When it comes to writing about the Cleveland Browns, it hurts to reiterate the same things over and over again, year after year. But the only consistent thing the organization has maintained for the last 16 years, other than the obvious lack of organizational consistency, is being consistently bad at football.
And it has been more than just your run-of-the-mill bad. It's in a league where parity is king. Part of the reason for its dominance, the NFL has done so through a draft structure, a hard salary cap, and a slew of other rules designed to keep terrible teams from staying as terrible.
But in post-expansion Cleveland, this bad of an overall performance since 1999 is a statistical marvel. Leave it to the Browns, whose only innovation is to sustain entirely unprecedented amounts of suck.
The clichés roll off the tongue with this team. It's hard to stop oneself, especially for Cleveland fans using self-deprecating humor as their coping method, a last-ditch effort here in Week 17 to maintain their sanity before Black Monday.
Pssst, most of us have our fingers crossed for you, Mr. Pettine. We're rooting for you. We're well aware of just how "capable of anything" Jimmy Haslam truly is.
With all of that out of the way, it's easy to see how both the Browns and the fans might have grown used to losing streaks, whether long or short. When it comes to losing, we've seen it all. But we're also abundantly aware that it's something we never get used to.
Needless to say, the latest 4-game skid by Pettine's Browns has been particularly hard to swallow and not just for the usual reasons.
To understand why, we have to go back farther than the last four games. Consider where Cleveland was heading into the Week 11 contest, when the Browns played host to the Texans, prior to the 1-5 record that followed.
Coming off a dominating beat down of the Bengals in primetime, the Browns, with a 6-3 record, took sole possession of first place in the AFC North, the NFL's hardest most competitive division. In November. It was a feat the team hadn't reached in 20 years.
It was the most promising season we'd seen in a long, long time. The team had legitimate reasons to believe they were on the brink of something special. And the fans, who are usually at that point in the year desperate for anything positive to cling to, could now honestly believe they were capable of achieving that "something special." Because after that Thursday Night game, there were far more good things to cling to than bad.
Then, despite even with the long week to prepare, it all came crashing down again.
In a single Sunday afternoon, with the pressure on to solidify that first-place position and work toward the realistic goal of making the playoffs, Houston flashed before our eyes not the remarkable season that led Cleveland to this place, but a preview of the nightmare that was yet to come over the next month and a half.
The Browns were exposed that day. Not as frauds, by any means. They earned every bit of success they attained to that point. Rather, the Texans exposed some festering weaknesses present among the Cleveland team. Some due to injury, match ups, scheme, and inexperience. Others due to a simple lack of consistent talent in the most vital position.
Shut down the Browns' rushing attack and force Brian Hoyer into a role he's just not capable of. Meanwhile, running the ball down their throats with a rush of your own. Do that without turning the ball over too many times and you've beaten Cleveland.
Albeit admittedly oversimplified, in a nutshell that right there is how the Browns dashed the hopes of what was the best, most encouraging season in over half a decade.
It has been seven years since the Browns last approached a .500 or better record to end the season, a task only reached twice since 1999. Something that was merely a single win away four weeks ago is now the only thing left to aspire to.
What difference can one meaningless game make? What's the difference between 7-9 and 8-8? What could possibly be on the line?
With a loss this Sunday, we see how the Browns over the course of a season managed, at times miraculously, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a spectacularly awful fashion only they were capable of. It's yet another losing season that ends up in the ugly pile no one cares to remember, as 14 of 16 final W/L records end up below .500, since expansion. It was a nearly two-month tailspin of a disastrous finish the likes of which even Cleveland has never seen, a place where the desperation for a winning football team is utterly unparalleled.
A win this Sunday benefits from not being all of that. A win would show that perhaps the 6-3 run to start the first half of the season wasn't just a fluke. It would show that perhaps these Browns, on the backs of whomever leads the team to this hypothetical victory, are in fact capable of a feat that so few in Cleveland could manage before them. Despite what would again be missing the playoffs, this team would have won at least 8 games and posted at least a .500 record, for the first time since 2007. It would show the level of perseverance in the face of adversity an organization needs from its coaching staff and its team.
For 2014, a win this Sunday would mean everything.