Bear with me. I have never been to Cleveland, so the trip out to see the Redskins take on the resurgent Browns included visits to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a Cleveland Cavaliers game, a reunion concert, and some serious eats. If you ever find yourself in the greater Cleveland area around Christmas, by the way, be sure to have a couple of Great Lakes Christmas Ales. Solid beer. The other details of this trip may not matter to you, and if this is the case, you can jump ahead to my Redskins Browns observations here.
I also have to say that it was hard to focus on raging it up in Cleveland considering the horrific events of Friday in Connecticut. Heart wrenching, every detail, and it certainly made our trip seem insignificant and trivial in the grand scheme of things.
Rolling out 70 West with my buddy Patrick, I thought of a few themes that I would be interesting to investigate over the course of the weekend. Many people (aside from Patrick and his family) consistently referred to Cleveland as the "mistake by the lake," a pretty hardcore trashing of a city that has a fair amount of history, sports and otherwise. Was this true? I was also pondering the treatment I would receive as a Redskins fan in a city filled with long suffering fans, not unlike sports fans in Washington. I certainly wasn’t sporting any Ravens or Steelers gear, but the opposition is the opposition, regardless of origin. How would the food be? Would Patrick’s family make me sleep on the front lawn if the ‘Skins won? How did the sports facilities in Cleveland compare to other venues, football and otherwise? Each question made for good discussion for the first couple hours of the six hour hike, the remaining time spent griping about how long the drive was, and the intensity of the gas that Patrick’s dog, Cribbs, seemed to have. Yes, his dog is named after the Browns’ kick returner.
The weather was pretty solid, despite a bit of rain on Saturday, throughout the weekend. We set out early afternoon on Friday to take in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a sort of pilgrimage for me. This is a great feature of the city of Cleveland, and it was the perfect place to start my evaluation of the "mistake by the lake" (here forward MBTL). The sightlines of the RnR HoF in the foreground and Cleveland Browns Stadium just beyond set a tone that would be recurrent throughout the weekend- this town is about music and sports, or sports and music.
One thing to note about Cleveland- there are only Cleveland sports fans. Living in the MVA region, one can see virtually every professional sports team represented on shirts, hats, jackets, cars- you name it. Not in Cleveland. Everyone is a Cleveland sports fan. Aside from myself and one lone Ravens fan, of all teams, I did not see any other teams represented until we got to the football game Sunday (of course we end up parking next to the only Cowboys fan in the city of Cleveland, who tried to sell me a Redskins t-shirt. He never explained what he was doing with a ‘Skins T--maybe hedging his bets on the end of the season).
Music, too, seemed to be everywhere. Bands that had played in various bars, the significance of Cleveland in the history of rock music, the pride every bar showed in displaying autographed head shots of musicians- music and sports seemed to be at the core of what the town is all about. The Rock Hall was a great place to get the ball rolling for my Cleveland experience, and one of the first places I will go back to on my next trip to C-Town. After the first afternoon, I certainly did not have any MBTL feeling just yet.
After a quick stop in the Browns Team Shop for Patrick to get a new hat, we were on to the Cavaliers pregame. The downtown area of Cleveland was like many other cities- plenty of people hustling about, Christmas lights, bars open for business and starting to fill up with basketball fans and happy hour revelers. Patrick had talked up a place called Panini’s Bar and Grill, home of one of the best sandwiches in town. Being a sandwich connoisseur myself, it seemed like the perfect joint to grab a bite before the Cavs game. Spotting the aforementioned Christmas Ale on tap, I decided to get into the holiday spirit with a pint, not knowing the reputation that this seasonal had around town. I won’t spend any more time discussing this brew aside from saying that Patrick and I ended up splitting a $50 case to bring home with us. It went perfectly with the steak and cheese Panini sandwich I got, complete with fries and cole slaw- on the sandwich. Quality food to be sure. Next time I am going to try the turkey.
After bouncing to a couple of other bars, we found our way into Quicken Loans Arena, or The Q, for the Cavs Bucks game. Seriously, Christmas Ale is everywhere in this town-even the arena. I won’t say much about the hoops game since this is supposed to be about football, but again, the sports theme of Cleveland was readily apparent at the game, even in the half- filled arena. Though the Cavs lost a tough one, they showed some toughness and attitude that permeates the city. A seat upgrade to a courtside box certainly didn’t hurt our experience either. Add a couple more Christmas Ales for me, and we left in good spirits despite the outcome of the game.
Saturday would need to be a low key day considering what I had heard about the Browns tailgate scene, so we took it easy during the day, prepping for the game and watching some college hoops. Of course, we built a solid meal into Saturday as well, with a trip to Geraci’s Pizza prior to heading over to the Sons of Elvis reunion concert. Being from New Jersey (don’t ask about the Redskins connection- I know it doesn’t make too much sense), I know good pizza. It’s rare in Maryland, but prominent at Geraci’s in the Cleveland suburbs. Satisfied with another good meal, we moved on to see Patrick’s brother and his band rock the F out at the Grog Shop in their first and last show in 15 years. Here’s a clip from the show, which absolutely rocked Sons Of Elvis . That’s me getting down in the front row- grey hat, curly hair. Skins freak, food freak, music freak. After too many shots, we needed to get back to Patrick’s parents’ house so we could try and get physically (and for me, mentally) prepared for the ultimate reason we had made the trip.
