There they stood in their white robes, their haunting ways bordering on persistent and obsessive. Just as Dickens wrote some hundred and fifty years ago, they were merely remnants of themselves—”now a thing with one arm, now with one leg.” Those who were cast aside, neglected, passed over or left for dead, they showed flashes from the days of yesteryear when times were happier and knees were considerably less creaky. They fought for inches, crossed goal lines, hurdled would-be tacklers, blanketed star receivers and hauled in interceptions. It was a collective stomp on what fleeting ounce of beating soul remained, all for the sake of repentance. They were the Ghosts of Cleveland Past.
The writing was long on the locker room wall. The penman was Kellen Winslow Jr., the former Cleveland Brown tight end who was sent packing—by the very man who came by the way of the Jets—after five seasons and too many headaches. Winslow was a shell of his former self, but would waste little time in throwing the first of what would be many jabs. There aren’t many opportunities for a reserve player on a six-win team to verbally spar, so the gregarious son of a Hall of Famer took his shot once the four-win Browns appeared on the schedule. “Who’s going to guard me over there? Nobody,” Winslow said, challenging a defensive unit that allowed 21 fourth-quarter points one week earlier. Winslow would play in just 28 of 77 total snaps for the New York Jets, hauling in a mere three catches for just 35 yards—hardly a blip on the box score. Two of his receptions, however, would leave marks on what would ultimately be a victory for the veteran.
The first would be a mid-field hurdling of one of the most improved players on the Browns defense in Buster Skrine, the extra yardage not as important as the means by which it was obtained as the young and electric defender went careening out of the frame as the codger with the surgically repaired knees sailed through the air. The second would be a second quarter reception that would cap off a five-play, 79-yard drive in just 34 seconds. Winslow would haul in the ball and drag Browns defenders down to the two-yard line, allowing for his team to tally three easy points as time expired, his team no longer trailing as they went into the half.
For two teams that exist in different regions and play in different divisions, there is incredible amounts of rivalry-like lineage between the Browns of Cleveland and the Jets of New York. A former Jets head coach, the man crowned as Mangenius prior to calling his first defensive scheme, would later become the Browns head coach just days after being fired in the Big Apple. His replacement would be the brother of an (equally) loud-mouthed Cleveland coordinator and it would be that team which would go on to have relative success and multiple appearances in the contest wherein the winner was dubbed champion of the AFC. Then there was the draft day trade where the Browns would send a top-five draft selection to the Jets for several draft selections and players who were undeniably on the declining portion of their respective career arcs but who fit the “mold” for what the Cleveland front office was looking to accomplish at that point in time. The Jets would ultimately overpay for a magazine cover quarterback. The Browns would draft a gritty center from California along with a slew of second-rounders who today share one job between them—David Veikune, an outside linebacker during his time with Cleveland, is now a 28-yaer-old defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Kiss, an expansion team in the Arena Football League.
The memory-laden path that links Cleveland to East Rutherford is marred with woebegone names and what-could-have-beens. The regime with ties to New York is long gone, but the reminiscence remains. The Browns were supposed to be a team on the rise, complete with a roster full of young, talented players on the ascent and a head coach-coordinator combination that was to revolutionize what was lakefront football. The Jets, conversely, were supposed to be a team vying for the first draft selection in 2014, complete with an aging roster of retreads and a quarterback whom 31 other NFL teams refused to touch for much of that weekend back in May.
But as much as Browns fans try to move on, preferably putting this season in the rear view mirror and gearing up for yet another Biggest Offseason Ever, this past Sunday rendered moving on impossible as many of those retreads employed by the Jets had ostensible ties to Cleveland, either through former contractual obligations, former rivalries or former rumors. Of course, there’s also the fact that New York fans are largely insufferable; their instant success following Mangenius’ exit coupled with the perpetual suck that is Cleveland. The fact that they had pieced together a six-win season with other peoples’ leftovers was bad enough. The fact that they would take that six-win season to one of seven victories, doing so largely with players who Cleveland fans all too well, would make it that much worse.
The wonky-kneed Winslow, with his fist-pumping and first-down gesturing, would soon be rendered a sideshow on the Ghosts of Cleveland Past parade. As the Jets would start the contest off with a head-scratching turnover on downs and two punts, they would soon take a ball 80 yards in 13 plays, the drive ending when their rookie quarterback—arguably one of the worst, if not the worst quarterback to start a game this very Sunday—finding wide receiver David Nelson in the end zone for a six-yard score. Nelson, as you may recall, was given his chance at retribution on the NFL by the Browns, only for the team to decide that they would head into the season with a handful of wide receivers not named David Nelson. While Browns receivers were dropping touchdown passes as if the ball were on fire, it would be Nelson who would convert two of his four receptions for six points a’piece. “It’s crazy because we’ve been practicing those two plays the past six weeks. What you saw today was the product of six weeks of work,” Nelson would say.
