Ohio native Tim Graham offers a unique perspective on the Bills-Browns series.
By Tim Graham
News Sports Reporter
CLEVELAND — The first time – maybe the only time – I didn’t sense sinister forces wafting around the Cleveland Browns was when Ronnie Harmon dropped the ball.
Before that moment, there had been Red Right 88, The Drive and The Fumble. There was nothing for a native Clevelander to believe in except for doom.
And there it was, the ball, lofted perfectly from Jim Kelly’s right hand to Harmon, deserted in the sandlot end zone. The ball glanced off Harmon’s fingertips. The Browns actually caught a break and bounced the Bills from the playoffs.
Relief, however, was brief for a Browns fan. For decades, a playoff victory in Cleveland has meant delaying the inevitable.
Bills fans know this.
The team that lost that day, on Jan. 6, 1990, recovered. The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls, but lost them all.
The Browns still have yet to reach one, but the deeper you last into the playoffs, the deeper the cut, no?
Few NFL franchises know melancholy like the Bills and Browns. Their fans have been sucked into a vortex of heartache and, over the past decade-plus, ineptitude on the field.
And when they play each other, the games seem programmed to inflict even more abuse on those who’ve dared to care.
The Bills will play the Browns tonight in FirstEnergy Stadium.
This primetime matchup is happening because all NFL teams get to play on Thursday night. Neither the Bills nor the Browns, however, have been given a Sunday night or Monday night stage since 2009. Every other team has appeared on Sunday night or Monday night since then.
“It’s crazy this is a primetime game,” said Dustin Fox, a former Bills defensive back who now co-hosts a drive-time show on Cleveland all-sports station 92.3 The Fan. “It’s kind of random.”
They say a tie game is like kissing your sister. The end result of recent Bills-Browns games has been tantamount to hugging your creepy cousin at a wake.
The ugliest sporting event I’ve witnessed was between the Browns and Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2009.
Browns quarterback Derek Anderson – the starter, mind you – completed two of his 17 passes for 23 yards and still won, 6-3. Former Bills special-teamer Blake Costanzo recovered Roscoe Parrish’s fumbled punt return to set up the winning, 18-yard field goal.
The next season, Jake Delhomme threw for 86 yards, but the Bills beat the Browns, 13-6.
Six years ago, in a heavy snow, the Browns and Bills combined for zero turnovers and four penalties. Offensive precision, right? The Browns won, 8-0. No points were scored after halftime.
“It was horrendous,” said Fox, who played in the game. “There was a safety and two field goals. We couldn’t score.”
As if economic slumps, urban flight and toxic algae weren’t enough, Buffalo and Cleveland can commiserate about unsightly football, too.
A disclaimer: Although I was groomed to expect doom from the crib on Cleveland’s west side, I stopped caring about the Browns when they moved to Baltimore. I tried to adopt the Cincinnati Bengals as my new team, taking solace in the fact their founder, Paul Brown, also had been screwed by Art Modell. And I thought I was showing some kind of Ohio allegiance. That fansformation didn’t take. I mean, it was the Bengals. I suppose it would be akin to adopting the New York Jets if the Bills were to move.
When the Browns returned in 1999, I’d long stopped caring. My interest was buried along with the Municipal Stadium rubble dumped into Lake Erie (it really was, to make a reef). I summoned zero interest in learning the story lines of other teams’ castoffs and expansion-draft dudes.
Frontier High grad Dave Wohlabaugh was among them. The former New England Patriots draft choice was the Browns’ starting center when they returned from the grave in 1999.
Wohlabaugh grew up a Bills fan in Hamburg. But his grandfather would sit in the car on Sunday afternoons and tune in the Browns broadcasts, certainly a remnant from pre-Bills days, when every Browns game was televised in Western New York.
When Wohlabaugh arrived in Cleveland for that heady comeback season in 1999, he was struck by the similarities of Browns and Bills fans and their unrequited passion for winning football.
“The people are mirrors,” said Wohlabaugh, a financial planner in the Cleveland area with Wells Fargo Advisors. “It’s the same economy, the same climate. The nature of the people is the same.
“They appreciate the blue-collar, hard-nosed approach. They appreciate their teams when they embody the people of the area. They expect a winner. They want a winner.”
The last time Buffalo made the playoffs was Cleveland’s first year back in the NFL. Cleveland reached the postseason once and had two winning seasons. Buffalo has one winning season from 2000 onward.
“With free agency, with the salary cap,” Fox said, “it’s hard to miss the playoffs 13 years in a row.”
The Houston Texans entered the NFL as an expansion team in 2002. Despite playing in a division dominated by Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts until last year, the Texans have made the playoffs twice and have had only one losing season in their past six.
“It’s really tough to win a championship, but both these fan bases deserve at least some, some success,” Fox said. “The 4-12, the 5-11 seasons, at some point that has to stop.
“It’s misery. It’s banging your head against a wall for 15 years. You feel bad for these fans every time you see a new coaching staff get turned over and you waste draft picks over and over again. It’s tiresome.”
The idea that a Bills-Browns matchup would be featured on Thursday Night Football seemed laughable when the schedule came out in the spring. Both teams are rebuilding. Their recent games have been drudgery.
But the Bills are coming off a victory over the defending Super Bowl champs and have some young, interesting players. The Browns somehow have gone 2-0 since trading last year’s third overall pick, running back Trent Richardson, and promoting undrafted former backup Brian Hoyer as the starting quarterback.
But there’s a reason GQ magazine recently included the Bills and Browns among its 20 worst sports franchises of all-time.
Actually, all of Cleveland’s teams tied for first in GQ’s rankings. The Bills were 17th on a list that also included United States Football League, World Football League and World Hockey Association teams and a defunct NBA club.
Wohlabaugh says he’s more familiar with Browns fans but allowed the tale must be the same for Bills fans. He still has a lot of family in Western New York. His parents watch Bills games. His son is a freshman at St. Bonaventure. His brother works security at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“Apathy is the apparent public sentiment” in both cities, Wohlabaugh said, “but in reality there’s a tremendous amount of hope. Everybody might say, ‘We just stink.’ But deep down, when we get that first down in the third quarter, they’re on the edge of their seats.
“There’s much more hope than apathy. It’s not just ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ ”