Howard Brenner admits there have been occasions, particularly in recent years, when he’s wanted to punt. Occasions, when he’s seriously considered ending this 60-year love-hate relationship with the Cleveland Browns. The past two seasons—heck, the past two decades—have been times that have tried fans’ souls.
Buffalo Bills diehards lament how they had to endure 17 years without a playoff appearance—an infamous streak that magically ended last season. Ha! That’s nothing, says Brenner. Try following a team that in 2017 became just the second squad in National Football League history to go winless in a 16-game season. Or a team that is 1-31 the past two years. Or a team that’s posted double-digit losses in nine of its last 10 seasons and in 15 of its last 19. Or a team that’s churned through 20 starting quarterbacks, six head coaches and seven general managers in the last decade alone.
There’s a fine line between loyalty and masochism. Brenner and so many of his fellow Browns fanatics can’t help but wonder if they crossed it long ago.
And, yet, despite the misery, despite this unrequited love, they just can’t let go.
“We wonder if there will come a time when we’ll throw our hands up and say, ‘Enough!’ ’’ says Brenner, founder and vice president of the Rochester-based Photo City Browns Backers Club, which boasts more than 500 members. “I think the vast majority of us long-time Browns fans are reluctant to leave because we’re afraid the year we finally give up on them will be the year they wind up becoming very good. I have what I think they call in business a ‘sunken cost.’’ I’ve got so much time, money and emotion invested that I can’t afford to give it up.”
So, instead of cutting their losses, Brenner & Co. soldier on, wearing their Browns gear in public and waving those brown and orange pom-poms in hopes they’ll have something to cheer about beyond “earning” the No. 1 overall draft picks that come with last-place finishes.
“One of these years,’’ Brenner says, “just by accident, they are going to get it right.”
Perhaps this year.
Hope springs eternal in the spring, even for a football team that’s averaged nearly 15 losses per season the last three seasons. The Browns currently are undefeated and have been busy trying to win the off-season, trading for Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and signing prolific Miami Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry. These moves have Brenner stoked.
“Tyrod’s got the lowest interception percentage among NFL quarterbacks over the past three years,’’ he says. “Now, that may not sound like much, but when you’ve been subjected to an interception machine like DeShone Kizer (22 picks in 2017), that’s huge. And Landry has caught 100 passes a season the past several seasons, with 72 percent of those catches resulting in first downs. We have an excellent secondary and throw in a bunch of good, young returning players, and we’ve got the makings of a real football team.”
The other reason for hope is the upcoming draft. The Browns own the top pick, which they are expected to use on their quarterback of the future—USC’s Sam Darnold and Wyoming’s Josh Allen are the frontrunners. And they also have the fourth selection overall, which might be used to choose Bradley Chubb, the North Carolina State defensive end who recorded 10 sacks and 25 tackles for losses last fall.
“You pair Chubb with (second-year pro) Myles Garrett, and we’ll have one heck of a pass rush,’’ Brenner says. “That’ll be a defense to be reckoned with.”
A team, in Brenner’s enthusiastic estimation, capable of winning eight games. “The joke in Cleveland is that if the Browns win even six games this season, Coach Hue Jackson will be so popular he’ll be able to run for mayor,’’ he says. “I believe they are finally, finally moving in the right direction, as far as accumulating legitimate players.”
Like many Browns’ baby boomers, Brenner’s love can be traced to the late 1950s. Before the Bills were born into the old American Football League in 1960, Rochester’s pro football allegiances were divided between the two teams whose games were shown weekly on local television—the Browns and New York Giants.
“I remember watching games in 1957 and there was this running back for the Browns, who wore No. 32, and it seemed like he got the ball on every play and nine guys would try to tackle him, and they rarely had much success,’’ recalls Brenner, a Brighton native. “That running back wound up being the great Jimmy Brown.”
Brenner has been hooked ever since. In 1992, he and 25 other diehards formed their club, which is the seventh largest Browns Backers club in the world. Many years ago, he started up a newsletter, cleverly titled “Woof!” after the “Dawg Pound,” the Browns crazed, dog-bone-tossing, end-zone-sitting cheering section.
This Saturday evening at the Diplomat Party House, the Photo City Browns Backers will hold their 26th consecutive banquet, with current Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Schobert and former safety Felix Wright as headliners. About 140 people are expected to attend, with proceeds being donated to Rochester’s Open Door Mission.
Decked out in their orange-and-brown football regalia, long-suffering Browns fans (are there any other kind?) will gather to commiserate and celebrate.
“We’ve been through a lot, but we refuse to give up,’’ Brenner says. “I think our loyalty is one of the best-kept secrets on the Rochester sports scene. You’d be hard-pressed to find more dedicated fans.”
A headline in the latest issue of “Woof!” shows they haven’t lost hope or their sense of humor. It reads: “Nowhere to Go But Up??”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.