fans heard that the players understood what a game against the Steelers meant. “It gets old losing to anybody,” said cornerback Joe Haden. Rob Chudzinski, a fan-turned-head-coach, said that he was doing his best to relay decades of competitive football to a group of kids who simply know that their team was, until Sunday, 1-15 when lining up opposite of Ben Roethlisberger. The team even tried to drape a “The Best of Rivalries” sign over fans in the western end zone. Fittingly, the fans in the Dawg Pound had one of their three panels upside down, rendering their sign more useless than the outright lie being portrayed some 120 yards away.
The procession out of the stadium was as lifeless as the team which took to the field inside. There was the typical angst that comes with another Sunday in Cleveland, but there wasn’t much in the way of cherry picking events that could have changed the outcome. There was, once again, a complete absence of anything resembling a redeemable quality2. There wasn’t anything that referenced Next Week or Next Time or even Next Year. The street-side t-shirt salesmen knew better than to push their products on the frozen and frustrated. It was a toxic parade of bodies, creaking joints wrestling with stairwells and gusts of wind, simply attempting to make their way to the comforts of their own car where things were once again within their control. The team that allegedly had hopes and aspirations regarding postseason play had lost five of their last six games, ushering in a stark reality that even the brisk lakefront winds couldn’t whisk away—the Browns were, once again, in last place within the AFC North with yet another 4-12 record being not just a possibility, but—with a concussed quarterback3 and the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars suddenly winning their last two contests—a probability.
“You can’t come in laying eggs two games in a row and then expect to be a playoff team or anything like that,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “Two blowouts. So no, we’re not ready [for big games]. I’m tired of losing in this manner. It’s a little bit different if you go to the wire and you’re fighting the whole game and you have an opportunity to win the game at the end. But we’re out of the game in the fourth quarter.”
Ward finally said what many have wanted to hear for weeks, that the team’s offense continues to be an anchor of epic proportions. The Hawaii-bound Haden said that regardless of another losing season waiting in the wings, the team has to play for “tape,” or their own individual resumes. Reports of Browns fans being ejected for fighting with other Browns fans are running concurrent with those involving Browns fans and those who dare wear the colors of the opposition. Finger pointing, raspy screaming and obscenities were naturally just the tip of the apathetic iceberg. The product being provided by the Cleveland Browns is such that fans are relegated to take their frustrations out on one another—years of ranting at the team through a variety of mediums have garnered nothing but a frozen farce. The four-play drives, the dreadful execution, the blown assignments, the turnovers…
Soon, the yelling and booing and in-stadium angst will disappear. There will be less fighting and even fewer what-ifs being deliberated. After all, empty orange plastic chairs don’t carry much in the way of a tune.
Image via Scott Sargent/WFNY
- Though given the product they paid to see, seeing actual football being played, for free, doesn’t sound half bad. [↩]
- Save for wide receiver Josh Gordon hauling in what amounted to a record-breaking day as a pass catcher [↩]
- Campbell will go through the NFL’s protocol on head injuries. There is no update on his return. [↩]