Only in Cleveland, where even good times get spoiled

Back in January of 2018, Cleveland Browns fan Chris McNeil organized the “Perfect Season Parade” to “celebrate” the team’s just completed 0-16 season, just the second such campaign of futility in NFL history.

Designed to be equal parts comic and cathartic, the parade’s downtown route looped in the shape of a zero (“the no victory lap,” it was dubbed). The 3,000 or so fans who came brought signs, flags and even tombstones with the names of failed Browns quarterbacks on them.

There was an ambulance. There was a hearse. There was an afternoon of emoting about what it's like to root for such a woebegone franchise.

“When it comes to the Browns,” McNeil said this week, “you have to either laugh or cry.”

That was a day for both. No one thought the dueling emotions would carry over to when the Browns’ fortunes eventually turned, such as this weekend when Cleveland’s 18-year playoff drought ends with a wild-card game in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Yet here we are.

Not long after Cleveland’s Week 17 victory secured the long-awaited playoff bid, fate delivered another gut-punch to Browns fans. News broke that two key players as well as head coach Kevin Stefanski and two assistants would have to miss the game after testing positive for COVID-19.

The virus would also prohibit any practices heading into the game — the Browns actually haven't practiced together in two and a half weeks.

What says Cleveland Browns football more than a playoff game minus the head coach and any practices?

“It’s like ‘The Monkey’s Paw,’ ” said McNeil, referencing the old short story about how even wishes coming true can carry unexpected consequences. “You wish so hard and so long for the Browns to just make the playoffs and then when they finally do, what happens?”

McNeil could only sigh.

“Classic Browns,” he said.

It really is.

Whether it prevents Cleveland from upsetting Pittsburgh (the Steelers are 6-point favorites) remains to be seen. It sure doesn’t help though. And in the interim, it took some of the thrill out of the build-up to a game that was a long, long time coming.

Cleveland Browns fans celebrate after the team defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Cleveland Browns fans celebrate after the team defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers to reach the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. (AP)
A Cleveland Browns fan watches the "Perfect Season" parade, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Cleveland. The Browns became the second team in NFL history to lose 16 games in a season. In joining the 2008 Detroit Lions in a shameful loser's club, the Browns have found a new low in what has been nearly two decades of disgrace since returning as an expansion franchise in 1999. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
A Cleveland Browns fan watches the "Perfect Season" parade on Jan. 6, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Cleveland hasn’t won a playoff game since 1994, when its coach was Bill Belichick. He only coached the Browns one more season though, before later leading the greatest dynasty in league history.

The franchise has never made a Super Bowl, unless you count when the team moved to Baltimore in 1996 and then morphed into a two-time champion and one of the best run organizations in the league. Oops.

The “Browns” were reincarnated in 1999 but they’d posted just two winning seasons before this one and averaged just 4.8 victories a season.

Things were so bad for so long that the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger was technically the winningest quarterback in the history of Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium despite playing just one game a year there. Baker Mayfield finally won his 12th game as a starter at the stadium earlier this year to pass Big Ben and give an actual Cleveland player the Cleveland record.

So of course the Browns would finally get its act together only to have the rug (potentially) pulled out from under it just when the fun part began.

“Only in Cleveland,” said Anthony Lima, co-host of the morning show on 92.3 The Fan. “That’s what we say, ‘Only in Cleveland.’

“You can’t just give us 24 hours to revel in the thrill of the first playoff trip in 18 years? No?” Lima continued. “And, oh, it’s Stefanski, the guy who is the most responsible for it. O.I.C. That’s what this is.”

Stefanski, 38, is in his first year on the job. He immediately turned a talented, but undisciplined mess, into a professional operation and an 11-win team. His presence alone has created a level of confidence and interest in football-mad Northeast Ohio that hasn’t existed in decades.

“It’s only a wild-card game but I expect television ratings will be the same as Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” said Lima, referencing the LeBron James era with the Cavaliers. “Football is just so entrenched in this region.”

Except Stefanski won’t be there, he’ll be replaced by special teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Two other assistants are also out, as well as Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge. On sports talk radio, fans tried to brainstorm putting Stefanski in one of those dining bubbles or something. The NFL isn’t going to go for that though.

Perhaps just as important, the team’s facility has been closed for weeks due to waves of virus outbreaks. Mayfield said Thursday that he hasn’t even thrown a ball this week.

“We’ll just play the hand we’re dealt and go down there with a great attitude,” Mayfield said.

If the Browns are going to do this, they’ll do it the hard way. Maybe it’s the only way.

“We’re used to it in Cleveland,” McNeil said. “Every time something good happens, the pendulum swings back. Look, football is the toy aisle of life and with all the important things going on, that’s worth saying.

“But still … after 18 years?”

Only in Cleveland.

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