Somewhere in Cleveland, Hue Jackson poured over the game book, studied the video to near-exhaustion and even called his friends back in the Bay Area, asking one overarching question.
“How the hell do we shake those guys?”
“Those guys” are the San Francisco 49ers, who yet again snatched humiliating defeat from the jaws of, well, normal defeat, this time in five quarters at the hands of the monumentally inert New York Jets, 23-17.
Yes. The New York Jets. In overtime. Within the friendly confines of Empty Seats As Far As The Eye Can See Stadium. Despite Carlos Hyde gaining 11 percent of an entire mile rushing. After scoring the game’s first two touchdowns and holding the Jets to two field goals FOR 55 MINUTES, for the love of God.
Frankly, degradation isn’t usually this comprehensive.
But the 49ers know how to overcome good fortune, because they do it with such amazing consistency. While Jackson’s Cleveland Browns, who are utterly unmarred by the taint of victory, usually take their cue early and go right into the tank, the 49ers typically score first and then seek out and inhabit the tank.
In short, while the Browns are indisputably the worst team in football based on the only metric that matters, the 49ers are showing no signs of letting them simply back into the standing-on-your-head-when-you-look-at-the-standings championship.
Frankly, it is the logical extension of the civic rivalry begun and now cemented by the Warriors and Cavaliers. You may think that this is merely a battle for the first pick in the NFL Draft (although you’ve seen the players both teams draft, so why the hell would you want any part of that?), but it is much more than that.
It is for civic bragging rights at both ends of the competition spectrum. It is taking the last five minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals in which only one person (Kyrie Irving) made a field goal and stretching it across an entire NFL season. This is bloodsport entertainment, only without a blow being struck by either foe, and you will watch every foul, fetid moment of it or regret your sense of misplaced dignity for the rest of your life.
The Browns are 0-13, the 49ers 1-12. The Browns are 2-11 against the spread, the 49ers 2-10-1. The Browns are 31st in points per game, the 49ers a lofty 25th. The Browns are 29th in yards per game, the 49ers are 30th. The Browns are 30th in time of possession, the 49ers 32nd. The Browns are 30th in yards allowed per play, the 49ers 29th. The Browns are 32nd in margin of defeat, the 49ers 31st. The Browns are 31st in third downs converted, the 49ers 30th.
We’d go on, but you get the point. The Browns may be hailed as the team closest to the earth’s crust, but the 49ers still have three games left to catch them – or, more precisely, to allow the Browns to catch them.
And yes, this matters. If you must focus on just winning teams, fine, but if that is so, your life is a shallow tedious mess, and the people who consider you a friend to your face really see your essential shallowness and front-running nature and will spurn you at the first opportunity.
No, true character is found in the endurance of grisly, unwatchable defeat, wallowing in the kind of adversity the Browns and 49ers have constructed for themselves on a weekly basis. Browns and 49ers fans are doing what even Jaguars fans (who have seen two wins and therefore are spoiled rotten) cannot – been enslaved by the inevitable, and left to decide whether to stop caring or lying to their co-workers about not caring any more.
And since the soulless brutes in the National Football League office don’t see the wisdom in matching Nos. 31 and 32 in an epic postseason battle for none of the marbles, we are left to three more weeks of potentially spectacular fails (or if you must, "games") most football "fans" would avoid as though they were held in Anthrax Memorial Stadium during a meteor shower.
These next three games will indeed tell the tale, as you might have guessed. There are eminently winnable games for both, if you believe that on any given Sunday any team can vomit all over itself against even the slightest of opponents.
The Browns are in Buffalo next week (expect good weather here, if you’re a polar bear) while the 49ers are in Atlanta (and watching Matt Ryan shred them like so much ambulatory parmesan). Then the Browns host the rapidly cratering San Diego Chargers (who will love the weather waiting for them on Christmas Eve) while the 49ers go to Los Angeles (to see if they can actually lose a game in which the opponent doesn’t score). And finally, the Browns finish in Pittsburgh (which will be fighting for a playoff spot, most likely, and in no mood to humor their inferiors) while the 49ers host the division-winning Seahawks (who will probably be starting Felix Hernandez just for giggles).
In short, this isn’t settled yet, not by a long shot. The Warriors and Cavaliers have each won a championship from the other, but the Browns and 49ers have never even met in a playoff game.
So these must be our playoffs now. Two teams at the zenith of their dreadfulness fighting for the right to be considered the God-awfulest of the God-awful.
So hurray civic lack of pride! Hurray being the best at being the worst! Hurray for more concentrated abject failure! Because as we have learned about success, failure isn’t failure unless you do it all the way.