Finding the Cleveland Misery Tipping Point
Every time I mention in my football column that God hates Cleveland, fans from Buffalo, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Carolina, Houston, San Diego, Tennessee, Arizona, Atlanta and Detroit take it personally. So do Jets fans under 45, Dolphins fans under 40, Bears fans under 35 and Washington fans under 30.
Hey, God doesn’t hate JUST Cleveland! What about my team?
Translation: Around 50 percent of the NFL’s fan base believe God might hold a grudge against their teams. And that number would climb to 75 percent if Patriots fans, Saints fans, Bucs fans, Seattle fans, Indy fans, St. Louis fans and Denver fans hadn’t won Super Bowls in the past 15 years. It’s just one of the ways we handle steady failure. Our favorite team can’t come through, so higher forces must be in play, right? Not having a scientific way to measure which professional fan bases have been tortured the most didn’t stop me from figuring it out in 2010, then again in a follow-up mailbag. Astoundingly, three Cleveland teams cracked the top 10: the Browns (no. 4), the Indians (no. 5) and the Cavaliers (no. 10).1
That was the moment when I realized that, yes, God might actually hate Cleveland. More evidence mounted over the last four years — Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Anthony Bennett, Draft Day and, of course, “The Decision” — until everything seemingly flipped in 2014, with LeBron’s homecoming and a 6-3 Browns start. Of course, it’s Cleveland, so those feel-good vibes didn’t last long. The elephant in the room: Did Cleveland remarry LeBron after his basketball apex had passed? After playing a staggering 40,000 minutes (in just 11 seasons) and carrying four straight Finals teams, LeBron might be battling the long-term effects of a historically ridiculous two-way burden. He’s still great, but he’s not GREAT. And he’s not nearly as overpowering as he used to be. Jordan learned how to compensate for declining athleticism on his last two Bulls teams, so it’s not hopeless. But for the first time, we can see a finish line for LeBron James. You couldn’t see it six months ago.
As for the Browns, their football season imploded after back-to-back home losses against Indianapolis (a mega-giveaway) and Cincy (an ass-kicking). In that Bengals game, Browns hero-in-waiting Johnny Football made his first start, threw two egregious picks, couldn’t generate a single point and played about as confidently as a fan pulled out of the stands. As far as debuts go, Manziel’s first start ranks right up there with Carl Lewis singing the national anthem.
If I were a Browns fan, I’d spend the winter torturing myself about Door A of the 2014 draft (staying put, then taking Sammy Watkins and Teddy Bridgewater) or Door B (trading down once, then landing Odell Beckham Jr., Teddy Bridgewater and Buffalo’s 2015 no. 1), instead of what actually happened with Door C (trading twice to end up with Justin Gilbert, Manziel and Buffalo’s 2015 no. 1).2 If Manziel becomes a hellacious bust — and it’s certainly in play — then the poor Cleveland fans would add yet another “What if?” to their torture belt.
Their 2014 suffering didn’t stop there — after Roger Goodell’s Draft Day cameo doubled as the longest and most inexplicable commissioner cameo in sports movie history, Goodell’s tenure spiraled into complete and utter disgrace. Even seemingly-but-not-really impartial commissioners aren’t immune to Cleveland’s stink! So, with the Factory of Sadness churning out its annual array of holiday tears and fears, I thought we’d swing the collective karma. What if we identified the official “God Hates Cleveland” tipping point? You know, a specific moment in history that makes you say, “Oh yeah, THAT was it! That’s when everything turned!”
If we knew what that moment was and when it happened, could we perform a virtual sports exorcism? Let’s find out! Put on one of those giant oxygen masks like we’re making crystal meth together, throw on a creepy protective raincoat, and wade through Cleveland’s recent sports history with me.
THE BROWNS: Won the 1964 NFL championship, lost the 1965 championship game to Green Bay, then weathered Jim Brown’s unexpected retirement by going 71-38 from 1966 to 1973 — a stretch that included five playoff appearances and two conference championship games. In 1980, the 11-5 Browns snapped a seven-year playoff drought and squandered a playoff heartbreaker to Oakland (the infamous Red Right 88 game). They made the playoffs six more times in the 1980s, somehow blowing three conference title games to Elway’s Broncos: 1986 (The Drive), 1987 (The Fumble) and 1989 (Not The Drive Or The Fumble).
By the time that decade ended, Browns fans were about as fun to hang out with as the dad from The Missing. By the way, The Fumble never gets enough credit for being completely devastating — it’s unquestionably a no. 1 seed in any “Most Devastating Stomach-Punch Losses Ever” bracket.3 Good Lord. I will never forget watching this.
