Pull up a chair by the campfire and I will tell you a spooky story this Halloween--a chilling tale about the most haunted and cursed profession in sports. It begins a long long time ago, when the internet was still dial-up, in a far far away land called Cleveland.
The date is April 17th, 1999. It's the first day of this year's NFL draft and the Browns are back. Literally.
Before the start of the 1996 season, owner Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore to become the Ravens. Modell had reportedly said he would never move the Browns and criticized other owners who chose to relocate their teams, but after several seasons of reportedly hemorrhaging money, Modell went back on his word. It was a move that would haunt the city forever.
Cleveland was one of the premiere organizations of early professional football, playing in a league championship game in each of their first ten years as a franchise. Unfortunately, they could not sustain that success, and following a championship in 1964, a few years before the Packers would win the NFL's first Super Bowl, the Browns slipped into mediocrity for the better part of 30 years. But now it's 1999, and like the cliche ending of a rom-com movie, these two hopeless romantics--the city of Cleveland and the sport of football--are getting the chance to try to fall in love all over again with a clean slate.
That year the NFL expanded to 31 teams by bringing the Cleveland Browns back into the fold. The sounds of the passionate, barking fans that make up Cleveland's beloved Dawg Pound rang through the air. The Browns had the first pick in the draft and a 6 foot 4 inch All-American quarterback from Kentucky who just set the SEC record for passing yards in a season. Tim Couch was the prospect expected to lead the Browns for the next decade or more.
Until he wasn't.
Tim Couch: A Mistake on the Lake
Couch went 22-40 in his five years with the Browns. He managed only one 300-yard passing game in his career. Couch was the starting point of 20-plus years of futility and instability at the quarterback position for the Cleveland Browns that continues today, making the position the most haunted and cursed in professional sports. It's a run that has been chronicled in many ways by the infamous "Browns QB Jersey", displayed in the window of a local Cleveland ad agency.
In 24 seasons since the 1999 rebirth of the Browns, the franchise has started 34 different quarterbacks including Couch. Cleveland has used five first-round selections on signal callers. They have one playoff victory. It is the epitome of a haunting level of futility.
The year after they picked Couch, the Browns drafted a quarterback in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL draft named Spergon Wynn. Wynn started one game for the Browns and lost 48-0. He never threw a single touchdown pass for Cleveland. The next quarterback drafted in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL draft? Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. You might have heard of him.
One of the other 34 different quarterbacks who started for the Browns was Doug Pederson. You might recognize him as the current coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the head coach who led Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles to a victory over Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl 52. Yet with Cleveland, in the cursed role of quarterback of the Browns, Pederson took snaps in 10 games with a 1-9 record. His performances under center for the Browns were absolutely haunting.
There have been several times the Browns thought they had acquired someone who would break the curse of their quarterback. In 2007, the Browns traded a second round pick and future first-rounder to select Notre Dame's Brady Quinn in the first round. Quinn would play in just 14 games with the Browns over 3 seasons. In what he would describe as a career plagued by injuries and coaching changes, Quinn went 4-10 in those games with 10 TDs and nine interceptions.
Money Manziel Goes Bankrupt
Again in 2014, the Browns thought they had found their savior, trading up in the first round to select Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at the end of the first round. But Johnny Football's career would turn into a spooky story of what might have been, after a 3-11 record in two seasons with the Browns that was more notable for what Manziel was doing off the field than on it.
The Browns held the first overall pick in 2018 after a horrifying winless season the prior year. Cleveland selected another Heisman winner, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. Mayfield did have several highlights during his tenure, including a memorable win in his NFL debut which unlocked fridges of free Bud Lights for Cleveland fans. His time with the Browns peaked when he led Cleveland to its first playoff victory in more than 25 years, but ultimately his four-year career with the Browns ended with a trade to Carolina this past off-season.
The Browns decided Mayfield wasn't the quarterback they wanted to invest a large second contract in or build their franchise around. After an underwhelming start to the season in Carolina, Baker will presumably remain on the bench, because the Panthers don't want the conditional pick they traded for him to increase. His best hope to play again in 2022 would likely require yet another trade. Sounds like a guy finally hit by the Cleveland Curse of QB1s.
So if the Browns didn't want to invest in Mayfield to lead them, who did they choose to take the reins instead? The team decided to trade a package of picks--including 3 first-round selections--to Houston for Deshaun Watson. Despite Watson being embroiled in legal issues, Cleveland opted to sign him to a five-year $230 million dollar fully-guaranteed contract before Watson took a single snap for the team.
Deshaun of the Dead
The Browns assured fans they did their due diligence before trading for Watson, who had 24 women file sexual misconduct civil lawsuits against him, but the legal situation surrounding Watson only worsened after the trade. Watson has since settled with all but one of the accusers. While Watson's former team the Houston Texans deny any wrongdoing, they also reached a settlement with 30 of his accusers.
Before the start of this season Watson was suspended by the NFL for the first 11 games of 2022 and has yet to take a regular season snap for Cleveland. It remains to be seen if Watson will ever have a positive impact for the Browns and the city of Cleveland. He hasn't thrown a meaningful pass in the NFL since the end of the 2020 season, the week before Mayfield led the Browns to that playoff win.
This brings us to today, where the Browns are led by journeyman quarterback Jacoby Brissett, as they wait for Watson to serve out the rest of his suspension. While Brissett has filled in admirably, the Browns are 2-5 with four of their losses by 3 points or less. Cleveland's likelihood of making the playoffs sits at just 6 percent, according to simulations done by The New York Times. A ghastly ending seems likely for yet another season that began with optimism and hope.
Is the role of quarterback for the Cleveland Browns cursed by Art Modell's decision to move the team to Baltimore? Hard to say. But as the Browns get ready for a Monday Night Football matchup against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals, we can't help but be reminded that Burrow has won 3 times as many playoff games in two full seasons than the Browns have won since that move more than 25 years ago.
It doesn't seem like this haunting story will have one of those 'happily ever after' type endings anytime soon. Instead it remains--a tale as old as time. A song as old as rhyme. Cleveland and the QB.
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