Take a bow, Browns fans. After years of torment, ridicule, bags over heads, a parade “celebrating” a winless campaign, and a Factory of Sadness, you have earned the right to be excited for this season, and the season after that, and the season after that. Yes, there was already excitement brewing in the air over Cleveland after the team’s first playoff appearance since 2002 and first playoff win since 1994. However, after the addition of Jadeveon Clowney and a draft that most analysts consider one of the best in the league, that excitement is starting to muster into expectation, perhaps, dare I say, even Super Bowl talk.
Cleveland fans 100 percent deserve this. While other fanbases have endured long playoff droughts and/or constant failure to live up to expectations, most can look back fondly on past successes in the Super Bowl Era. After being ridiculed, a Bears fan can respond with “Well, the ’85 Bears are still the greatest defense to ever take the field.” A Jaguars fan can boast about their 2017 AFC Championship Game appearance. Even Lions fans can brag about the incredible levels of talent that Megatron and Barry Sanders put on display before retiring early. But Browns fans...what can they be prideful of? Losing to an injured Patrick Mahomes in the Divisional Round? Having a perennial All-Pro left tackle waste his career protecting a carousel of quarterback busts? Getting Peyton Hillis on the cover of Madden 12? Saying goodbye to their team only to watch it win championships in another city? Or once having the greatest coach of all-time at the helm of their team? No. Those are hollow victories in the face of what other franchises have achieved since Super Bowl I.
Yet, the tide has shifted. For the first time since the city was bestowed with an expansion team, the Browns are feared. While Cleveland may not be brought up in the same breath as Kansas City or Buffalo, you can bet those fanbases are keeping an eye on the Dawg Pound. With an already strong defense bolstered with the acquisition of Clowney and the draft selections of CB Greg Newsome and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, as well as an incredible offensive line and backfield duo more dynamic than Batman and Robin, it’s hard to argue against Cleveland not having one of the top rosters, top to bottom, in the NFL.
While there are still some minor holes, such as the lack of a consistent passing-game threat (OBJ isn’t what he used to be; fight me about it) and a green linebacking corps looking for a glue guy in the middle, those issues feel minor in the face of what this franchise has been through.
I’m not a Cleveland Browns fan, but I find it hard, scratch that, damn-near impossible to root against this team in the AFC North. Lamar Jackson is incredibly fun to watch, the Steelers are a model of consistency, and the Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase connection could be the most riveting aerial attack in the division. But I’d gladly watch all of those teams fail to watch the Browns get their first division title since 1989.
What makes sports fun is the territorial nature of rooting for your home team and bagging on every other city. That opportunity to identify with a group of people under one commonality and blindly defend them to your heart’s content is what most sports fans live for. However, when talking with Browns fans in the past (albeit I haven’t spoken with one since Baker Mayfield was drafted in 2018), I’d never seen a fanbase so numb to disappointment and unwilling to defend their team. When hit with “Man, your Browns are playing terribly,” the response was usually “Yeah. I know. I’ve given up on hoping they’ll make the playoffs.” Those loyal diehards have been through the wringer. They’ve had to hang their heads for far too long. But now, when the sun rises in Cleveland, it shines on all those fans who stuck with their squad through the last 50 years.