LONDON – The NFL’s campaign to promote American football in London will continue today. Strangely, the campaign involves the Cleveland Browns, as the NFL executes the marketing equivalent of bringing a ferret on a first date.
Imagine a nation that loves a sport named football that it considers superior, a nation that once could have accurately claimed to be the seat of civilization. Now imagine telling those citizens, particularly residents of one of the world’s greatest cities, that their lives would be improved by a visit from the Cleveland Browns, America’s answer to the question, “What did football look like before the invention of the forward pass?”
The NFL’s strategy is obvious: Capture even a sliver of the massive UK television audience, and television contracts will be worth even more billions.
So why send the Browns?
They’re not just bad. They’re predictably bad. Historically bad. They have won more than five games once since 2007, when they won seven in 2014. They have won four games since the end of the 2015 season. They have lost 22 of their past 23 games.
They haven’t played in a playoff since 2002, won a playoff game since 1994 or competed in a conference championship game since 1989. They have never played in a Super Bowl.
Translated from Olde English, “Cleveland Browns” means “Vikings fans have nothing to whine about.”
The Browns are 0-7 this season, and the version of the team you will see Sunday is by far its worst version of the season. The Browns’ best player this decade, left tackle Joe Thomas, was lost for the season last week. Their best young player, defensive end Myles Garrett, won’t play because of a concussion.
“Well, I don’t think they’re going to play with 10 guys,” Vikings quarterback Case Keenum said.
Who could tell?
The Browns’ only salvation is that they have a tremendous young quarterback around whom to build in Carson Wentz.
Oh, that’s right — the Browns traded the pick with which they could have drafted Wentz, the phenom from North Dakota State, to Philadelphia for a bunch of draft picks.
The Browns have missed on opportunities to draft Dak Prescott, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and Deshaun Watson. DeShone Kizer will start Sunday despite having been benched during each of his past three starts.
The Browns have played 11 starting QBs since 2013. The list is rated R, for regrettable: Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Robert Griffin III, Cody Kessler, Kizer and Kevin Hogan.
The Browns aren’t bad in a quaint way, like the pre-championship Chicago Cubs. They’re bad in the way that a Steven Seagal movie is bad: It might be violent, but at least it’s nonsensical.
Their defensive coordinator, Gregg “Two Gs as in Thuggish” Williams, coached the Saints players who brutalized Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC title game, and the Rams players who tried to knock out Bridgewater at TCF Bank Stadium in 2015, which led to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer screaming obscenities at officials from the sideline.
Zimmer played nice this week, saying Williams’ defense is playing “clean” this season, but he probably didn’t mean it.
For Zimmer this week, the Browns are more of a motivational challenge than a coaching challenge. How can he tell his players that they can’t overlook the Browns and maintain credibility? Then again, Zimmer said Thursday that he wasn’t sure Keenum would start at quarterback this week, so he has become comfortable with misdirection.
For a Vikings team in contention, during a season in which they may have as much chance as any NFC team of making a playoff run, the Browns are a gift card, redeemable for one easy midseason victory.
For the NFL, promoting the Browns is, to use an British phrase, a spot of bother. Maybe the league can sell it as one of those American television comedies that are a bit too obvious for the English palate, especially when you add the laugh track.