THE BARONS: Once the California Golden Seals, they relocated from Oakland to Cleveland in 1976 and lasted two forgettable years. And by forgettable, I mean everyone forgets that Cleveland ever had an NHL team. Oh, it happened! They merged with the Minnesota North Stars in June 1978, becoming your 36-years-and-counting answer to the trivia question “What was the last NHL team to fold?” Wait, here’s a fun game:
Barons (1976-78): 47-87-26
Browns (1999-2006): 40-88
Browns (2007-14): 44-82
So the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, and since then, they have almost exactly the same winning percentage as Cleveland’s one hockey team that (a) folded after two years, and (b) left this one seemingly obscure hockey fight as its only real YouTube legacy? Amazing.
THE INDIANS: Won the 1948 World Series, got swept in the 1954 World Series and didn’t make the playoffs again until … (searching Baseball-Reference.com) … (still searching) … wait, 1995? It’s true. They cratered somewhere between 1974 (the infamous Ten-Cent Beer Night) and 1989 (when Hollywood decided that Cleveland was the perfect downtrodden MLB franchise for Major League). Although the Indians didn’t hit rock-bottom until closer Jose Mesa couldn’t protect a one-run lead in the ’97 World Series, followed by this moment two innings later. Cover your eyes.
THE CAVALIERS: Joined the NBA as an expansion team in 1970, then made the Eastern Finals five years later thanks to the Miracle of Richfield. What’s the Miracle of Richfield? Well, if you want to relive the days of balding white guys making series-winning layups, NBA fans rushing the floor and tearing down the basket, and Cleveland fans being generally euphoric, do I have the embedded YouTube clip for you.
The ’76 Cavs lost to my beloved Celtics and finished the decade relatively unscathed. In 1980, new owner Ted Stepien quickly ran them into the ground like nothing we’ve ever seen — to the point that the NBA instituted the “Stepien Rule” AND gave Cleveland’s next owner compensatory draft picks just to minimize Stepien’s damage. (I wrote about Stepien’s reign of terror last year. He made Donald Sterling look like Dr. Jerry Buss — at least from a basketball perspective.) The Cavs belatedly rallied in the late ’80s with Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Ron Harper … and then this happened.
Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Stepien Rule, and Major League all in one decade? The only person who had a worse time in the 1980s than Cleveland fans was Little Bill from Boogie Nights. If you believe God hates Cleveland, then you’d have to believe that that antipathy was firmly in place for the 1980s. So, when? When did it start? Somewhere between the Miracle of Richfield and The Drive, right?
Here’s my convoluted theory:
The tipping point happened on December 14, 1980. Things were already quietly crumbling for Cleveland sports fans. Stepien had just traded unprotected first-round picks in 1983, 1984 and 1986 for three bench players (Mike Bratz, Jerome Whitehead and Richard Washington) and two months later, he’d flip his 1985 first-rounder for somebody named Geoff Huston.4 The sad-sack Indians were kicking off their third straight decade without a playoff appearance. And the 29 Cleveland fans who still loved hockey were being tormented by that rejuvenated Barons-Stars hybrid, which made the 1980 conference final and was a few months away from Minnesota’s first Stanley Cup final (in 1981).5
So what did Cleveland fans have going for them? The never-unsuccessful-for-long Browns, recently reinvented as the “Kardiac Kids” after tallying a whopping 10 come-from-behind wins in 1979 and 1980. In the second-to-last game of the 1980 season, the 10-4 Browns led in Minnesota by one point with 14 seconds left. The Vikings were stuck on their own 20 without any timeouts. Their win expectancy rate was basically “No F---ing Chance.” Which is what makes the ensuing YouTube clip legitimately amazing.
First, the Vikings execute a hook-and-ladder that fetches 39 yards AND stops the clock (0:18 mark of clip). A successful hook-and-ladder? When does that ever happen? On the next play (1:10 mark), QB Tommy Kramer throws a Hail Mary moonball that somehow gets tipped right to Ahmad Rashad (yes, THAT Ahmad Rashad) for the miraculous game-winning score.
A 34-YARD HOOK-AND-LADDER IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWED BY A 46-YARD HAIL MARY CAUGHT BY AHMAD RASHAD.6 Find me a crazier two-play sequence in football history that doesn’t involve the Last Boy Scout running back shooting potential tacklers.
What happened next? The Vikings won the NFC Central title thanks to those 14 seconds, winning a division tiebreaker with 9-7 Detroit that still somehow ranks as one of the 20 greatest moments in Lions history. Meanwhile, the Kardiac Kids (seemingly) regrouped by winning in Cincinnati with another go-ahead fourth-quarter drive. Don Cockroft’s 22-yard field goal clinched the first AFC Central title7 by a non-Steelers team since 1973. The Browns received a Round 1 bye, then hosted Oakland in a Divisional Round ice-fest (2 degrees Fahrenheit, minus-30 wind chill) that doubled as the NFL’s coldest game in 13 years (since 1967’s historic Ice Bowl). Look, it even cracked the top 10 in the NFL Network’s “Worst Weather Games” countdown. Congratulations, Cleveland!
