Why wasn't last time the last time?
On sunk costs, and loving a team that you hate.
I’m on a group email thread with some friends. There are seven of us, a collection of college friends, high school friends, and high school friends of college friends. The thread’s been running, nonstop, for somewhere around fourteen years. In the early days, we’d change the email subject every couple of days, someone in the group electing to start a new clever subject whenever we reached critical mass in a thread. After a while, that daily attention to detail gave way to inertia, to threads simply titled “Re: 2019”, rolling over into a new one each time it hit 100 emails.
We’re in different lines of work, scattered around the country, and we don’t see each other nearly as often as we once used to. In the fourteen years that we’ve been emailing, we’ve gone from freshly graduated young dipshits eagerly deficient at our first post-collegiate jobs to middle-aged senior managers, business owners, landlords, the kind of people telling our younger selves to get back to work and stop coming to work hungover. There have been, by my rough count, six marriages, nine children, eighteen or twenty job changes (most of them me, to be honest), five cross-country moves, and tens of thousands of emails ranging from the utterly mundane to to the life-changing.
We retain one thing in common: we’re all fans of the Cleveland Browns.
In that time, the Browns have had nine head coaches. The most successful, if we’re going by mere winning percentage, was Gregg Williams, who tallied a 5-3 record in 2018 as the interim replacement for the fired-at-midseason Hue Jackson, himself holder of a mathematically remarkable 3-36-1 record. Despite this brief flash of success, Williams’ reputation as a hothead, a dirty coach, and an all-around unpleasant person meant that he was not retained. Instead, the Browns elevated assistant coach Freddie Kitchens, who was fired this month after a 6-10 season that was much worse than those numbers might suggest. The most total wins by a coach in that span, by the way? That honor belongs to Romeo Crennel, whose 24 wins in 64 games earned the series of subject lines in the header image above by fall 2008. Mike Pettine. Pat Shurmur. Rob Chudzinski. Eric Mangini. They’re starting to blur together into a composite sketch of a coach, a faceless man in a windbreaker who’s just dropped his fifth in a row in November.
Yesterday, the Browns announced the hiring of their newest field boss, Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Kevin Stefanski.
By some accounts he’s a talented young football coach, someone the Vikings may well miss when he’s gone. Perhaps he will turn around the Browns in 2020, harnessing the deep and talented roster in a way the cleary-in-over-his-head Kitchens could not. He probably won’t. There’s nothing that lights up the email thread — slower than it once was before we had mortgages and kids and lower back pain, but still active — more than the anger, despair and disappointment the Cleveland Browns’ management elicits.
“Ugh. Stefanski. Not inspired.”
“Another Shurmur, Chud or Pettine hire. Meh.”
“He’ll be gone in a year.”
“This ownership has earned zero benefit of the doubt. And I have zero faith in their ability to hire the right people.”
“A garbage hire from an exec who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and an owner who’s too fucking dumb to see that he’s getting hoodwinked by the exec.”
A quick plumbing of the archives uncover a moderate flash of guarded optimism upon Jimmy Haslam’s purchase of the team in 2012, as he was taking over from the chronically inept and much-resented Lerner family. (The same thread has one of us also optimistic at Terry Bowden’s hiring at the University of Akron. Even in a group this sad, one of us found a way to have extra pain.)
Yesterday, one of us played devil’s advocate.
“Who would’ve made you guys happy?”
No one had a good answer to that question, because to be a fan of a team like the Cleveland Browns is to know that every path presents an option for failure. There was early enthusiasm for a pedigreed hire like former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who instead decided to sign with the Dallas Cowboys. There was a growing swell among some fans for longtime New England assistant coach Josh McDaniels, despite his own head-coaching failures and the checkered reputation of Bill Belichick’s lieutenants when no longer under his Hall of Fame umbrella. A handful of talented assistants in Kansas City’s Eric Bienemy, Buffalo’s Brian Daboll, Baltimore’s Greg Roman or San Francisco’s Robert Saleh all entered the discussion.
What you know when you know a team like this is that the talented assistant will be unable of managing a team on their own; the old hand will be tired, stuck in his ways, unable to recapture the fire of previous successes. The analytics will fail, as will the old-school football minds. The young players will be too young, the veterans too old, and the guys in their prime just not terribly prime.
So why stay with it? Those email threads are full of threats to walk away, threats to not care anymore, and numerous utterances of the phrase “fuck this team”. None of us live in Cleveland anymore; only two even live in Ohio. There’s no need to keep dealing with an organization that has so roundly, consistently, and egregiously disappointed us over a significant chunk of our lives. We could walk away tomorrow, become fans of our local Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots or Baltimore Ravens. There’s nothing linking us to this godforsaken team except for each other.
That’s the problem with fandom, though, isn’t it?
It’s more than just a team. The NFL is a corrupt, bloated megalith of an organization, one that leaches tax dollars from communities and only gives a fraction of it back in jobs and dollars created. The Browns specifically are run by a blithering idiot who’s also a billionaire thief, a man just clever enough to defraud thousands of customers but not clever enough to not get caught, a man who can look at seven years of bad decisions he’s made and still believe he’s the one who can decide his way out of it. Football itself is a terrible sport, one I love dearly, but a violent and dangerous game wrapped in the worst militaristic pomp we can offer as a country, a game that leaves many players battered and broken by the age I’m trying to convince myself is still young.
It’s a link, though. It’s that link that keeps us hanging on, even if some of us have entire years where we’re too angry or disenchanted to watch more than a handful of games. We don’t have a lot in common anymore, and we don’t have nearly as much time to talk about it as we once did. What we have is a team — our hometown’s team, our parents’ team, our oldest friends’ team — even if we hate it more than we love it most of the time. As much as I’d love to give it up, wash my hands of them and move on with my life, I’d be removing myself from something that provides a connection where few others remain.
Maybe one day we’ll be able to have an email subject line that reads “Re: Super Bowl Champs”. Maybe that day it’ll all feel worth it, like the sport rewarded us the way it’s supposed to.
That day will probably never come. At the very least, wanting Kevin Stefanski fired will give us something to talk about.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Thanks for reading. Have you missed some of the recent emails? Catch up on things like Friday’s food-drink-and-more compendium, Wednesday’s love letter to screwing things up in the kitchen, or last week’s non-email post where I envision Prince Harry’s future in American football. There’s a lot to enjoy around here — I hope you stick around!