Let’s get this part out of the way: as a native Pittsburgher I revel in the Cleveland Browns’ constant dysfunction. The numbers are mythological: since 1999, the Browns have had 22 starting quarterbacks, seven GMs, eight head coaches and two owners. They are 84-172 in 13 losing seasons over that period. The team is George Washington on the Mt. Rushmore of football incompetence, its wasted draft picks and putrid win-loss record a symptom of Cleveland’s diseased football culture. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora diagnosed the problems last week as a cancer formed in the owner's suite and metastasizing through the front office and locker room.
Which brings us to the latest sad chapter in the Browns’ saga, that net year's presumptive starting QB Johnny Manziel is in rehab for an unknown personal issue, and that when -- or if -- he returns, wideout Josh Gordon won't be an option because Gordon will spend the 2015 season suspended for another violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. With a weak free agency class, the Browns already need to spend yet another draft pick on a quarterback -- Hello, Number 23! -- and will also have to address the WR position. If I were a fan of this team my head would spin, but Clevelanders are so used to it they no longer give me the satisfaction of gloating. This team is so bad it’s not even fun to laugh at anymore.
And that's what makes Manziel and Gordon so tragic. Almost no one outside Cleveland will care if two of the league’s most exciting young stars fade into oblivion without realizing their potential. Manziel-Gordon had the potential to be the most entertaining duo (outside of Roethlisberger-Brown) in an AFC North that was the most competitive division in football last season. Instead, their stories were mostly about what happened off the field: namely Josh not being allowed on it and Johnny almost never being prepared for it. Quarterback controversy ensued. The Browns were the division's only team to miss the playoffs, and neither guy made a significant contribution when it might've helped salvage a turnaround season for a desperate franchise. When’s the last time a roster included both the most watched quarterback taken in the first round and the prior year’s top receiver, and both players were entirely irrelevant to a tight playoff race?
Only in Cleveland is this possible. Nobody anywhere else cares.
Suspending cynicism and taken at face value, Johnny Football checking himself into rehab is a good thing. It may or may not save his Browns career, but he’s still young enough to have a long NFL campaign assuming he actually possesses the NFL-level talent which he has yet to display. Years ago, a young Brett Favre beat addiction to painkillers and problems with alcohol -- again, we’re not sure exactly what Manziel is getting help for -- and went on to a Hall of Fame career.
By the same token, Gordon’s open letter to his critics suggests he has the introspection to accept responsibility for his situation. Actions, though, speak louder than words and it was Gordon’s own choices precipitated the criticism to which he felt compelled to respond. Again, there’s a Hall of Fame example (Chris Carter) of a receiver who beat back problems with substance abuse -- and it’s worth noting that Gordon insists he does not have a drug or alcohol problem -- to have a stellar career.
But Carter and Favre never played for the Browns. They were never the provinces of a perpetual also-ran team whose owners had federal investigations hanging over their heads and mass coaching exoduses annually. Had either of them fallen short of their on-field potential because of their off-field problems, most football fans would recognize how much poorer the game would have been for it. For Josh and Johnny, history may not be nearly as kind. Should they not turn it around, their failures won’t ever be viewed as tragic for the NFL.
Instead, they’ll be footnotes at the end of yet one more wretched chapter of an impotent football team.