Hmmmm, who controls horrible weather? Oh yeah, that’s right: GOD.
Anyway, Oakland’s Mark Van Eeghen scored a go-ahead touchdown with 9:22 to play, putting the Raiders up by two.8 Cleveland punted, then Oakland punted. With less than five minutes remaining, the Raiders recovered Brian Sipe’s fumble on Cleveland’s 24.9 (Poor Sipe finished 13-for-40 with 0 TDs, three picks, a fumble and a QBR about as low as the wind chill.) The Raiders killed the clock with three runs, but couldn’t risk a field goal on fourth-and-a-foot from Cleveland’s 15 in frigid conditions. They handed off to Van Eeghen … and Cleveland’s defense stuffed him.10
HERE COME THE KARDIAC KIDS!!!!!
OK, fast-forward to the 24:38 mark of that video. 2:20 remaining. Raiders 14, Browns 12. You’ll hear a giddy Don Criqui telling us to “fasten all seat belts” not once but twice. After we finish buckling in, Sipe hits Ozzie Newsome for 29 yards on second down (25:36 mark), gets a crucial pass-interference penalty three plays later (28:26), then hits Greg Pruitt on a pretty 23-yard pass to move inside Oakland’s 30 (29:50). A second-down draw play to Pruitt earns 14 more yards (31:40 mark). First down on Oakland’s 14. Timeout, Cleveland.
“They called timeout. They still got two left, though,” color analyst John Brodie says. “Fifty-six seconds left to play. What do you do? You run the ball into the line, you think Cockroft can kick it from 30 yards … In my opinion, they better try to score it. Sipe will throw it in the cheap seats if everyone’s covered. But I think it’s easier to complete a pass than it would be to convert a field goal.”
Quick background: The 35-year-old Cockroft converted only 33 of his 55 field goal attempts in 1979 and 1980, then would retire after this game. In a 2006 interview, Cockroft admitted that he was battling two herniated discs and had four epidurals during the 1980 season. Yes, I learned this from Red Right 88’s Wikipedia page. And yes, you know something awful happened when a sporting event has its own Wikipedia page. But four epidurals? Is that even legal? Remember the days when the NFL didn’t care about player safety, unlike now? (Hold on, I’m going to wait until you finish guffawing.) In that Raiders game, Cockroft made two field goals (both from 30 yards), missed two more (from 47 and 30 yards) and shanked an extra point. So he wasn’t exactly lights-out. And it was 2 degrees and windy and freezing. And the field was basically a skating rink. And again: FOUR EPIDURALS.
Nope, you can’t blame the Browns for wanting to inch a little bit closer. Especially when they didn’t know that God hated Cleveland yet.
On first down, Pruitt ran the ball into the line for one yard (33:00 mark). Timeout, Cleveland. Forty-nine seconds left. Sipe jogged to the sidelines, savoring the last 90 seconds of a promising career before everything went to hell. Browns coach Sam Rutigliano called “Red Right 88” and told Sipe to “throw it into Lake Erie” if everyone was covered. The pass play was designed for Browns receiver Dave Logan (crossing short over the middle), with Newsome serving as Sipe’s backup option in the end zone. For whatever reason, Sipe ignored Logan and threw to Newsome with two Raiders blanketing him (34:00 mark). Interception, Mike Davis. Game over.
It’s one of the most unforgettable “Why did he throw that?” NFL passes of the past 35 years, right up there with Favre’s backbreaking pick against the 2010 Saints and every third Jay Cutler interception. Why not run the ball two more times and take your chances with Cockroft? What about a screen pass or a short out? Why risk throwing it over the middle into double coverage? Why? Why????? WHYYYYYYYY?
As if Red Right 88 weren’t a big enough karate kick to the groin, the 1980 Raiders went on to beat San Diego and Philly (and steal Cleveland’s Super Bowl). Poor Sipe quickly morphed into the real-life Shane Falco, only without a The Replacements comeback and an iconic quote like, “Pain heals, chicks dig scars and glory lasts forever.” Sipe followed his 1980 Pro Bowl season (4,132 yards, 30 TDs, 14 picks, 91.4 rating) with 1981’s abomination (17 TDs, 25 picks, 10 fumbles, 68.2 rating) and retired two years later. By then, the city of Cleveland had already broken ground on the Factory of Sadness. You know the rest.
Still, it’s too easy to declare “Red Right 88” as the official moment when God decided to hate Cleveland. If the play were called “Red Right 666,” maybe I’d feel differently. The tipping point happened three weeks earlier. Minnesota’s miracle comeback was God’s way of telling Cleveland fans, Get ready, it’s time to test you poor souls over and over and over and over and over again. Minnesota pulled off football’s two most impossible big plays in less than 15 real-time seconds combined. A hook-and-ladder AND a Hail Mary? Back to back????
