CLEVELAND – Chris McNeil's earliest memory of a game at Cleveland Browns dates back to 1987. McNeil was 7 years old. The Browns were ten minutes behind the Jets, only four minutes in the playoffs of the AFC divisions. "But I'm standing in my chair," remembers McNeil, "and screaming: 'We'll win!'"
Sure enough, Bernie Kosar has developed two dramatic late scoring drives, and Cleveland prevailed in the third longest game in NFL history – the "Marathon by the Lake" – for its first playoff win since 1969 in double overtime. McNeil, there he was hooked with his parents and uncle as he watched from a beam that blocked his view.
"That magic never went away for me, even when the team left, even when the team wrestled," said McNeil. "I always go back to the 7-year-old who is on the chair in the old Municipal – and we've been chasing that magic ever since."
Tonight, 50 years after staging the first Monday night soccer game in history, the Browns will battle their former selves, the Baltimore Ravens, in the biggest regular season game Cleveland has seen in decades (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
25 years a week, the former Browns played their last game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium before owner Art Modell closed Dawg Pound and shattered Cleveland's soul and moved the franchise to Baltimore.
Cleveland football finally came back. But the Browns have yet to recover.
Until – possibly finally merciful – now?
At this showdown with the Ravens, Cleveland has the best record (9-3) since his return to the NFL in 1999. The Browns cannot technically secure a playoff spot with a win. However, they can almost ensure the end of the NFL's longest post-season drought – while, as a cathartic bonus, they reduce the playoff chances of a company that is at the root of much of a lake heartbreak.
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"I don't think there's a fan base that has suffered more suffering in professional sport over the past quarter century," said Joe Thomas, Cleveland's former all-pro offensive player who had a successful 2007 rookie season before joining the two years Retired before and now considers yourself a “full time” Browns fan. “When you've gone through so much arguments and so much pain and got this far, the payoff and the emotions and the feeling of joy become, I believe, that feeling of sadness correspond.
"But I've been in Cleveland long enough. … You have to protect your heart a little."
The drive. The fumbling. The movement. Watch as Model pulls up that elusive Lombardi trophy, but with Baltimore. Thirty different quarterbacks. Walk 1-31. Nosedive into a mockery of the league.
"We're the toyless kids for Christmas. That's what it's like to be a Browns fan," said longtime Cleveland radio host Tony Rizzo of WKNR 850 AM. "But the resilience of the Browns fan is unmatched in sport … and the playoffs would be the greatest Christmas present we could ever get."
One the city has been waiting for for 17 seasons.
"One of the best things about the NFL is Cleveland," said ESPN's Mike Tannenbaum, who worked in the Browns front office in 1995. "This city loves its team – it lives it.
"And it definitely deserves a winner."
Cleveland's Dawg Pound members, some of the NFL's most loyal fans, were among the many who felt betrayed when Art Model moved the franchise to Baltimore 25 years ago. Kimberly Barth / Getty Images
PHIL SAVAGE RIDE at the Browns practice facility for Coach Bill Belichick's staff meeting on Saturday morning November 4th. Savage had been a Boy Scout during the week and an assistant coach on the weekends. When he turned on the radio, he could hardly believe what he was hearing: Modell moved the Browns and ignited one of the most tumultuous times in Cleveland and NFL history. "That's how I found out," said Savage, who eventually followed the Model to Baltimore before returning to Cleveland in 2005 as general manager. "That's how almost everyone (the football staff) figured it out."
By then, Cleveland was experiencing a renaissance after being the first major city to suffer economic default since the Great Depression in 1978. From the Kardiac Kids of 1980 to Kosar's deep playoff runs, the Browns embodied the town's comeback.
"We've built our self-esteem again," said Fred Nance, who as a city attorney in 1999 would fight to bring the Browns back. "And the Browns were a big part of it."
For many years the Cleveland Municipal Stadium served both the Browns and the Indians, and the groundskeepers often couldn't grow grass where the infield was so they just painted it green. AP Photo / Mark Duncan
In 1994, the City and County of Cuyahoga built a new arena to bring the Cavaliers back downtown, and a new ballpark so the Indians no longer had to share municipal with the Browns. But when these money-makers debuted, Municipal literally fell apart. Coaches and players had to hang their clothes on nails in a wall. The ground team, unable to grow grass on the infield after the baseball season, just painted it green. The installation hardly worked.
"The rooftop radio operators didn't even have indoor installations," said Doug Dieken, who set a record for successive launches as the Browns' offensive device and has been the team's radio analyst since 1985. "Instead they had an outbuilding."
Although the city technically owned the stadium, Modell had agreed to cover the operating and capital improvement costs in a 25-year lease signed in 1973.
