After starting the season with grandiose Super Bowl hopes, the Cleveland Browns wrapped up a losing season this past Sunday. The team had won a playoff game the year before and made key signings and draft picks to improve their defense during the offseason. However, the Browns failed to live up to expectations and finished with an 8–9 record, bringing their fans back into an all-too-familiar pit of despair. The pain was felt in Oberlin, just 30 miles southwest of the Browns home field at FirstEnergy Stadium, by many loyal but disappointed fans.
Assistant Athletics Director for Communications Mike Mancini had some thoughts on the season.
“In a word: disappointing. I, like most fans, had high hopes for this past season after finally having success in 2020,” Mancini said.
However, he still holds out some hope for next season.
“I do think they have a strong chance to return to their 2020 form. Hopefully, Baker [Mayfield] can get healthy and be more consistent and look like the guy he was for the final stretch of 2020, but I do think the organization needs to bring in another QB who could potentially challenge him if things go sideways early,” Mancini said.
Longtime Browns fan and Oberlin resident J.J. Schaum has seen the few highs and many lows of the team. He first became a Browns fan during their 1980 run in which they were known as the “Kardiac Kids” for their knack for pulling off close victories. The magical season ended when they lost to the Oakland Raiders in the playoffs after an infamous interception known as “Red Right 88.” More heartbreak was soon to follow.
In 1986, the Browns, led by star quarterback Bernie Kosar, went 12–4, which is the best record in the AFC. They seemed poised to make a Super Bowl run for the first time in team history.
“We had home field throughout the playoffs that year, and Bernie was great,” Schaum said. “It just looked like it was going to be our year.”
However, John Elway and the Denver Broncos ruined Cleveland’s dreams in dramatic fashion. Denver’s overtime win was made possible when Elway took the team 98 yards down the field in 15 plays to tie the game at the end of regulation. This moment is simply known as “The Drive.”
The following year, the Browns lost to the Broncos again in the playoffs after a moment known as “The Fumble.” As if the playoff heartbreaks of the 1980s weren’t enough, the team was relocated to Baltimore to become the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. Three years later, when the new Cleveland Browns expansion team became a reality, no one could have guessed Cleveland football would be able to sink any lower.
In the 23 seasons since 1999, the Browns have had three winning seasons and one playoff win. In the 2016 and 2017 seasons, they went a combined 1–31 with 2017’s winless season, being only the second ever 0–16 season in NFL history.
Mancini finds this run particularly frustrating.
“It is not uncommon for a team to go from last in their division to first the following year. Just look at what the Bengals did this year,” he said. “Somehow the Browns haven’t been able to do that since their return to the league 23 seasons ago.”
“I remember talking with my other friends who have kids, and we’d ask ourselves if raising them as Cleveland Browns fans was a form of child abuse,” Schaum said. “When you think of all the heartbreak that Cleveland sports have caused, it’s definitely a questionable decision.”
Despite the Browns’ losses, something always brings Schaum back to keep supporting the team.
“It’s blind hope,” he said. “I’ve always said, ‘How much does winning six Super Bowl titles mean for Patriots or Steelers fans?’ Just getting to the Super Bowl would mean more to Browns fans that have suffered all this time.”
Still, this hope sometimes fades. Schaum recalled being given a Browns shirt by his son that read, “Maybe not in my lifetime,” referring to the team’s lack of a Super Bowl title.
Professor of Philosophy Todd Ganson, another Browns supporter, holds a more optimistic view of the team. He is excited about the team’s recent front office hirings which includes former Executive Vice President Sashi Brown and current General Manager Andrew Berry, who both value football analytics. He was also excited about the hiring of Chief of Staff Callie Brownson, who made history in 2020 when she became the first woman in NFL history to act as a positional coach in a game.
“All of these hirings are in line with the team’s commitment to diversity and to analytics, understood as data-driven decision making,” Ganson said.
Even with the disappointing 2021 season, Ganson still has faith that the front office is competent.
“This season was disappointing as compared to last season, but it really came down to being on the bad side of variance here and there,” Ganson said. “I have great confidence in the team’s decision makers. I believe they currently have the smartest front office in the league, and by a considerable margin.”
While Ganson’s outlook is relatively optimistic, and he is excited about the team’s executives and certain star players, there is one thing he and most Browns fans agree on.
“I wouldn’t say it’s at all likely that they will win a Super Bowl in my lifetime,” he said.