December 14, 1980. That’s the answer. And sadly, I don’t have the solution.
But I can tell you this:
From the summer of 1986 through September 2001, the Boston sports scene suffered a 15-year swoon that rivaled any 15-year Cleveland stretch. We lived through the Buckner/Schiraldi Game, Game 4 of the ’87 NBA Finals, Lenny Bias overdosing, Reggie Lewis dying, Larry Bird’s back, Kevin McHale’s feet, Cam Neely’s knee, Nomar’s wrist, Pedro’s shoulder, Clemens ditching us for Canada and immediately winning two Cy Youngs while borrowing Ivan Drago’s training regimen, the Patriots almost moving to St. Louis, Paul Pierce’s nearly fatal stabbing, the M.L. Carr/Rick Pitino eras, the Tim Duncan lottery, the Parcells-Kraft breakup, the Desmond Howard kickoff (why?????), two of our most hated rivals (the Yankees and Lakers) forming new-age dynasties heading into the new millennium, and, of course, a never-ending World Series drought that spawned an alleged Curse and multiple depressing books.
In June 2001, we poured into bars around Massachusetts to cheer on Raymond Bourque, one of the greatest Bruins ever, as he finally won the Stanley Cup … only it happened with Colorado. I remember watching at a Cambridge bar called John Harvard’s, rooting for the Avalanche like they were the Bruins, then cabbing it home and thinking, Wait a second, what the hell is happening to my life??? I felt like I had just cheered on an old girlfriend on her wedding night as she had honeymoon sex with someone else. How pathetic was that???
That’s how low we’d sunk. Local columnist Gerry Callahan derisively nicknamed Boston “Losertown,” with the Prince of Pessimism (still-toxic Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who turned Boston’s demons into a cottage industry for himself), WEEI’s sneering Dennis & Callahan morning show and Glenn Ordway’s condescending drive-time show as our dark overlords. But in September 2001, Mo Lewis knocked Drew Bledsoe out of a Pats-Jets game and the rest was history. Everything flipped. Just like that.
It happens that fast. The truth is, God doesn’t hate Cleveland. (Yes, I just pulled off one of those sports media straw-man arguments that I usually hate.) Between the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL (sorry, I’m not ready to count MLS yet), we have 122 professional sports teams and only four available yearly championships. Those are terrible odds!!! What the hell are we doing to ourselves???? Some cities just have better luck than others. Ever gambled at a blackjack table for hours and watched two of the six seats win big, three seats do OK and one seat just get killed? And it’s always your buddy who brought the least amount of money and had to drain his ATM three times during the night? That’s just bad luck. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.
Of course, there’s one underlying dynamic that has to be mentioned — it became a recurring theme in my baseball columns from 1997 through 2004, as well as one of the main reasons why I strung those columns together for my Red Sox book. You can pass the point of no return as a fan base. You can be drained of all your collective faith, you can reach the point where you expect the worst at all times, and whenever it happens, it DOES feel like something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is a real thing. I once wrote about attending a crucial Red Sox–Indians game with Pedro Martinez (at his peak) and Bartolo Colon (220 pounds lighter) locked in a thrilling pitchers’ duel. Late in the game, Nomar crushed a line drive that sailed toward the Green Monster and, incredibly, struck the very very very very very top of the wall without actually clearing it. He ended up with the most depressing double I have ever witnessed in my life. You could feel the energy just vanish from Fenway. We had a guy on second base, down by a run, but we knew we were going to blow it. And we knew this because we couldn’t buy a freaking break as a city, and that’s just how it was. Every time I think about how brutal that 1986-2001 stretch was for Boston fans, I always come back to that moment. And I will always believe that players feed off that energy, for better and worse. Nomar didn’t score that inning partly because we were sitting there thinking, He’s not going to score; we’re screwed. We suffocated the players with our cynicism.
It’s awful when you reach that point as a fan base, or even worse, as an entire city. It really is. Sports shouldn’t mean this much, but they do, and that’s just how it goes. But again, these things CAN flip. If you want to feel better about being a Cleveland sports fan (or a Bills fans, or a Washington fan, or whatever), read the column I wrote after the Patriots beat the Rams in 2002, or after the Red Sox improbably rallied back in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. When it finally flips, it’s magical. Ask any Saints fan. Ask any San Francisco Giants fan. Ask any L.A. Kings fan. Ask any Mavericks fan. Ask anyone who thought their team was perpetually screwed, and then suddenly, they realized it was all bullshit and sports is way more random than they thought.
So no, I don’t think God actually hates Cleveland. But starting with that goofy Vikings game in December 1980, let’s at least agree that we have been witnesses to the most obscenely unfair 34-year run in professional sports history. It’s going to flip. At some point. (I think.)
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