Jim Donovan is getting stopped in the streets now and it’s no longer with looks of pity.
“They just say, ‘Jim, I am so happy for you. You get a chance to call exciting football games.’ It really is [exciting], too. We’ve waited a long, long time,” said Donovan, the radio voice of the Browns since 1999, when the franchise returned to Cleveland.
That feeling seemed to emanate throughout a country of football-loving fans as the Browns went from 0-16 to 7-8-1 last season. But the narrative shifted in the offseason amid a mountain of hype and coverage around the team. Baker Mayfield’s confidence suddenly felt cocky as one lengthy magazine feature after the next rolled in. Odell Beckham Jr. was acquired and then stirred controversies.
“Stop, stop, stop,” SNY analyst and former Jets quarterback Ray Lucas said somewhere in between “Cleve” and “Land” at the start of a reporter’s question before the season started.
“I don’t want to hear about them. … You put a whole bunch of individuals on one team, you get a whole bunch of individual play. I am sorry. People are crowning these guys already. I don’t want to talk about the Cleveland Browns. I can’t stand it. Every time I hear someone say the Cleveland Browns are going to the playoffs, it makes me vomit.”
It might be a long season for Lucas. Monday’s 23-3 mauling of the Jets was the first of at least four prime-time Browns games this season. There also are a handful of games upcoming in the national 4:25 p.m. time slot. Ratings for “Monday Night Football” were up 7 percent over last season’s Week 2 Monday night game (Bears-Seahawks) and people were not staying tuned in for the Luke Falk Experience.
“Here in Cleveland we were not used to this; we’re used to sympathy instead of skepticism,” Donovan — who hosts a Browns-centered show, “Dawg Pound Radio,” with Bernie Kosar on SiriusXM — said of the changing narrative.
“When people like Colin Cowherd were going after Mayfield, people really got upset here. It’s really amazing, because in Cleveland we are learning how to deal with all this right now, as far as football is concerned. We are all learning what it’s like to be in a big game.”
The first one comes Sunday, when the NFC champion and 2-0 Rams come to Cleveland for a Sunday night showdown. It is the first time since 2008 — a 10-6 loss to the Steelers — NBC has come to Cleveland. There have been a lot of defeats in between.
That hyped 2008 team — coming off a 10-6, but playoff-less season — had five prime-time games, but went 4-12 and the franchise didn’t sniff relevance again until last season.
This season started with a 43-13 loss to the Titans, and while the win over the Jets included some big plays by Beckham, it was mostly against a first-time quarterback in Falk.
But, for now, there is hope and that’s more than they have had in the past.
“It really was a test,” Donovan said of the winless 2017 campaign. “I can look back at it and say, it made you better at what you do. You’d go to the game and realistically look out on the field and say, ‘There’s no way you can win this game today.’
“And yet you had to keep it interesting, so I would go crazy if they got a first down or a nice three-and-out. It made you appreciate the fun now that they have turned it around.”
That is where the Browns are now, the polarizing team at the center of the NFL stage.
“Having them back on Sunday night will be great fun,” NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels said. “Let’s face it, no matter which team it is, you can’t keep them down forever. The league is set up that way with the draft and the salary cap. This game against the Rams will be special.”