The real bloodletting began with a malicious stake to the heart on November 6, 1995. And it continued virtually unabated through circumstance and incompetence for a decade. When the Steelers lacerated the Dawg Pound faithful last September, it seemed all that was left for those with Orange and Brown coursing through their veins was to fashion tourniquets out of old Tim Couch jerseys in preparation for yet another Next Year.
Cue the Season of Dreams, an overdue transfusion that was as unexpected as it was invigorating: From the final whistle of 2007, Browns fans have existed in a strange realm of genuine, unabashed and deserved optimism that is hard to overstate.
With only three winning seasons in the past 20 years, it's certainly rare to have the head say that the heart just might be right when it comes to matters of the Browns. Usually the former is laughing at the latter for making wild and indefensible assertions about Kelly Holcomb's throwing prowess or Courtney Brown's ability to come back from injury. This year, though, feels different.
There are no pre-season 3-13 predictions to beat back with unwavering and blind homerism. There's no regression, no jokes and no need to expect the walk from the Muni Lot to the stadium to feel like a death march every week. Instead there's hope that this roster fulfills the elaborate fantasies played out in our heads over the last nine months - the ones where Braylon, Kellen and Derek are equal to or better than the ghosts that haunt our best memories.
For the first time in a long time, playoffs isn't a punch line. The Steelers' nine-game winning streak against Cleveland seems doomed to end, as does the team's vaunted reign at the head of the division. Nine wins? Ten wins? Eleven? Entirely possible. The expectation is that these Brownies make the postseason for just the third time since Elway last had a chance to slit our jugulars in 1989. But it doesn't end there.
One surprising yet pleasant year does not a recovery make, not when you've lost this badly this often. What's at the core of the Summer of Love for the Browns is the belief that not only will the team be competitive in 2008, but well beyond this season. We want Crennel's gang to be mentioned alongside the teams of the late '40s, mid-'60s and late '80s, perennial championship contenders and winners.
We believe the football that topped out at barely mediocre is over. With the guiding hand of Phil Savage, last year should be a mere first entry on the résumé of an organization that has legitimate Super Bowl dreams and potential over the next half-decade. It begins this year, with prime-time pressure, lofty aspirations and a tough schedule, but it shouldn't end there, regardless of how 2008 concludes. There's an extremely proud and storied tradition behind this team, even if it seems like ancient history. And for the first time since their return, it feels like the Browns are on the cusp of returning to the Promised Land.
Perhaps we're just dizzy from being a few pints short of the old Orange and Brown after all this time, left addle-minded by the blue moon of a 10-win season and a coach who dispenses grandfatherly (and apparently much-needed) advice to his players like, "Keep your shoes on until you're inside." It's confusing, wafting that new car smell after 20 years of driving a used Pinto that reeked of stale Camels and moldy MDP burgers.
Maybe the city's championship drought has screwed with our collective consciousness to the point where we latch onto any sign of promise, any glimmer of success and exaggerate it in the hopes of willing our team to victory or maintaining a semblance of sanity after a lifetime of unrequited love, thinking the entire time that things are going to change.
That's not what this feels like, though. And in the interest of all involved, we'd better be right.
Fans who still cringe when they hear the phrase, "I love you, Brian," season ticket-holders who have dumped three BMWs' worth of dough on depressing Sunday afternoons, fathers who cried through the Fumble and the Drive, and the sons who were baptized with those tears are waiting. And they're all running out of Band-Aids.