Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Favorite Browns Moments since 1999

The Cleveland Browns have closed a historically bad season. They finished 1-15, continuing a seemingly interminable streak of misery and frustration stretching back to the team's return in 1999, after owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 season.

But I'm not here to pile on the negativity. It's too easy to list the team's failed quarterbacks, draft busts, off-field frustrations, and general mistakes and goofs that have festered a feeling of futility.

Instead, I want to list my favorite moments from the Browns since their return in 1999. The Browns have not consistently won in decades, but the moments below are the moments that make me proud to be a fan, the hidden gems that make the misery somewhat bearable. I only hope they'll eventually turn things around, but no matter what, I'll have these.

10) Gary Barnidge Leg Catch
One of the few positives of the disappointing 2015 season was the emergence of tight end Gary Barnidge. A career back-up, Barnidge was thrust into the role of starter when Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron left in free agency, and Barnidge responded with 1,043 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, tying a record set by Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome for a club record of most touchdowns by a tight end in a season.
Barnidge always had a good hands, but against the Ravens on Oct. 11, he showed he could use his legs, too. Late in the game, the Browns down, Barnidge jumped for a pass at the goal line. The defender broke up the catch, but as he fell to the ground, Barnidge squeezed the ball between his legs, keeping it from hitting the ground. He grabbed the ball and swung over the line for a touchdown, giving the Browns the lead. It has to be seen to believed. 

9) Home Opener Win
In 2014, the Browns had a new coach, Mike Pettine, and a new general manager, Ray Farmer, and were coming off a 4-12 season the previous year. The first game, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, started ugly, as the Browns limped into half time down 27-3. They came back but lost 30-27, another heartbreaker.
Game 2 was at home against the New Orleans Saints. The last time Cleveland won its home opener was in 2004. Well, Cleveland snapped the 10-year streak, with Billy Cundiff hitting the game-winning field goal in the final seconds. The Browns won 26-24.

8) Love for Alex Mack
The Browns were at one point 7-4 and in the playoff hunt in 2014 before losing their last five in a row to end 7-9. 2015 and 2016 have continued the losing ways, but for a time, it looked the Browns had finally turned a corner. Part of the reason: the running game was solid behind a stout offensive line, including center Alex Mack.
Mack was one of the few first round picks of the Browns in the new millennium to live up to the draft status, providing stability and leadership on the line along with All-Pro Left Tackle Joe Thomas.
I think the decline of the Browns in 2014 can be pinpointed to losing Mack in Game 6 to a season-ending leg injury. The Browns were never able to replace Mack, cycling in different centers to little effectiveness, and the offense, especially the run game, suffered.
As sad as all that is, it resulted in one of the most heartwarming and moving scenes I've ever seen on a football field. As Mack was being carted off the field, what looked every member of the Browns roster came over to him to offer support and encouragement.  As the cart left, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
For a team plagued by years of mismanagement, bickering, toxic locker rooms, and other personnel problems, the Browns arguably never looked more like a team since they came back.

7) Phil Dawson Rules
The Browns are usually on the receiving end of screwy rules and officiating, but on Nov. 18, 2007, they were the beneficiaries for a change. Phil Dawson is one of the best placekickers in the game, and in the closing seconds against the Ravens, he attempted a 51-yard field goal with Cleveland down by three. Initially, the kick was ruled incomplete because the ball bounced off the bottom post before landing in front. However, referees reversed the decision, calling it complete after discussion on the field, because the ball did go over the crossbar.
The Browns went on to win in overtime, and Phil Dawson had a new NFL rule named after him. At the time, field goals and extra points were not reviewable, but with the Phil Dawson Rule, officials could review kicks that hit the crossbar or upright.

6) Peyton Hillis Wins the Madden Cover
Nationally, the Browns have been seen as a joke for a long time, but it was great for a Browns player to receive some positive recognition when running back Peyton Hillis was named the Madden NFL 12 cover athlete, beating out the likes of Ray Rice and Aaron Rodgers in the vote.
Hillis had a monster year in 2010, racking up 1,177 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, plus 477 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Sadly, Hillis never replicated those numbers and burned his bridges in Cleveland soon after, but for one season, he was a legitimate superstar and playmaker on a team lacking those types of players.