"Art was deeply in debt. He had to get his wife out on a loan to sign Andre Rison," said Rizzo. "He wanted to show the people who didn't play ball with him in this new stadium."
Then-Mayor of Cleveland, Mike White, holds a sign during a rally on Capitol Hill on November 29, 1995 urging the Cleveland Browns not to move to Baltimore. AP Photo / Doug Mills
The Mayor of Nance and Cleveland, Mike White, had planned a $ 175 million renovation for Municipal while raising support for a sin tax to pay it, although Model put a moratorium on negotiations until after the this summer 1995 season had demanded.
Over the weekend, Nance and White were in their office preparing for election the following week when they saw footage of models on television. Like so many Browns fans, they felt blind.
"It was the most amazing sucker I've ever seen in a city about a sports team," said Jim Donovan, a longtime Cleveland sports caster who has been calling the team's play-by-play radio since 1999. "Because it was a haymaker who chilled the city out of the blue."
Ironically, the next day the Browns played against the Houston Oilers, who only two weeks later signaled their own move to Tennessee. The sponsors immediately got on the model and had their signs darkened with color before kick-off.
"It basically looked like the stadium was on fire," said Savage. "And of course it was a morgue atmosphere. And we got beaten and sort of staggered for the rest of the year."
Cleveland Browns fans, angry at the team's decision to move to Baltimore, tossed a row of seats after the Browns' 26-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on December 17, 1995. Getty Images
At the final game, played at Municipal later that season, fans brought hammers and saws to dismantle seats and stands and take home, tangible memories of an imminent magical past. Players like Earnest Byner, who fumbled the ball away against the Broncos in 1988 but also helped Cleveland deliver those playoff runs, circled the stadium's high-fiving fans before heading into the seedy locker room for the last time.
"I just remember being baffled and not understanding how the Cleveland Browns franchise could go to Baltimore," said Kevin Mack, Byer's cohort in Cleveland's dominant background in the 1980s. "I just couldn't understand it. … It was just amazing."
Owner Art Modell agreed to pay to cancel the Municipal Stadium lease in order to relocate his team to Baltimore. Fred Nance
For the next two months, the city fought successfully to keep the Browns name, team colors, and history in Cleveland. Modell agreed to pay damages and a penalty for canceling the stadium lease. And the NFL promised to give the city a team within three years. But when Cleveland won those battles, Model ultimately won the right to run to Baltimore immediately. A year later, Municipal was demolished so that the FirstEnergy Stadium could be built in its place for the new Browns. It was a physical sign of the end of a beloved era.
"Going to a Browns game next to your father in the freezing cold was a rite of passage in Cleveland," said Nance, who was LeBron James' personal attorney when James was in Northeast Ohio High School in 2002 – the last time the Browns were in the playoffs.
To this day, Nance, now managing director of Squire Patton Boggs, can't talk about Cleveland losing the Browns without getting emotional: "I still feel it. There was just so much at stake. There were so many people for whom this was the case. " The fight defined what Cleveland is about. "
Head coach Bill Belichick fell out of favor after cutting Brown's legend Bernie Kosar. He was fired after the team moved to Baltimore. Getty Images
Belichick, who had already fallen out of favor in Cleveland two years earlier for cutting Kosar, was fired after the season when Model sought a fresh start. This paved the way for Belichick to later win six Super Bowls with Tom Brady in New England.
Savage and a handful of other front office workers who would be moving to Baltimore, including Browns' former great Ozzie Newsome, actually stayed in Cleveland through April to prepare for the draft. With its first two picks, the team that would eventually be renamed the Ravens opted for the offensive tackle against Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis. Both would become Hall of Famers and the backbone of Super Bowl champions five seasons later.
For Cleveland, which has never been to a Super Bowl, the fight was just beginning.
Brown's owner Al Lerner was confident he had his husband in the 1999 NFL draft after Cleveland selected Tim Couch, the Browns' first draft after the franchise reactivated. AP Photo / Mark Lennihan
The brows returned TO THE FIELD as an expanding franchise in 1999 for a preseason game, 60 miles south in Canton, Ohio. There Cleveland defeated the Dallas Cowboys promisingly in extra time. Four years earlier, the expansion franchises Carolina and Jacksonville had also met in the Hall of Fame game. A season later, both were in the playoffs.
"We were obviously very naive but I think everyone felt like they would pick up where they left off," said Donovan. "(New owner) Al Lerner was a billionaire, everyone knew he was going to spend a lot of money. And there was this influence of the 49ers (in the front office) on Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark. At least to the eye, everything said this is going to be easy .
