In 1849, esteemed British poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, delivered one of the most poignant and oft-quoted lines in the history of the English language:
“‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
Now, in 2017, after years of struggling and countless disappointments, I believe I finally understand the true meaning behind Lord Tennyson’s famous line.
It has to be about the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns.
The Bengals, of course, are the team to have “loved and lost.” Unlike the Browns, the Bengals have been to a Super Bowl — two of them in fact — but proceeded to lose both in historically heartbreaking fashion. Since their deflating Super Bowl loss to Joe Montana and the 49ers in 1988, the Bengals have made the playoffs eight different times and pieced together a stunning record of 0-8 in these playoff games. For reference, the Browns have only made the playoffs three times since 1988, but own a respectable 2-3 record in those trips.
Even in recent history, the Bengals compiled a 52-27-1 record from 2011-2015. However, despite piecing together a nice string of successful seasons, they then proceeded to lose in the first round of the playoffs five seasons in a row — a feat never accomplished before in the current NFL playoff format.
To put Bengal fandom in perspective, I offer this anecdote. I believe there has only been one instance in my life where I sat in complete silence with another group of people for longer than 15 minutes. At church, a preacher will still be delivering his sermon while the masses remain silent in their pews. At the library, you can still hear faint chatter from group projects or overly-caffeinated students tapping away at their keyboards. Even at a funeral you can still hear faint sounds of sniffling and individuals offering their condolences.
No, the only time I have sat in what I believe to be absolute silence was January 9, 2016, immediately following the Wild-Card matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the team from the wrong side of I-70 who shall not be named.
After Jeremy Hill’s inexplicable fumble, Vontaze Burfict’s stupefyingly bone-headed unnecessary roughness penalty and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the Bengals had successfully clutched defeat from the jaws of victory. Immediately afterward, the Bengals fans I was watching the game with proceeded to shut the television off and we sat in absolute silence for seemed like an eternity. I believe there cannot be a worse feeling as a football fan.
Or maybe there is.
See, as painful as the Bengals’ loss felt at the time, there were still silver linings. The team had made the playoffs five years in a row, a record for the Bengals’ franchise. There were still players on the team who were young, about to enter their primes and were signed for the long-term future. Of course, there was also the sweetest consolation prize of them all — it was still better than being the Cleveland Browns.
To go back to Lord Tennyson’s poem, the Browns are certainly the individual “never to have loved at all.” The Browns notoriously have never been to a Super Bowl, finished in last place in the AFC North seven years in a row — with Year Eight not looking too great — and have not been to the playoffs in over 15 years. There’s defining mediocrity, defining ineptness and then there’s whatever the Cleveland Browns have been attempting to do on a football field for the past 15 years.
Since the franchise was rebooted in 1999 — after being unexpectedly and heart-breakingly shipped out to Baltimore by Art Modell — the Browns have put together a lackluster record of 88-207, good for the worst record in the NFL in that span. To make matters worse, the Baltimore Ravens, or the former Browns that Modell shipped out of Cleveland, have gone on to win two Super Bowls and become one of the most consistently successful franchises in the NFL.
After moving back to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have started 26 different quarterbacks, the most in the NFL, and the only quarterback to have started all 16 games for them in a season was Tim Couch in 2001 — although Brandon Weeden came dangerously close in 2012. Other notable quarterbacks to have started a game for the Browns in that span include vaunted gunslinger Seneca Wallace, the always gritty Connor Shaw, whatever a Spergon Wynn III is/was and, of course, the one and only Johnny Manziel.
However, although the Browns have underperformed for longer than most incoming college freshmen have been alive, their fans remain one of the most loyal and diehard fanbases in all of sports. Unlike Bengals fans, who have become overtly cynical through years of heartbreak, Browns fans seem to have learned the art of tempering expectations going into each season. When fans expect to go 3-13, a 4-12 finish is a reason for celebration. When fans expect to go 12-4 and at least make it to the second round of the playoffs, a 10-6 finish with a first-round exit is a complete disappointment.
To bring everything together, I’m not sure if either situation is better than the other. Perhaps the solution is to abandon rooting for each team entirely and latch onto a successful and well-run franchise. Perhaps the solution is to remain loyal to each team through thick and thin. Remember, there was a point in time when the Patriots were a perennial doormat in the NFL. Or maybe the solution is to petition the NFL to ship both teams off to London and take away their burden on Ohio entirely.
Either way, at the end of the day, there will always be one point on which Bengals and Browns fans can both agree… a common hatred of the freakin’ Pittsburgh Steelers.
Questions, comments, accusations that I am biased against your favorite team? (Hi, Steelers fans!) E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org