The Cleveland Browns’ reputation suffered multiple blows this week. Of course, zero times zero is still zero, so perhaps desperate decades called for what-the-heck?! measures such as starting No. 3 quarterback Brian Hoyer and trading No. 1 running back Trent Richardson 18 games after moving up to select him third overall in the 2012 draft.
If indeed the Browns are tanking the season, as many have accused them of repeatedly since Wednesday, the Vikings are fine and dandy with that. Both teams are 0-2, but one of them for sure isn’t looking to 2014 heading into the Vikings’ home opener at Mall of America Field on Sunday.
“I played against the Browns in Cleveland and you definitely can feel the frustration level in what they call the ‘Dawg Pound,’ ” said Vikings receiver and former Cincinnati Bengal Jerome Simpson. “Those people really want their team to win. But it’s going to be tough on them this week. We’re in the same boat. One team is going to be 1-2 and one team is going to be 0-3. I believe the Minnesota Vikings are going to be the team that’s 1-2.”
If the Vikings win, it won’t be the first time they’ve reaped the rewards of a decision the Browns made regarding Richardson. A year ago, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman convinced then-Browns President Mike Holmgren and then-Browns General Manager Tom Heckert that he had other teams interested in trading up to the No. 3 spot for Richardson. Not wanting to risk losing Richardson, Holm- gren and Heckert sent the Vikings picks in the fourth, fifth and seventh rounds to move up one spot.
After picking Matt Kalil, the player they wanted all along, at No. 4, the Vikings used the fourth-rounder on receiver Jarius Wright, the fifth-rounder on special teamer Robert Blanton and traded the seventh-rounder to Tennessee for a seventh-rounder this season. Spielman then used that seventh-rounder this season in a package deal to move back into the first round and select receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who opened last week’s game at Chicago with a franchise-record 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Glum in Cleveland
Not a bad haul. Especially for a running back who fell out of favor immediately when the Browns once again changed decision-makers, bringing in CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Michael Lombardi after last season. Banner is the sixth person with final say on personnel that the Browns have had since they returned to the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999 after a three-season hiatus. First-year NFL coach Rob Chudzinski is the seventh head coach in those 15 seasons, while Jimmy Haslam III, embattled CEO of the Pilot Flying J travel center company that’s fighting a legal battle over fraud accusations, is the team’s third owner in that time.
“I think the mood in this town is frustration; total frustration,” said Doug Dieken, who played left tackle for the Browns from 1971 to 1984 and has served as the team’s radio analyst ever since. “The Browns got a pass for a couple years when they came back. But it’s been one coach after another. One quarterback after another.
“There’s no consistency. We try something for a couple years. It doesn’t work. Then we go someplace else. A lot of times, there have been rightful reasons we’ve bailed on a plan. But by the same token, at some point you’ve got to find the right combination of coach and general manager and stick with it.”
Firing some shots
The divide between Holmgren’s and Banner’s philosophies couldn’t be wider. That was obvious this week when the Browns traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round pick and then elevated Hoyer, who has one NFL start, ahead of No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell, who has 71. Chudzinski then announced that Hoyer might keep the job even after starter Brandon Weeden, another first-round pick of Holmgren’s a year ago, comes back from an injured thumb on his throwing hand.
Earlier this week, Holmgren told Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle that he would have quit or been fired as head coach if his team traded its “best player” two games into a season. Holmgren also questioned the Browns’ motives and suggested the players left behind are doing the same as they try to prepare for the Vikings.
“You can’t tell me some of those players aren’t asking some of the questions you and I are asking,” Holmgren said to the radio host. “They were friends with [Richardson]. It’s too wild. This sort of thing doesn’t happen, and it happened, so asking questions about it would be natural.”
Banner responded quickly, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Mike’s entitled to his opinion. He ran the team for three years and was able to do what he believed in. It’s our turn trying to do what we think is right.”
Ho-hum. Just another changing of the brain trust in Cleveland.
Looking for No. 1
Who knows where this latest twist will end. But if the Browns do tank the final 14 games and take it to suspicious levels, there’s a tailor-made name ready for the controversy: “Bridgewatergate.” Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick on May 8, and the Browns have been searching unsuccessfully for a franchise quarterback every waking moment since 1999.
“I don’t want to tip our hands, but I think [the Richardson trade] puts us in a very good position,” said Banner, who now has 10 picks in next year’s draft. “I think we’re positioning ourselves to build the kind of team that is good and sustainable.”
On Sunday, Hoyer will become the Browns’ 19th different starting quarterback since 1999. Failures at that position are key to the team going 73-153 in that time. That record includes 11 seasons of double-digit losses, including a current five-year streak of 11 or more losses. The Browns haven’t made the playoffs since 2002 and haven’t won a playoff game since 1994.
Jinx is a popular word in Cleveland, where there have been no championships in a major sport since the Browns won the 1964 NFL title. As far as Super Bowls go, Cleveland is 0-0 as the only NFL city that hasn’t played in or hosted one.
“Wow,” said Vikings practice squad receiver Adam Thielen, a native Minnesotan who grew up rooting for all the Twin Cities sports teams. “1964? That’s crazy. Of course, I was born in 1990 so I don’t have any memory of our last championship [1991 Twins] either.”
Cleveland is where Bill Belichick was a sub-.500 coach before moving on and becoming possibly the greatest coach in NFL history. It’s where the Browns were really good when John Elway was really great. It’s where the Cavaliers were really good when Michael Jordan was really great. It’s where Jose Mesa, a reliever with 321 career saves, blew a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.
“We have more two- and three-word [phrases] for heartbreak than any other city there is,” Dieken said. “ ‘Red right 88,’ ‘The Drive,’ ‘The Fumble,’ ‘The Shot,’ ‘The Blown Save.’ It’s a little bit of everything. And it’s to the point that if you were to write a book on Cleveland, you’d stop and say, you just can’t make [it] up.”
The misery goes on
LeBron James used “The Decision” to take his talents to South Beach, where he’s won two NBA titles. The late Art Modell took his team to Baltimore, renamed it the Ravens and remained owner long enough to hoist one of the team’s two Lombardi trophies.
In 1995, the original Browns selected Ohio State linebacker Craig Powell as their final first-round draft pick. In 1996, the Ravens’ two first-rounders were Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis played 17 seasons. Powell played 14 games and didn’t start a one.
“I don’t believe in jinxes, and I’m a guy who went to Three Rivers Stadium to play the Steelers 14 times and never won,” Dieken said. “People always talked about the ‘Three Rivers Jinx.’ We had priests [bless us]. Every time we’d lose, [Modell] had us stay in a new hotel in Pittsburgh. I could have worked in the chamber of commerce in Pittsburgh because I’ve seen all their hotels.”
All about talent
Of course, the Steelers were winning four Super Bowls during the decade that the superstitious Browns spent shopping for hotels in Pittsburgh. Three decades later, the Browns would help the rival Steelers tack on two more titles and another Super Bowl appearance.
In one of the more painful of their many quarterback misjudgments, the Browns selected tight end Kellen Winslow II sixth overall in 2004. Six picks later, the Steelers took an Ohio-born kid named Ben Roethlisberger.
“You can talk about jinxes all you want,” Dieken said. “But at the end of the day, it all comes down to who has the best ballplayers and coaching staffs. Until you get that combination, you aren’t going to be competitive year in and year out.”
Obviously, the Browns want to compete. Whether or not that includes this season is a question that likely will be debated long after Sunday’s game against the Vikings.