"And that soon ended with the opener against the Steelers, when they were absolutely leveled out (in a 43-0 loss). And I think at that point everyone was kind of going, it's going to be a lot harder than we thought."
The Browns have since had three different owners, 10 different directors and 12 different head coaches, resulting in two successful seasons and only one playoff appearance.
"I don't think there is a fan base that has suffered more suffering in professional sport over the past quarter century."
Joe Thomas, former offensive player for Brown's All-Pro
"When the Browns got back they felt like a full line to get the kite into the air," said Savage, the GM behind one of those winning seasons in 2007. "Some of that line was used up in the first few years and then more of it was used up, and with each successive regime there was less and less string to work with.
"There was less patience and more pressure to fix it quickly."
Eric Metcalf, an all-pro on the last Cleveland team to win a playoff game in 1994, believes a burning desire to restore the Browns to their former glory has instead started a "vicious circle" of turmoil.
"Everyone who's been there definitely wanted to bring a winner to the city of Cleveland," said Metcalf. "But if we want it that bad, a problem arises. Because there is never any stability in the organization. We won't win in two years, the coach is gone, new coach, new coordinators, new offensive, new quarterback."
Cleveland has endured 30 different quarterbacks since 1999 – after Brian Sipe, Kosar and Vinny Testaverde held the position for essentially the same amount of time before.
"The right quarterback is everything in football," said Thomas. "It is the most important individual position in all sports because it has by far the greatest influence on wins and losses and does not always get this position right. … It is impossible to win consistently."
Cleveland Brown's fans ride in the water during the Perfect Season Parade after the 2017 regular season. The Browns were the second team in NFL history to lose 16 games in one season. AP Photo / Tony Dejak
When the losses increased During the 2016 season, McNeil came up with the idea for his massive Twitter after running a 0-16 parade at the end of the season, if only as a coping mechanism for any loss.
"I expected nobody to take it seriously," he said. "I'm only going to make a $ 25 donation to the local town hall. But sure the Browns kept losing and then the pressure started to mount like, 'Hey, is this going to happen?'"
The Browns saved McNeil with a win in week 16. However, they couldn't do the same in 2017 en route to their second 0:16 win in NFL history. In the same week that the playoffs were due to begin, McNeil led a parade of more than 2,000 people that circled FirstEnergy Stadium.
"It was cathartic," said McNeil, who raised thousands of dollars for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, with sponsors like Excedrin. "Even though our team sucks, we were still out there supporting the Cleveland Browns idea … with the message that we as fans deserve better."
That historic defeat, however, provided the Browns with yet another opportunity to finally get it right.
In the following draft, Cleveland selected quarterback Baker Mayfield as number 1 overall. The Browns also grabbed Pro Bowl, leaving Nick Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward running back. The year before, they designed with the top pick Myles Garrett, who is now a contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Last off-season, owner Jimmy Haslam hired general manager Andrew Berry, who turned Cleveland's offensive line into a strength, and Kevin Stefanski, shortlisted for NFL coach of the year, who is behind spectacular games.
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"It's been a long, hard road," said Haslam. "But we think we have the right people in the right place."
The Browns enter football Monday night after taking their most formidable win in years, destroying the Titans in Tennessee last weekend. In a fourth straight win, Mayfield delivered Cleveland's best quarterbacking performance since Kosar may have lagged the center. There were four touchdown passes in the first half alone – most since Otto Graham in 1951 – restoring hope that the Heisman Trophy winner was eliminated from Oklahoma, which may be Cleveland's long-term answer to the position.
"I'd heard about the Cleveland Browns … and how much it meant to this place," Mayfield said afterwards. "I didn't really believe it until I was actually here. It means a lot to the city. When I got here I said, 'Wow, this is real.' This is a passionate following, football lives, breathes and dies, and Cleveland Brown's football at that. "
Cleveland fans are feeling good with quarterback Baker Mayfield and the 2020 Browns on the verge of breaking their 17-year playoff drought. Andy Lyons / Getty Images
Mayfield then boldly added that it was time for Cleveland fans to "reset their expectations" because the team "is definitely headed in the right direction".
"Hopefully we're through with the evil," said Donovan. "Because when it was great here, you never knew what day of the week it was because you just followed the team and you soon knew that it would be Sunday and that it would be the best day of all."
McNeil also wants to talk about how it might feel when the Browns reach the playoffs. Especially when they take out the ravens on the go.
But like so many other Browns fans, he doesn't want to bewitch it either.
"The soccer gods love to shit Cleveland, and as soon as I say things like that, even in my head …" McNeil says before stopping. "But just thinking about it brings me back to 1987. And I can't wait."