They won’t play in 2019 unless it’s in Super Bowl LIV, but perhaps no two NFL teams are as tightly linked as the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns.
At the heart of the national recession in 2009, comedian Mike Polk Jr. created a series of Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos that lampooned the city as it fought through some of its darkest hours. Among the shots taken as the narrator sings: … come and look at both of our buildings, here’s a place where there used to be industry … see our river that catches on fire … our economy’s based on LeBron James!
The final punchline of the video is the catch-phrase for potential Cleveland tourists, as the narrator happily sings out: It could be worse though, at least we’re not Detroit! Then stamped across the screen: Cleveland: We’re not Detroit.
In addition to shrinking populations, massive unemployment, and foreclosed houses selling for the price of VCR’s, both Detroit and Cleveland boasted NFL franchises in 2009 that were among the country’s worst. Right before Thanksgiving, the 1-8 Detroit Lions hosted the 1-8 Cleveland Browns at Ford Field, a game that was blacked out in the Detroit market, and therefore some parts of northern Ohio as well.
With the official attendance only 2/3 of capacity and the entire metro Detroit area unable to watch on TV, rookie Matthew Stafford led a miraculous comeback and suffered a shoulder injury throwing a Hail Mary as the clock expired. A pass interference penalty put the ball at the one, and a timeout on the field allowed Stafford to evade the Lions’ trainers and rejoin the huddle.
On the untimed down, a clearly injured Stafford hit Brandon Pettigrew in the end zone for a thrilling 38-37 victory. Stafford’s courage quickly became the stuff of NFL Films legend, as he was mic’d up for the whole thing.
The win did nothing except bring the Lions to 2-8, and Stafford didn’t play another down in 2009. Still, only able to listen from the radio at my college friends’ off-campus apartment in Ann Arbor, this remains my second favorite Lions’ game of all time. You can almost hear the narrator from a Hastily Made Lions Hype Video singing: … Our defense just got shredded, by Brady Quinn … our rookie QB is out for the season … our next ten games will all end in losses … But at least we’re not…the Browns!
Bound by fate
Detroit and Cleveland, both as cities and as pro football teams, have such a synergic connection to each other that it often feels like their fortunes are directly related. From their peaks in the industrial era to shared NFL dominance in the 1950s, to long and painful declines when the national economy flipped, to hitting rock bottom (again, the cities and the football teams) in the early decades of the 2000s, right up to Dan Gilbert’s heavy investment in the recovery efforts of both cities.
Taking a closer look at the Browns and Lions, it’s hard to find two NFL franchises whose trajectories follow such an eerily similar path. To review:
- 4 NFL championships for each team, but none in the Super Bowl era (no Super Bowl appearances either).
- 6 NFL championships combined in the 1950s (3 for the Browns, 3 for the Lions), including four head-to-head matchups in the championship game.
- Decade-long playoff droughts kickoff off at the turn of the century. The Lions went from 2000 until 2011 without a playoff game, the Browns haven’t made it since the 2002 season.
- Each team has exactly one playoff win since 1990.
- Bill Belichick was unsuccessful while on the coaching staff for both teams.
- They are the only two teams in league history to go 0-16.
- Each picked a quarterback from the state of Texas with the #1 overall pick following their winless seasons.
Keeping up with the Browns
Here’s where the parallel paths take a detour heading into 2019: While few pundits seem to expect much out of the Lions again, the Browns suddenly have a bandwagon following.
Due to an impressive rookie year from No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, along with a series of major offseason moves that have gotten rave reviews from around the league, the Browns are hot. Cleveland is possibly the most improved team in the NFL, with expectations of a playoff run and possibly more in 2019.
For two teams whose successes and failures seem to be inextricably linked, what does this mean for the Lions? Is the rising tide for the Browns part of some grand cosmic shift that means the boats in Detroit are about to be lifted as well?
The final punchline of Cleveland’s whirlwind of offseason activity is that for three of the Browns’ major decisions (regarding Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham Jr, and Greedy Williams), the Lions were very much in position to make a play for all three of them and for various reasons chose not to*.
Based on their remarkably shared histories, optimism in Cleveland should also mean optimism in Detroit. If the Browns indeed make the jump to the upper reaches of the NFL in 2019, it can only mean that the Lions will be right there with them, right?
*Hunt, Beckham, and Williams ending up as Browns rather than Lions will be the topic of my next week’s post.