Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Getting a good feeling

When the National Football League realized its mistake in permitting the venerable Cleveland Browns franchise to move to Baltimore in 1996 and allowed the city to reenter the league in 1999, one of the sport’s greatest fans bases in sports rejoiced.

Football was back where it belonged. Back where passion and emotion made the sport the No. 1 topic of conversation 12 months a year. The three-year absence made the heart grow even fonder.

That passion has been tested severely – sometimes maddeningly, often times brutally  – in the 19 seasons since that joyous day when the NFL announced football was returning to Cleveland.

Losing football, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the league for too long a time, became a constant on the lakefront. Year after year, season after season, optimism reigned on opening day only to disappear by midseason, if not sooner.

Next year became next year became next year until it became apparent the constant losing wasn’t going away. It became a withering annual journey into misery and disappointment.

Front offices came and went. Frustrated fans, looking to glom onto anything that was different from what had preceded it, blindly put their faith in whomever the dysfunctional ownership chose to seek a new direction.

The team meandered aimlessly in the desert of desolation on an annual basis. Losing became commonplace. It was, in fact, expected as Cleveland became the perennial laughingstock of the NFL, taking up almost permanent residence in the basement.

That once passionate, emotional Cleveland fan base began shrinking. The only things that changed from year to year were the names and faces of the players. Losing was the only constant.

Now we embark on year 20 of the resurrection and for the first time since that inaugural expansion season all those years ago, I am experiencing a strange feeling. It’s strange because it is filled with optimism.

The realist in me finally sees a Cleveland Browns football team this year with more talent than probably since they were the old Cleveland Browns a generation ago. It sure looks like the beginning of a turnaround.

I am a pessimist by nature. My glass is always half empty. But I have that feeling about this team after General Manager John Dorsey reimaged it with some savvy moves.

Still not crazy about his selecting quarterback Baker Mayfield with the top overall pick in the last college draft, though. But Mayfield most likely won’t see the field this year, anyway, so that doesn’t color my thinking.

All that talent needs now is a good head coach. And that is where my optimism stumbles somewhat. Not a Hue Jackson fan at all, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

We know he can’t coach a team with a roster whose talent quotient arguably was the worst in the league the last two seasons. This season, he will not have the luxury of leaning on that excuse.

I get the feeing he will be awarded little latitude with this front office this season. Dorsey knows this is a far better football team than it was seven months ago and will not tolerate a slow start out of the gate.

This is now a football team that needs to hear a different voice calling the shots. Not someone dragging along the reputation of a loser as a head coach.

I’m still trying (and failing) to understand Jimmy Haslam III’s rationale for bringing Jackson back. The hope here is he doesn’t screw it up so badly in the first month that it would be difficult to recover.

Nevertheless, my optimism remains. It’s not the kind of optimism that envisions a .500 season, which would be borderline remarkable after last season’s winless efforts. But the competitive level of the 2018 Browns will be exponentially higher.

If nothing else, this season will serve as a springboard for – and fuel – the comeback the great fans of this franchise have dreamed of for 20 years.

For the first time in two decades, I finally feel it in my aging bones.

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