5) Joe Thomas becomes a Brown
The list of failed first-round busts for Browns, plus all the talent they passed over, is a sobering reminder of why the team can't get any traction. While some of the Browns picks have proved decent players, most have not been the game-changing studs one could build a team around. Left tackle Joe Thomas has been the leading exception.
Drafted in 2007 with the third overall pick, Thomas is an All Pro offensive lineman who has made the Pro Bowl every season since entering the league and has not missed a snap, carrying the longest active streak in the league. He's offered stability, professionalism, and superior play where it has been badly needed. Thomas will undoubtedly be a Hall of Famer, and it's a shame management has not taken better advantage of him or provided him with more support, but Thomas has been stalwart, embodying the best of the Cleveland Browns past and present.

4) Browns Beat the Patriots
On any given Sunday, any team can beat another. In the same time span the Browns have been one of the worst teams in the NFL, the New England Patriots have been one of the best. The Patriots have won multiple Super Bowls, have an MVP quarterback in Tom Brady, and are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball (further twisting the knife is how leading the Patriots is former Browns Head Coach Bill Belichick).
Yet, back in 2010, the lowly Browns somehow managed to beat the Patriots 34-14. The Browns didn't just squeak by; they dominated. Rookie QB Colt McCoy outplayed Brady, and overall, the Browns offense gained 404 yards to New England's 283.
Any given Sunday.

3) Immaculate Deception
Josh Cribbs was a great return specialist, converting 11,113 kick off returns yards and 2,375 punt return yards into a combined 11 touchdowns. Not bad for an undrafted quarterback out of Kent State playing one of the toughest and most dangerous positions of football.
One of his most memorable returns came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007. It was almost a disaster. The Steelers kicked off in the early minutes of the fourth quarter, and the ball bounced off Cribbs and right to the goal line. With Steelers bearing down on him, Cribbs picked up the ball, dodged several tacklers, and raced 100 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
The Browns regained the lead but in the end, lost the game. Still, 2007 was the last winning season of the Browns and made for some exciting games down the stretch.

2) "Run, William, run!"
The Browns have made the playoffs once since 1999, a wild card appearance in 2002 when they went 9-7.
The final victory came in the last game of the year, a home game against the Atlanta Falcons. The victory was secured in the closing minutes when running back William Green scored on a 64-yard run.
What makes the moment even sweeter was Jim Donovan, the team's radio play-by-play broadcaster. As Green broke through and raced to the end zone, Donovan got more and more excited until he's screaming in the booth. "Run, William, run!" Donovan shouted as Green closed in on the touchdown that secured the Browns playoff berth.
It's a great call, and the enthusiasm is infectious. The Browns were playing meaningful games in December again, and they were coming out on top.

1) Tim Couch's Hail Mary
1999 feels like a lifetime ago. The team was reborn, ready to climb back to the top of the heap, and Tim Couch, the first overall pick of the draft, was the quarterback who would lead the Browns back to glory.
It didn't work out that way. The team has limped on while Couch, thrown to the wolves, was all but destroyed with a weak team of castoffs and rookies around him. In their first year back, the Browns went 2-14.
Still, there was hope they'd get better, hope the future was bright, hope not yet shredded by 16 years of losing. That hope was best demonstrated when the re-born Browns finally won a game,
On Oct. 31, the Browns were battling the New Orleans Saints and trailing 16-14. After the Saints went ahead with a field goal in the final minute, the Browns got the ball back with 16 seconds left. After a couple of plays, they were still far away from the end zone, and the clock was down to two seconds.
On the last play, Couch hurled a Hail Mary from the Browns' own 42-yard line. Despite Couch running for his life, despite defenders deflecting the pass, Browns receiver Kevin Johnson caught the ball in the end zone. The Browns had their first victory back, their first since 1995.
For a moment, the old magic was back.

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