I have not been to a Redskins road game since 2008- a debacle of a loss to the Ravens. I generally don’t like road games. That is most likely because I dislike the fans of every other team in the NFL. It’s nothing personal, but I am a Redskins fan, and the rest of them suck. I will say that, despite the lack of any connection between the Skins and the Browns, aside from the ‘Skins grabbing Robert Griffin III before the Browns could, I still felt a bit of apprehension as we pulled into the Municipal Lot at 8 am on Sunday morning. We were late. Yes, at 8 am, we were the late ones. The lot was practically full already, with more team-related vehicles than I have ever seen at any sporting event. This was just another clear indication that, despite the futility and lack of success that Cleveland has had in sports lately, this fan base is incredibly passionate and loyal.
Another thing that was clear as we got out of the car and unpacked the tailgate- I was one of very few Washington fans who made the trip. I could only manage to see a smattering of burgundy and gold in the lot. Nonetheless, people were generally cool to me for the first three hours of the day. A few Browns fans walked by us, directing the customary "asshole, asshole" chat that I later learned was a tradition in Cleveland. Around 11:00 am the first shit talkers came by with some numbers, a group of Browns fans who I had to get a picture with. Visible on their faces- their attitudes toward me and the Washington Redskins. Between the three of them, I must have heard the phrase "He gonna be cryin’ later" at least 17 times. They were cool guys who could talk some football, so it was all good.
Knowing RGIII was out was a blow, but I still had some confidence, which I wisely kept to myself. Let’s face it, the team has been playing well in all facets, so I felt we had a chance to win even with Cousins under center. Browns fans, however, wanted to play against RGIII. Cleveland entered the week with a win streak of their own, running the ball effectively, playing solid defense, and enjoying some success with their own rookie quarterback. I thought it was a testament to Browns fans that they were disappointed to be facing Kirk Cousins, preferring to face our best instead of a 2nd string rookie.
We made our way toward Cleveland Browns Stadium around 12:30, Patrick giving me fair warning that I would be "running the gauntlet," the end of the Muni Lot that took me past dozens of buses with Browns fans on the roofs, raining down insults (and, I would imagine, projectiles of all sorts had I been wearing an AFC North-related jersey) and negative comments as I, and the few other Washington fans in attendance, made our way toward the stadium. Again, the "asshole, asshole" chants came my way, and one dude got in my face in an attempt to force me to walk through a pile of I-don’t-even-know-what that had been created in the middle of the lot. I managed to step over it, for the most part, and kept my mouth shut as we progressed toward the stadium. It was an intense crowd experience, pressing through toward the gates. The Browns fans let up as we approached the stadium, at least from what I can remember.
Our seats were on the home side in the corner endzone. The stadium itself is a nice place to watch a football game. The weather was nice, so we didn’t deal with the lake wind I had heard so much about.
The first half was tough to watch, however, as Trent Richardson scored two touchdowns and the Browns looked like they were going to continue their solid play against us. I had predicted two picks for Cousins, and the first one came early on, almost returned for a six. The kid seemed to settle after that, and I was impressed with his maturity. While he had played well in relief of RGIII against the Ravens, I thought he would be in trouble if they got to him early. Clearly not the case. For the record- the Redskins should NOT trade Cousins. Nothing wrong with having two capable QBs on the team, especially considering the risks that RGIII takes. Anyway, The ‘Skins answered the Browns with a touchdown of their own, and I managed a quick, hardly noticed fist pump as they tied the game up. There was a Skins fan a couple rows in front of us who was running his mouth for most of the game, which made it easy for me to play the good guy ‘Skins fan who was largely welcomed and accepted by the Browns fans in our section. We were also sitting in Patrick’s dads seats, and I wasn’t about to be disrespectful considering that. By the end of the half, however, I was not feeling as confident. We were having trouble stopping Trent Richardson, and while we only trailed by 4, I felt there was a chance we had overlooked the Browns and were facing a crucial letdown game.
Boy was I wrong. The Skins got things back on track early in the second half with a nice pick by Rob Jackson, which led to an Alfred Morris touchdown to put Washington ahead. The Redskins wouldn’t relinquish the lead for the remainder of the game. Hankerson’s touchdown, the ‘Skins second of the third quarter, came with only five minutes or so off the clock in the second half, if memory serves. The Browns then went away from Richardson, deciding to put the game on Brandon Weeden’s shoulders. The Skins were efficient on defense, though, and the offense protected the ball the rest of the way. Evan Royster added another six, and even though Weeden connected on a deep ball to Benjamin Watson to pull within ten, the Redskins didn’t get rattled or stumble toward the finish. Driving 76 yards down the field, Fro Mo punched it in one more time for the final scoring play of the game. Redskins win, 38-21.
We exited the stadium to a much quieter crowd than the one we had entered to, and it was clearly evidenced by the dude passed out on the hood of his (or just a) car right in front of us.
The Redskins proved they could win on the road with a backup rookie QB, and they showed that there seems to be very little that this team can’t overcome.
As far as Cleveland goes- I left on Monday with a list of things I will use to argue that this town is by no means the MBTL that some claim it to be. They are passionate about sports, music, food, and booze. They celebrate their teams and party as hard in Week 15 as it seems they do in Week 1, despite setbacks, managerial changes, and whatever else could happen in the weeks following the season. There is a pride that exists throughout the city, and it doesn’t need wins on the field to be perpetuated. I saw a lot of parallels between the Redskins and the Browns over the course of my time in Cleveland. And lets face it- most ‘Skins fans I know would MUCH rather prefer a successful Cleveland Browns team than a perennial winner that the former Browns, the Baltimore Ravens, have become. Well, until this year anyway.