18/04/2024

The Cleveland Browns celebrate the win over Pittsburgh in Week 17. Picture: Matt Starkey/Cleveland Browns.

For the past 17 years, the Cleveland Browns have missed the NFL playoffs, and it has been hell for its fans. A few diehards chat with The Inner Sanctum about their experience with it all.

“Brutal.” 

That’s the word lifelong Cleveland Browns fan Jake Harris uses to describe watching his NFL team over the past 17 years. 

“As long as I can remember they haven’t been very good, so supporting the team since the age of seven it has been a battle.” Harris told The Inner Sanctum.

This is the narrative told by many Cleveland sports fans, as year after year they have seen their beloved Browns disappoint in ways that sometimes beggar belief. 

So when franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield slid for first down yardage to secure a week 17 win against bitter divisional rival Pittsburgh on Monday morning, an entire city breathed a sigh of relief as they could finally proclaim the phrase that has eluded them for 18 long years. 

The Browns are in the playoffs.

Founder of online sport publication Cleveland Sports Talk Zach Shafron is another diehard fan who has ridden every brutal bump with his beloved Browns, with the 23 year old struggling to remember the last time his football team made it to the post-season. 

“I’ve basically experienced the drought my entire timespan as a Browns fan.” Shafron told The Inner Sanctum 

“I vaguely remember [the Browns last playoff game], it was an intense game, it was an exciting game, but only being a little boy I don’t remember many details so this weekend’s game will be a the highlight of my time as a supporter of the team.” 

To give a bit of context, the Browns last playoff game (played on January 5, 2003) was a thrilling 36-33 defeat at the hands of divisional rival Pittsburgh, who ironically they will be facing next Monday afternoon in their post season return. 

Harris on the other hand has vivid memories of the day, as he recalls the devastation of his Browns falling agonisingly short of pulling off a remarkable postseason upset. 

“I was a sophomore in high school, I remember it was muddy and so wet with the team wearing their full white kit and they got disgustingly dirty,” he said.

“It was exciting, they took the lead and you thought it was the start of something special, then they end up losing and there honestly hasn’t been anything special since.” 

From that night in January 2003, the Browns fell down a slippery slope to constant mediocrity as they went about creating the second longest postseason drought in the history of the National Football League. 

So how does such a proud American sports franchise endure a drought such as this? 

Shafron puts it down to complete mismanagement from the top down. 

“It starts with poor coaching, poor management in hiring the wrong people to run the program, poor drafting, there are just too many factors and I’d be talking for hours if I listed everything the Browns have gotten wrong over this period,” he said.

This is a point ratified by Harris, who as a diehard fan often found himself frustrated with how the organisation was run. 

“For me it comes down to patience or a lack thereof,” he said.

“They didn’t give guys a real opportunity whether that be players or coaches to pan out, and I think that turnover year in year out has a bad effect on a franchise and their ability to succeed.”

This mismanagement has seen a remarkable eight head coaches been shown the door since 2009 and a constant knack of recruiting busts, with the selection of college football legend and infamous partier Johnny Manziel in the first round of the 2014 draft a particular sore spot for all Browns fans. 

The low point of this drought however would come in the mid to late 2010’s, as the franchise plunged to the depths of the NFL and over two seasons (2016 & 2017) produced a remarkable record of 1-31. 

This included a winless season in 2017, which Shafron describes as a massive dagger to the heart of the sport loving city of Cleveland. 

“That [the 0-16 season], was just completely embarrassing for the entire city,” he said.

“We were the laughing stock of the league, not being able to win a game for the entire season as a professional sporting franchise was just insane to even comprehend. 

“It was difficult each week to watch the team knowing that they were very likely going to lose with no real hope of putting in a proud performance. 

“The morale of the fans was definitely down, as people turned up to the stadium each week sad and disappointed with the state of their beloved franchise.” 

Despite the constant disappointment, the fans would stick by their team with the city’s love for the Browns triumphing over all on and off field adversity. 

“Cleveland is a Browns town,” he said.

“People simply won’t throw away the Browns, the resilience of the fans was incredible which made the horrific state of the franchise that much harder to endure.”

“We love all of our sports teams, but the Browns are the team Clevelanders are most passionate about so whether they are 0-16 or 16-0 the fans will always be behind them.” 

With the team at rock bottom following the 2017 season and the loyalty of the fans being tested to its absolute extreme, the Browns and the city of Cleveland were gifted two god sends in the form of first overall picks Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield. 

Shafron cannot speak highly enough about the impact of these two stars on the Browns resurgence. 

“Myles is just a threat on the defensive end and always gives the Browns a chance with his ability to make a game winning play,” he said.

“As for Baker, he is an absolute icon in Cleveland and it’s interesting that when LeBron James departed for Los Angeles he arrived and really became that figurehead for sport in this city.” 

Although the team would struggle in 2019 and underperform mightily in achieving a 6-10 record, many saw 2020 as a new beginning for the Browns under the guidance of new coach Kevin Stefanski. 

However, many including Harris were stunned to see just how well the team would perform throughout the 2020 regular season. 

“I was excited to see how the new system would work this season, but I was super surprised to see just how well the team meshed in such a short period of time,” he said.

“The team has had so many setbacks whether it be through COVID or injuries and it just didn’t seem to affect them at all. 

“That whole next man up mentality in replacing guys and sticking to the system that they know will be successful has been beautiful to watch as a fan.” 

Despite the success of the team throughout the season, the strength of the AFC would see the Browns unable to cement themselves into the playoffs with a loss to the lowly New York Jets setting up a win or go home scenario against the Steelers in the final week of the season. 

Shafron describes the sheer anxiety of the day, with the unfortunate history of Cleveland sports sitting firmly in the back of every fans’ mind. 

“I was very nervous,” he said.

“I know that going in, the Steelers were resting a lot of their starters, but I was still extremely worried as it is still a football match up between NFL teams and absolutely anything can happen.

“The last thing I wanted was to rely on other results going our way, so it really was a stressful four hours of football.” 

This was a sentiment ratified by Harris who’s years of torment as a Browns fan saw him approach the day with a sense of pessimism. 

“You want to be excited and hopeful, but in the back of your mind you always think that this is the Browns and they are prone to screwing things up like this,” he said.

However, this 2020 Browns team is different to those that preceded it as despite some hairy moments they stuck to the system and punched their ticket to the postseason with a thrilling 24-22 victory. 

Now, the city of Cleveland has a nervous five day wait for their primetime matchup with the Steelers as the Browns look to prove they belong in the postseason. 

Shafron says this postseason matchup with Pittsburgh is much bigger than just a game of football for the people of Cleveland. 

“Everyone is excited and in a bit of a shock that the team actually did it, they are in the playoffs and it’s no longer a dream,” he said.

“Cleveland is at the end of the day a Browns town, so to have them in the postseason for the first time in 18 years it just means so much.”

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