Every year in late April, the NFL holds its draft. Over the course of 7 rounds, teams choose college players who they believe will help them win games. An attempt at parity, the NFL structures its draft with the worst teams—based on the previous season’s win-loss record—picking first in each round. So, barring any trades, the worst team picks first, the second-worst picks second, and so forth until the previous season’s Super Bowl champions pick last. The NFL has designed the system to benefit the worst teams. And still, some teams continually pick towards the top of the draft. The Cleveland Browns are one of those teams. And with the NFL Draft hosted by AT&T Stadium, 10 minutes from my house, I thought I’d attend and purposefully look for fans of the Cleveland Browns.
Even if some sound more convinced than others, everyone here—at the NFL Draft—has an opinion. Players get compared across generations, often with caveats; He reminds me of a Brett Favre, but smaller. There is an inherent optimism to every NFL draft. Months of team speculations and player evaluations translate to hope. That eternal hope that is the only reason many watch. A hope that remains unquestioned until the moment the team you cheer for, makes their selection. At that point, optimism turns towards doubt.
You remember the supposed “can’t miss prospects,” who woefully missed. Maybe, you wonder, we should have taken the other guy—and it’s always we or us, as if we are part of the team. Maybe the guy we drafted is too short. Maybe his low-level of collegiate competition made him appear better than he is. Maybe that knee injury from high school, never fully healed. Maybe his arm is too weak. Maybe he’s too short. Too fat. Too slow. Too dumb. Maybe because he’s all these things, picking him will set us back a decade. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. These are the mental games of the draft and no fan base feels both its hopes and frustrations like those of the Cleveland Browns.
By any measure, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. There’s a good argument they are the worse team across all major sport leagues. They didn’t win a single game in the 2017 season and only won once in 2016. In the past 3 seasons, they’ve played 48 games and only won 4. They lost 44 times. You need not be a football or even sports fan to understand the dreadfulness of that ratio.
But now, it’s late April, a few months from the 2018 season and the Browns have yet another chance to improve their team. Within the first 40 minutes of the draft, so long as they pick the right players, the Browns can greatly improve their future and along with it, the lives of their fans—especially if they pick a franchise quarterback.
Fans often talk of a franchise quarterback in mythic terms. They play what’s supposedly the most important and difficult position in all of sports. Ideally, quarterbacks are the leaders, the hub which the entire franchise—even more; a city, a region, a world-wide fan base—revolves around. At the minimum, having a franchise quarterback means that for at least a decade, a team need not worry about filling the most important position in sports. At its best, having a franchise quarterback means teams are perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Because of what’s at stake, teams and their fans can lose themselves trying to find their savior. They’ll convince themselves that a prospect has something special. That this is him. This is the player that will help take away the pain of losing. And if he does, especially in a place like Cleveland, they’ll become immortal. Parents will name children after him. Fans will get a tattoo honoring the savior. The city will give him its keys and proclaim that day as his. If they win, everywhere they go, they’ll draw a crowd of smiling, thankful fans. “Thank you, thank you,” they’ll say, reaching out to shake his hand or at least, touch his shoulder.
But, if it’s not him, and rather than winning, losing continues, fans will shun him. They’ll call him a disappointment and others will freely proclaim their hate.
There are contrasting emotions that come from being a fan. Therefore, even when cheering for the lowly Browns, their fans cling to hope. Of course, not everyone—though they remain a fan—is hopeful. Some, rather than calling themselves pessimists, claim themselves as realists. This is exactly how Nolan Conn described himself.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t really think it matters,” Conn answers when asked who he hopes the Browns pick. “Anybody that we pick is going to blow…we have no defined organization, meaning there’s no process in place. Whoever we take, it’s going to be dysfunctional. There’s no answer.”
Conn is 25-years-old and from Cleveland. Within the context of sports, his friend described Conn as “very sad.” Whether he’s a pessimist, realist, or sad, Conn traveled from northeast Ohio to Arlington, Texas—host of this year’s NFL Draft. That’s over 1,200 miles and 18 hours away by car. If flying, it’s close to a 5-hour flight. That’s quite a distance to travel, especially if you think what happens today, matters little. And yet, because he can’t stop caring about the team that’s continuously given him heartache, he’s here—along with many other Browns fans.
