The Browns are that old friend you only hear from when they feel so hopeless it bleeds into the margins. You get a wounded, grammatically cryptic 3 a.m. text from them every six months that explains both very little and everything. They have lyme disease or they're trying to get some spur-of-the-moment marriage annulled or something -- what's clear is that they're in a bad way. Each successive correspondence reaffirms that things aren't getting better, just a new installment in a series of sad yawps into the wilderness.
What I mean is that naming Brian Hoyer your starting quarterback is a lot like announcing that you will never not be sad. Trading Trent Richardson for a first-rounder is at least an admission that happiness won't find you soon, not in this home, not with this job. There's logic to all of this -- non-elite running backs aren't exceedingly valuable commodities, and the Browns' quarterback depth chart is only slightly less harrowing and scatological than Story of the Eye -- but it can't feel good. Browns fans are going to endure another season where the only comfort will come from nips of whiskey in the FirstEnergy Stadium parking lot and daydreams about death during games that are over by halftime.
The histories of inept franchises tend to infect our perception of what they're doing right now, which of course has little to do with the past. The Browns have a new everything this year -- owner, team president, general manager, coach -- but it's hard not to think Oh, Browns! when you hear they've just traded their 23-year-old first-round pick, especially considering the circuitous route that sent Richardson to and, one season later, out of Cleveland. The Browns had the fourth selection in a draft that featured two transformative quarterbacks, so they tried to move up a couple slots to draft Robert Griffin. The Rams, who were essentially holding the second pick at auction, accepted a bid from the Washington Racial Slurs. Then-president Mike Holmgren protested to the media that Cleveland offered a superior package of picks and/or players, and the Browns resigned themselves to selecting Richardson, then had to shed a few more mid-rounders to swap picks with the Vikings to make sure they got their man.
Richardson was a consolation prize, then a Promising Young Man, and now he's a Colt. It's probably an encouraging sign that new GM Mike Lombardi doesn't care how this trade looks or that Richardson was the third overall pick 18 months ago, but the move is an indictment of the previous regime, even as the current one is equivocating about how they loved Trent Richardson and all, but they saw an opportunity to improve the team by not having him on it. It's a reminder how miserable things have been up until now, albeit with an implicit promise that things will improve in the near future.
Allowing Hoyer to start is more straightforwardly depressing. It is the coaching decision equivalent of waking up hungover, realizing there's almost nothing in the fridge, and deciding your life has reached a point at which you're willing to give the mustard sandwich a whirl. You can only meet a move like this with bemusement or gleeful fatalism, as some Browns fans did when they changed a section of Hoyer's Wikipedia entry to "[Hoyer] was named starting Quarterback for the 9/22/2013 game against the Vikings. He will throw 3 interceptions and no touchdowns. GO BROWNS..." The ellipses are a nice touch, as they seem to indicate Browns fans' enthusiastic self-hatred has a certain existential bent to it.
This is funny to most of us, because we're not Browns fans, but once the sniggering dies down, we will stop paying attention. Meanwhile, we've been wringing comedy out of a hapless Jets team going on three seasons now. I'm not complaining; their incompetence is fun to gawk and chuckle at, but we're all acquainted with it because New York's other team has a loud coach and a crowded press box. I was struck, when Sean Fennessey detailed every Jets-y mishap of the past year-and-a-half for Grantland, by how many of them I remembered and had thought about. The Jets are our shared football Vietnam, despite being considerably more successful than the Browns over the past few seasons.
If the Jets and Browns swapped rosters, we would surely have more gif-based immortalizations of Brandon Weeden's dadaist quarterbacking style. But that's the way the sports zeitgeist works: Bad teams in big cities are battered beyond recognition, while the Browns, Jaguars and Panthers fail quietly. We have a strange relationship with these teams. They're caught in this failure cycle where they live in the dusty corners of our mind until they do something stupid or stupidly funny (or exceptionally smart, but that's rare), and when this happens, we chuckle, then go back to ignoring them. They recede back to the nowhere they're from to be the "7" on the end of a 27-7 scoreline of a game we didn't watch.
What a horrid identity to have. It's no wonder this site's Will Leitch observed that Cleveland fans are just kind of listless and beaten down. The Browns are a punchline, but they're not even a particularly fresh one. They've been almost uniformly awful since the team was reestablished in 1999, but no one outside the city is familiar with the details of their failure. I grew up in central New York, which is similarly infamous for being a Place No One Wants to Live. There are Bills fans who will spend the better part of an evening polluting your mind with tales of woe about Mike Williams or Alex Van Pelt if you ask them. But no one ever asks, because the only people who care about the Bills already know those stories. When no one from the outside is curious about you, all you can do is commiserate with one another.
It's one of those clichés that's irksomely not untrue: Your team is a part of your identity. It is, as with all affinities, a thing about you, and one that's legible to a large swath of the population. But that legibility only goes so far. Sports can span the conversational gap between two strangers, but one generally has to stay away from the deep cuts. This is why you're in luck if you're, say, a Patriots fan. Most NFL watchers have seen the Pats play a fair share of games over the past decade. I can talk to a Patriots fan about their team and keep up, for the most part, with what they're saying. I remember the games and am familiar with the players they're referencing.
If you're a Browns fan, I have very little for you. So, um, do you like that new coach Lombardi hired? It's nice to have a fan experience that's readily shareable. You don't even need a team to feel proud of, just one that people are interested in. When you're rooting for a dismal team in a city that no one travels to, you're a marooned fan. It's you and your same terrible team and your same (hopefully) less terrible friends year after year. It's one thing to be outside the playoffs and another to feel like you're outside of the conversation. Perhaps it raises the stakes of trades like the Trent Richardson-to-Indy swap, makes you feel a whit more nauseated than you already do, to know that you have to gain entry to the former in order to be part of the latter.