Anyone who follows sports knows that being a fan of the Cleveland Browns can be a heartbreaking endeavor. Of all the teams in the NFL, the Browns seem to pull the short straw the most. They have never been to the Super Bowl, let alone won the big game. (Of course, any good Browns fan will tell you that they won plenty of national championships in the 50s and 60s before the creation of the Super Bowl, but that only makes it sting a little less.)
Sure, three other teams share this distinction with the Cleveland Browns, but two of them were recent expansion teams (the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Houston Texans). The other is the Detroit Lions, and that city gets more bad press than Cleveland. (Sorry, Detroit.)
Having a go at Cleveland teams and their often unfortunate records has become a bit of a tradition in Hollywood. Back in 1989, the film Major League poked some fun at the then-terrible Cleveland Indians, seeing the team fictionally win the pennant. Now, cinema history seems to be repeating itself with the film Draft Day, in which Kevin Costner plays the general manager who tries to wheel and deal a winning team during the NFL draft.
Though it may be a bit more Moneyball than Major League for football, Draft Day is striking a chord with Cleveland fans. As one die-hard Browns fan said to me at my press screening for the film, “Yeah, it’s fictional, but this may be the only way for me to see the Browns have a winning team.”
And that got me thinking… could the Cleveland Browns put together a winning team in this year’s draft?
The Answer: Yes… if they don’t do something stupid.
While my father is a “bleed orange and brown” fan of the Cleveland Browns, I’m not much of a sports guy. So, I turned to a couple friends of mine in sports radio to help me look at this question. Both Andre Knott, the Browns beat reporter for 1100 WTAM in Cleveland, and Josh Seas, co-host of the Sunday Sports Slam on 610 WTVN in Columbus, Ohio, were able to shed some light on the subject.
Both noted the fiercely (and sometimes naively) optimistic outlook Browns fans have each year at the draft, and this isn’t just because they might be seeded high in the picks after having a losing season. Knott notes: “We always joke that the Super Bowl in Cleveland is in April and May. It was a great idea to make the movie here.” Fans have a lot of hope this year in particular, which seems to somewhat mirror this year’s Browns draft schedule. On May 8, the Browns will have the fourth pick in the first round, as well as an additional pick at the 26th place. In Draft Day, the Browns start off with the seventh overall pick in the draft. (Of course, not mirroring real life is the Seattle Seahawks, who just won the Super Bowl in February, having the first place pick in the draft, but then again, the movie isn’t focused on the Seahawks.)
Of course, optimism will only get you so far. Just as the Browns have had many rocky seasons over the years, they have had some pretty rocky drafts as well. Seas says with depression in his voice, “The Browns draft has sort of been like watching the Hindenberg in replay, only every year you expect a different result. They’ve had some significant trades, but they’ve backfired on the team really badly.”
Probably the biggest missed opportunity occurred when the Browns returned to the NFL after Art Model moved the team to Baltimore for the 1996 season. The new Cleveland Browns were eventually awarded an expansion franchise in 1999.
The draft to build the new team was a blessing and a curse to Cleveland. “Kind of one of the reasons they’re screwed up goes back to ‘99 and the decisions that were made than,” says Knott. They were given prime choices, but the Browns filled their team with players like Tim Couch, who struggled as quarterback, and a winning team never emerged. So simply having great options in the draft does not mean a winning team.
And that begs the question…
Has any team turned itself around with a good draft?
Absolutely, this has happened. Seas looks at the Atlanta Falcons’ 2008 draft, which resulted in picking up quarterback Matt Ryan and turned the team from a 4-12 season to a 11-5 season. Knott points to the Indianapolis Colts who drafted Peyton Manning in the 1998 draft and later Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft.
Even the Browns have had some wins in the draft over the year. In 1978, the team came from a terrible record to draft linebacker Clay Matthews and tight end Ozzie Newsome, which helped bring the team into their winning seasons in the 1980s. (Though thanks to John Elway and the Denver Broncos, none of those seasons turned into a Super Bowl appearance.)
However, probably the most famous incident of a losing team turning things around with wheeling and dealing is the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990 draft. After trading their star running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys ended up with five players and six draft picks. This led to the acquisition of star players like Emmitt Smith and resulted in a dynasty of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s.
Still, even with a couple solid draft picks or a slate of options from trades, the team still needs to work. Seas notes that even though the Browns’ record last year was only 4-12, they had six players go to the Pro Bowl, so there are definitely strong players in the mix. They just need to fill a few holes in the roster.
So, what do the Browns need?
Both Knott and Seas agree the Browns are in desperate need of a quarterback. However, there just doesn’t seem to be any star quarterbacks breaking out this year. Some options include Sammy Watkins out of Clemson (which is Seas’ prediction), Teddy Bridgewater out of Louisville (which is Knott’s prediction), or Johnny Manziel out of Texas A&M. However, these also aren’t the players that warrant a top first-round draft pick, which the Browns have. They might be picked up in the 26th choice, but grabbing one of the available quarterbacks in the fourth spot might be overkill.
Knotts predicts: “I think they will take a quarterback in the first day or second day of the draft. I just think with that first pick, they’re gonna go for the best player available rather than just a quarterback.” He suggests picking up a someone like offensive tackle Greg Robinson out of Auburn.
Seas says they could use a good linebacker, possibly Khalil Mack out of the University of Buffalo. He says, “If they were to hit on a star player at number four and get that quarterback as well either at 26 or using extra draft picks to move up, most Browns fan feel this could be the most important draft the Browns have had in 30 years.”
Maybe Hollywood can give Cleveland teams good luck. Only six years after the release of Major League, the Cleveland Indians were headed to the World Series for the first time in more than 40 years. Perhaps Draft Day optimism will rub off on the real-life Draft Day for Cleveland.
“If Draft Day does for the Browns what Major League did for the Indians, that town will be on fire. It’ll be something special,” says Seas.
A fan can dream, at least.