Crazy indeed. Between Winslow’s hurdle and Nelson’s entire afternoon, it instantly became apparent that knee cartilage was merely an attainable currency in New York. No motorcycle accident too monumental. No reconstruction too rare. Sunday was a day of rejuvenation, youthful vigor running rampant. All at the expense of the Cleveland Browns.
While the old men would have their moments in the spotlight, they wouldn’t be outdone by a pair of rookies who were, just months ago, tied to the Browns by national pundits across the airwaves—talking heads, published draftniks, you name them, they had the Browns taking West Virginia’s Geno Smith or Alabama’s Dee Milliner. Still in search of a quarterback, it had been rumored by many that Smith would find his way to Cleveland, his ability to play in the cold weather being the biggest of concerns. Looking for an impact defender to aid in defending the pass, it was predicted by some that the Browns, now under Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, the latter being a very big fan of the SEC, could be eying up the player who was considered to be the top cornerback in the draft class in Milliner. The cornerback, however, would fall to ninth overall; the quarterback would suffer even worse fate, falling to the second round despite accepting his much-discussed invitation to the “green room,” the NFL Draft’s version of a live cam operation. Both, naturally, would be selected by the Jets.
Smith, to this point, had looked every bit of the third-round selection he was, often looking overwhelmed and completely overmatched at the NFL level. On this very Sunday, however, he would not even be touched by what was to be a vaunted defensive unit—no sacks, no interceptions, no hits. After nine straight weeks of play that left much to be desired, Smith produced what would arguably be his best contest as a professional, managing his team, making nary a mistake. Milliner, to his credit, undoubtedly played the best game of his young career, blanketing a wide receiver in Josh Gordon who has not only been putting up head-turning numbers, but doing so in the most effortless of ways. While Gordon would haul in six receptions for 97 yards, he was targeted a game-high 16 times; he would drop multiple touchdown passes, large in part to the pressure being provided by the rookie cornerback from Alabama. Lets not forget that Milliner had been benched multiple times this season being asked to play defense against a player who, for much of the season, could only be stopped by penalty-inducing plays.
“We knew he was going to run a lot of digs (and) verts,” said Milliner of Gordon. “Depending on where he was lining up… If he was inside the slot, they were going to try to give it to him and isolate him. We knew those things. Coach called coverages to prevent the big plays that he usually gets.”
Milliner would intercept a pass with just over nine minutes remaining in the third quarter. It would be his first interception as a professional.
While Milliner would play all but two snaps in Sunday’s game, fellow defensive back Ed Reed—formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, released by the God awful Houston Texans earlier this season—would play less than half. It would mark his 22nd-career contest against the Browns. It would also mark his 12th interception against them, adding on to the 357 interception return yards he had amassed against them to this point. A 12-year veteran with nine Pro Bowl appearances under his belt, Reed is essentially the NFL’s Bernie Lomax at this stage, being trotted out by his former defensive coordinator as the cheerleaders dance about. But, as was the case with Winslow and Nelson and Smith and Milliner, the 35-year-old Reed’s clock was quickly turned back as he would haul in what was just his second interception of the season, one that would seal the Browns’ fate as losers of a contest which was undoubtedly winnable.
“At this point in the season when you’re not in the playoff hunt you want to see what you can build off of for next year,” said Nelson of Smith. “The way he played today is going to pay dividends for him this off-season its going to give him confidence, it’s going to give his offense confidence, moving forward to get ready for next year.”
While the Jets rookies and veteran came together, for at least one day, and collectively overachieved all on account of Next Year, it is the Cleveland Browns who were sent home with their sixth straight loss, having failed to win since their bye week, each loss seemingly getting more difficult to stomach. For Browns fans, the end is nearing as the Pittsburgh Steelers—once 0-5, now “in the hunt” for the postseason—represent the only hurdle between the Morning After and yet another season’s plug being pulled once and for all.
Bad news is that as nostalgic as Week 16 was for Clevelanders, Week 17, a game against a team that has destroyed Browns fan hearts for seasons on end, will provide plenty more. Whereas the Jets roster may have been littered with Ghosts of Cleveland’s Past, the potentially playoff-bound Steelers continue to represent the Ghosts of Cleveland’s Present. The Future? Well, that will be determined Next Year. We’ll be waiting.
(Photo by Ron Antonelli/Getty Images)