Driving with any efficiency from northern Indiana to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, as I did two weekends ago, yields a damn depressing itinerary. Ohio and West Virginia lie in between, and even second-tier cities like Indianapolis and Cincinnati get passed over in favor of Dayton, Charleston, and Winston-Salem. It’s a dull drive, sans any landmarks of importance, and I struggled to think of ways to entertain myself besides playing a game of “first state to feature a Trump/Pence highway billboard.” (A: None, although in Ohio I did see a delivery truck with the campaign emblem.)
Fortunately, I made the drive on a Sunday, with the Ohio segment falling in the early afternoon, and I was able to witness the particular sadness that is Cleveland Browns game day radio.
The station was WHIO, which I picked up just north of Dayton and held on to for most of the US 35 E corridor until the reception crapped out. More important, I picked up the broadcast right around 2:30, just as the first half was ending between the Browns and the Jets. (The Bengals had played in London earlier in the day; in a 1995 Toyota Camry lacking XM radio, the Browns game was the only option.) Play-by-play announcer Jim Donovan and color analyst Doug Dieken were excited; the seconds were counting down, and Jim was describing how Cody Parkey was setting up to try a 27-yard field goal in front of the fans affectionately known as the Dawg Pound. The kick was up… and through, and the Browns led 20-7 going into the break. It was arguably the best half of football an 0-7 Cleveland team had played all year, even considering it was against an opponent as feckless as the New York Jets.
There are few things more pathetic than a sportswriter claiming “I called that” without proof of it, and since I wasn’t tweeting while driving, I’m about to commit that offense. But as I listened to the radio, I quickly said, out loud, that there was no way the Browns were winning the game.
The reasoning? Well, it’s Cleveland. The team was talentless to start this year and has only been further ravaged by injuries. But even if Cleveland were healthy, it wouldn’t matter: Browns are gonna Browns.
The real giveaway, though, was the announcers’ hopefulness going into the break. Cleveland’s teams are at their best when the stakes are minimal, when expectations have bottomed. For example, the Cavaliers’ success in June came against a historically great Warriors team, and only after the Cavs faced a virtually insurmountable deficit.
Essentially, if Cleveland realizes it’s going to get a nice thing, that nice thing will no longer be in stock when the city gets around to checking out. So it was alarming, though understandable, that the announcers were cheery rather than shrewdly pessimistic about their team’s chances. Because the main thing Cleveland has to do this year to avoid historical embarrassment is to win a game, and, honestly, beating the Jets at home might be as easy as it gets.
To hear the announcers tell it, the Jets were a baked turd in the first half. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a one-man repudiation of the efficient-market hypothesis, celebrated Pi Day in October by going 3-for-14 before the break. The team’s offense produced only one scoring drive and five three-and-outs. By all accounts, the Browns were controlling the game.
The first on-field warning sign for the Browns, as any fan who has followed a team with a bad defense can attest, was that the Jets would receive the second-half kickoff. The next alarm bell, just a few minutes later, was the announcers’ commentary that Fitzpatrick was “getting hot.” A quarterback of Fitzpatrick’s caliber does not get hot on his own; the man is flotsam, occasionally winding up in an environment that conducts heat exceptionally well, e.g., versus a Browns secondary that’s trying to protect a lead. Twelve plays into the second half, it was 20-14.
There really is something to be said for listening to sports on the radio, especially football, where you are blissfully divorced from the violence of the game by some guy’s dulcet tones. You hear the announcers who have called a given team’s games throughout the season, blurring the line between objective and homerific, developing a shorthand and nuanced understanding of their team’s tendencies, good and bad. They become very excited, for example, when outside linebacker Emmanuel Ogbah is playing one of his best games ever and almost sacks Fitzpatrick, rather than being concerned that Fitzpatrick just converted a third-and-12 by passing to someone named Robby Anderson. For teams that are perennially two or three years away, radio announcers are selling The Process, not the product. The goalposts get moved in a manner that—with no visual evidence to measure it against—is more entertaining than obviously incorrect.
What’s also made obvious is the narrow margin between success and failure in the NFL. On the radio, any deep throw causes a rise in both pitch and volume, and the listener is held in great suspense. In the moment, there’s no good way to call a deep ball beyond the point of release—“He lets it flyyyy…”—and, much like a field goal attempt, there’s a great gap between the potential outcomes with little indication of what the result will be. (For fans, trusting radio announcers to serve as reporters, let alone prognosticators, is a horribly misguided endeavor.) So the listener’s anticipatory experience is the same when, say, Fitzpatrick’s first pass of the second half is almost picked off, or Browns quarterback Josh McCown sails a throw beyond an open and streaking Randall Telfer, or Fitzpatrick connects with Quincy Enunwa for a 57-yard play en route to taking a 21-20 lead. There are many moments that can swing a game—for every “Big Play” there are a half-dozen that don’t come to be—and the uncertainty of radio strikingly highlights that.
In some ways, it’s the optimal medium for a Browns fan. Whatever image Jim and Doug can concoct in the mind’s eye will always be preferable to the actual on-field product; whatever nightmarish secondary play that contributes to the Jets’ comeback can be chalked up instead to a quarterback heroically playing the half of his life. The two teams can be as competitive as one wants them to be, and the Browns’ impotence can be blamed on the listener’s personal preference between “cursed” and “incompetent.” An alternate world can be created for the listener, one in which possibility replaces improbability. If and when things become unbearable, as they do when a crackly Jim announces that Matt Forte scored his second touchdown with less than ten minutes left in the game (stretching the Jets’ lead to eight during what will eventually be a run of 24 unanswered points and a 31-28 New York victory), a good oldies station won’t be far away.
Lucas Hubbard is a writer based in Durham, NC, home to a team whose fans don’t have to kid themselves. You should follow him on Twitter.