While the city is steeped in despair over the Cleveland Browns unexpected – and ugly – loss to the Cincinnati Bengals this week, I keep hearing two words in my head: reality check. Last Sunday was a reality check for a fanbase that is still, after all of the disappointments, filled with hope. A fanbase that is ready to believe that THIS is finally our year. A fanbase that keeps coming back year after year because of our love and devotion to the Browns. A fanbase that needed a reality check. And boy did we get one on Sunday.
Like many fans, I spent a lot of time agonizing over everything that went wrong on Sunday; the penalties, the mental lapses, the lack of a run game. But then Tuesday morning arrived and, after a few cups of coffee, I started to think about the reality of the 2011 Cleveland Browns. And I started to be thankful for the loss. No, I don’t accept losing. No, I don’t want to be at the bottom of the NFL power rankings. But the loss has stopped all the crazy talk about how this team was going to surprise everyone and have another “Season of Dreams” and go to the playoffs.
We’ve all heard the talk. Read the tweets on Twitter or check out posts on Facebook. Go into any bar in Cleveland the week before the season starts and you’ll find someone cozied up to a Great Lakes Ale talking about how good the team looks and how the experts are underrating our team. Well, this year we need to remain calm and be realistic about them. The NFL lockout may have effected all 32 teams, but some have suffered more than others and clearly the Browns have suffered the most.
Other NFL teams returned to the field this year with the same basic group of players, coaches, and schemes. We changed everything. New head coach, new offensive scheme, new defense. This would have been difficult with a NORMAL offseason, but with the shortened practice time caused by the lockout, this team needs more time to gel. It needs more time to work out the kinks and learn the ins-and-outs of the new system. And fans with high expectations can put pressure on a team that could cause everything to come crushing down.
Did I mention the injuries yet? Lost our punter to a torn Achilles before the season started. After a really bad day caused by a back injury during warmups, we’ve lost his replacement. Then, just when I thought that this team finally, FINALLY, had an offensive line that would dominate the line of scrimmage, we lose Eric Steinbach. Oy. This town is learning just how valuable the O-line is, just how much it matters that the guys have time to work together, become a unit. We had a solid unit that is now learning to play with a new anchor and they need time.
I saw and heard some crazy stuff this summer after the Indians got off to an amazing 30-15 start. For a while, this town had Indian Fever again. Everyone was clamoring for the front office to find a bat, another pitcher, so we could make a playoff run. Fans completely ignored the REALITY that as much as we want a winner, the Tribe was playing with AAA talent due to a DL that was packed with most of the Opening Day lineup. Before the season started, fans were hoping for a .500 team. After that start, we had delusions of grandeur and went a little nuts. Reality has set in, the Tribe is out of the pennant race, and people are back to where they were in April, just happy again for .500.
I don’t want to see that happen to the Browns. I want fans to support them while understanding that the rebuilding process is just that: a process. Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert have been clear that the plan is to build through the draft. That takes time. For them, this year is about evaluating Colt McCoy. Period. If he shows that he is our franchise quarterback (and I think he will), then they can take the next steps in drafting offensive weapons and checking out the free agent market. Until then, it makes no sense to bring high-priced talent to town.
So I appreciate the reality check that I got on Sunday. Absolutely I want to see more wins, at least eight this year, but I am willing to measure the team’s improvement in other ways. Less penalties and more offense would be a nice start. And if you hear me talking about making a run at the division and going to the playoffs, feel free to give me another reality check with a smack upside the head. Then again, this is football and anything can happen. What if…