If you walk around the draft’s festivities alongside Browns fans, you’ll realize that fans of other teams look at them a little different. Every fan base shouts things at others, especially rivals. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles yell and point at each other. Fans of the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, along with a variety of others, do the same. There are a lot of faceless voices that randomly yell, “fuck the (any of the 32 teams).” Well, expect for the Jacksonville Jaguars. No one seems to care about them enough to hate them. On the other side of the spectrum, seemingly every fan base dislikes the New England Patriots. But of all the friendly and not-so-friendly mocking that occurs in the draft, fans take a perverse joy in saying things to Browns fans.
There’s a mocking tone with which they’ll randomly ask, “Who you taking number 1?” as if they know the answer is trivial and whoever they choose will become a name added to the long list of failed hopes. Some fans of other teams will randomly yell at Browns fans, pointing out how terrible their team is, like they’ve discovered that no one else knows. “Mistake by the lake!” yells a man, unprompted, who was just walking by and saw the brown-colored jerseys. He wore a jersey of the Buffalo Bills; a team who’s largely remembered for playing in 4 straight Super Bowls and losing them all. OJ Simpson played there. This is who mocks the Cleveland Browns.
And yet, others see someone wearing a Browns jersey and they’ll stare with a sympathetic glare. They say nothing but look. It’s the look of, “Damn. You root for the Browns. I feel so sorry for you.”
There are few things like waiting for the first pick of the draft. Some years, the pick is obvious. Other years, like now, there’s no clear consensus. This uncertainty wrecks fans—like those of the Browns—who have the most to gain from the draft. Theoretically, choosing twice in the first 4 picks, can propel the Browns into a winning future. But emotionally, so much heartbreak inevitably makes Browns fans hesitant to believe things will get better soon.
All things considered, Browns fans are among the most loyal in all of sports. Here in north Texas, the Dallas Area Browns Backers (DABB) are a group of over 300 fans who each Sunday during the football season, meet across 5 bars and cheer for their beloved Browns. Ken Hill, a lifelong Browns fan born and raised in Ohio, is DABB’s president. “Always been a fan,” says Hill who wears an orange-colored Cleveland Browns hard hat to match his orange-colored, sleeveless Cleveland Browns shirt. “Grew up hugging a football. From the time I was 12 years old, was going to be a professional player with the Cleveland Browns.”
Unlike Conn, Hill is older—born in 1952—and much more optimistic. He believes the Browns will win 8 games this upcoming season. Considering the past 3 years, this is a remarkable statement. To him, this draft and who the Browns pick, is pivotal. Hill, and everyone, knows they need a quarterback. And yet if they draft a quarterback who they’ve mistakenly identified as their savior, the Browns will not just continue their losing and suffering, but will live with the regret of another wasted draft. This is the impossible riddle that awaits Browns fans.
“I’m really nervous about all the latest rumors today that just came out about Mayfield,” Hill confesses with a genuinely worried look. Baker Mayfield is the quarterback from the University of Oklahoma. Mayfield is brash, maybe arrogant. He is talented, maybe too short. In the days leading up to the draft, there’s a sudden and surprising speculation that the Browns will draft Mayfield with their first pick—essentially tabbing him as their savior. A Cleveland sports-talk radio host is so convinced this is just one of the draft’s many wild rumors that he’s promised to eat horse shit if the Browns pick Mayfield first. This type of conviction does little to calm concerns of fans like Hill.
“I don’t think he’s big enough,” explains Hill of Mayfield who stands 6 feet and 5/8 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds. Leading up to the draft, prospects get prodded and measured. Numbers impact how we view these college players. Hence, besides knowing how fast they are, how high they jump, how strong they are, we know how tall they are and how much they weigh. Other projected top quarterbacks measure 6 foot 3 inches, 221 pounds; 6 foot 5 inches, 237 pounds; and 6 foot 4 inches, 226 pounds. In a game of giants, Mayfield is relatively average. But more than that, it’s a former player whose drawn comparisons to Mayfield that raises concern.
“I don’t need to go through Johnny Manziel number 2,” says Hill. Johnny Manziel was just as brash, maybe arrogant, talented and—just like Mayfield—short. In 2014, the Browns drafted Manziel in the first round. Not even 2 years later, the Browns got rid of Manziel after various problems, including allegations he struck his then-girlfriend and shattered her eardrum. As part of a plea deal, authorities dismissed the charges and Manziel entered rehab and anger management classes. Over 2 seasons with the Browns—and his only seasons in the NFL—Manziel played 15 games. It goes without saying but Manziel was not the Browns’ savior. Many Browns fans don’t think Mayfield will be either. Others, if they draft him, may talk themselves into believing he is.
