January 1, 2017


The Queen of the Damned (Rob Harvilla, Dec. 14th, 2016, The Ringer)

"I feel sorry for these poor people," says Mary Kay Cabot. "I really do. It's heartbreaking to me." She is gazing forlornly out the press-box window, at all the Cleveland Browns fans.

It is early Sunday afternoon, and the worst team in football is hosting the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium in snowy, frigid, inhospitable downtown Cleveland. Should the home team falter today, its record will drop to an unsightly 0-13. It's getting ugly. Recently, some jokers ran an EA Sports full-game simulation that had the Alabama Crimson Tide beating the Browns 34-0; other jokers closer to home are threatening to throw a parade should the boys achieve perfection and finish 0-16. "It's disrespectful," lamented veteran cornerback Joe Haden to reporters the week before. "We're literally the laughingstock of every joke."

Cabot is among the longest-suffering and highest-profile of those reporters. For many, she is the official Bearer of Bad News, the Goat Whisperer. She's put in 20-plus years at hometown paper The Plain Dealer (online at Cleveland.com), along with regular radio and TV gigs, local and national. This stretches back to before the team's first iteration bolted for Baltimore in the mid-'90s. The Browns' head coach when she started? Bill Belichick.

"If you can survive the Bill Belichick years and live to tell about it, then nothing else that happens is gonna rattle you," she says now. "Nothing. I mean that. Nothing else is gonna rattle you. 'I got this.' I would recommend that to anyone."

Losing does not rattle her, either. For the first time in half a century, she has cause to be jealous of other sportswriters in her own newsroom: The Cleveland Cavs are NBA champs, the Cleveland Indians valiant World Series losers. Whereas the Browns last posted a winning record in 2007, and last played (and lost) a playoff game in 2003. Cabot has overseen an ignoble parade of 20-plus starting quarterbacks, including Johnny Manziel, whose calamitous media flameout, she jokes, brought her so many talking-head opportunities that she got nearly as famous as Johnny Football himself. ("Half the time, more so than anything, I was worried about him.") Her good cheer is admirable, her tenacity galvanizing, her cautious optimism infectious. Generally.

But 0-16 is something else, something new. The Browns, as if in petulant response to the Cavs and the Tribe, are somehow plunging even further. The fans are enraged, the players dejected. And often vice versa. Hue Jackson -- the team's ninth head coach since their 1999 reinstatement -- teared up last month during his postgame press conference when the Giants dropped his squad to 0-12. It's his first year. And should his team end the season as the league's very worst, even the glittering prize of the no. 1 pick in next year's draft -- as of now, not a sure thing, given that the San Francisco 49ers have only one win and hold the tiebreakers -- doesn't much energize a fan base burned by many a rookie disaster, Manziel only the most unfortunate of myriad high-profile, humiliating busts.

There is little else to take, in terms of solace. Quarterback turned wide receiver Terrelle Pryor is one of the Browns' few individual bright spots this year, but lately that has only brought him in for specialized, intensified ridicule. Here is a real game-action photo of him, versus the Giants.

Reporting on all this requires delicacy. And empathy. And, it turns out, bottomless endurance. As the first quarter of the Bengals game unfolds, the few brave ticket-holders outside the press-box window (the stadium is one-third full, maybe) scrape the ice off their seats and huddle around frosty beers, steaming coffee cups, copious nachos. They believe. And so does she. But by the time Cabot first gives voice to her pity and her heartbreak, Cincinnati is already up 13-0.

No one in NFL history has ever made better use of a bye than Mary Kay Cabot. "Well, I always like to say that I wasn't very productive," she recalls of the Browns' three-year post-Baltimore layoff. "But I was very reproductive. I had three children." Those kids are now 20, 18, and 16; "I would not recommend teenagers to anyone," concedes their mother. They're not necessarily huge Browns fans, either, and this, too, dismays her: She worries about a "lost generation of fans" burned by the move and beaten down by two decades of failure since.

Posted by at January 1, 2017 8:44 AM