It’s a pleasant north Texas afternoon with the temperature in the upper 60s. There’s a slight breeze but overall, there’s nothing that would make a liar out of anyone claiming the weather is great. If it wasn’t for the emotions born from anticipating how the draft will take form, it may as well have been a perfect day. But instead, some Browns fans—Nolan Conn included—gather around a large screen set up outside AT&T Stadium telecasting the draft happening inside the stadium. They are surrounded by thousands of fans of other teams. Ken Hill was one of the lucky few who get to watch the draft from inside the stadium. As president of DABB, Hill says the Cleveland Browns organization sent him those tickets. The rest of us, stand outside and watch.
At 7:07, local time, the screen reads “Cleveland Browns On The Clock.” Conn is there with 2 friends. All three, hold blue, aluminum bottled beers and wear Browns-related clothing. Unlike his 2 friends that appear relaxed, Conn is visibly anxious. He continuously shifts his weight from one leg to the other. Conn walks around, pulls his pants up—as if it’s an exercise to burn the excess energy. He interlocks his fingers behind his Browns cap, and waits. Every 30 seconds or so, he’ll look up at the screen to see how much time remains before the Browns make their first pick.
Waiting for the first pick feels slower than the months-long process leading up to the draft; the speculation, the rumors, which teams will trade picks, which team will choose a players higher than expected, and which players—and by extension, the teams that picked them—are most likely to fail.
At 7:15, the screen says, “The Pick Is In.” Finally.
Conn stands with his arms crossed. A minute later commissioner Roger Goodell walks to the podium and all—both inside and outside the stadium and likely many others sitting at home—instinctually boo him. Many see Goodell as a dictator-type of commissioner. The booing stops when he speaks.
“With the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft,” Goodell says, “the Cleveland Browns select Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma.” The crowd—again, both inside and outside the stadium—groans. It sounds like a loud, “OHHHHHH!” Some laugh. No one cheers. Some fans look at each other in disbelief. “The Browns shit the bed again,” someone says loudly. Conn walks away from his friends.
“I think they wasted a pick,” Conn says, not even 2 minutes after the Browns’s first pick of the draft. “I know I said, ‘it didn’t matter’ earlier, but Darnold was the pick.” Sam Darnold, whom Conn thinks was the right choice, went to the New York Jets, 2 picks later. If Darnold becomes great and Mayfield does not, Conn and many others can claim they always knew. If Darnold becomes the Jets’ savior and Mayfield fails, it’ll mark yet another heartbreak for the Browns and their fans. Fans like Conn will grow old and tell their children and grandchildren something like, “I was there, standing outside AT&T Stadium, when the Browns passed on Darnold. It was a cloudy and rainy, horrible day.”
Their children may ask, “Darnold? The greatest quarterback that’s ever existed? The winner of 8 Super Bowls? He could have been on the Browns?”
“Yes, Baker. That Sam Darnold. He could have been one of us. But you know how that goes.”
The best and worst thing about the NFL Draft is that no one knows what will become of these players. Everyone’s opinion seems based on an expert’s assessment. Fans will talk of a player’s size, their strengths and weaknesses, as if they did more than just listen to a podcast, read a column, or watch a television segment in which an expert gave their evaluations. Those same evaluations that fans then, either consciously or not, pass off as their own.
But for all their knowledge, there are times when the experts miss on their evaluations. This is not a criticism but rather a statement that injuries, opportunities, or even getting drafted by a team like the Browns, can alter a player’s potential. Conversely, there may be a team that drafts a player—that no one expects anything from—who could become great. Perhaps even their savior.
Adding to the lack of immediate clarity, it’s also completely within the reason that a team may select a player and their fan base all agree that he was the correct choice, only to find out years later, the pick was entirely wrong. This is the maddening uncertainty of the entire process. But also, because no one knows what will become of each player, it keeps hope alive.
In some odd, round-about way, there are moments when it feels like the Browns fans are better able to understand the absurdity of it all. The NFL Draft is a traveling, fantasy world that sells the future for ignoring the present. Unlike others, the Cleveland Browns’ fan base seems to have their expectations grounded in the simple understanding that the brightest of hopes can turn to the darkest of failures. To lose, often in a gut-wrenching way, forces one to reflect on how much and why they invest in a team doing well. And yet, before we can consider them more enlightened than other fans, they—for a variety of reasons—are also the ones that despite knowing the likelihood that this will not end well, continue cheering for a team that’s continuously and historically, brought them more grief than joy.