CLEVELAND — Just when the Browns had settled comfortably into a catchy theme and team identity, something they could rally behind and make rap videos of and otherwise run into the ground out there in Pasadena, something happened.
Fleas 23, Dawgs 20.
Somewhere in this great land, Snoopy is weeping in his dawgdish, and so are Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Old Yeller, Pluto, Goofy, Deputy Dawg, Augie Doggie, Doggie Daddy, Dick and Jane's Spot, Lady and even the Tramp.
Just when our nation was on the verge of being buried under a national blizzard of Dawgmania, the Browns, the Dawgs of Defense, played defense like French poodles.
The Denver Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns Sunday in overtime by a field goal in the AFC (Also-ran Football Conference) championship game. Denver quarterback John Elway and his pals turned a city of woofers into tweeters.
It was an ugly day in Cleveland, cold and windy and snowy. Confetti floated like buckshot.
Even the fans were ugly, but then it's hard to look chic when you're wearing 60 pounds of survival clothing and assorted dog (oops, dawg) makeup and paraphernalia.
The fans brought their banners. Cute stuff.
"Bernie and the Browns--Just a Boy and His Dawgs" . . . "Boneified Champs" . . . "Elpo Bronco Chunks--Dinner for Dawgs."
The crowd looked like a studio audience of "Let's Make a Deal."
The local newspaper supplied a cut-out dawg mask. Not only a nifty fashion accessory, but a handy way to read the paper.
And, of course, the fans brought their "bones." Spectators in the East end-zone seats hurled thousands of real dog biscuits onto the field, some making divots as far out as the 30-yard-line. The most popular brand seemed to be Milkbone, favored for its heft and balance.
Denver wide receiver Steve Watson took a flying bone on the helmet. Now you know why football players wear those hats.
"They ring your helmet," Watson said. "They're hard, especially in the cold weather."
The same was said about the Browns, until late in the game.
The game? Ugly. But then what did you expect? Glamour quarterbacks aside, these were two tough teams, playing trenchball in manly man's weather.
That lake that was lapping angry whitecaps almost up to the gates of Cleveland Stadium is called Erie, not Swan.
Two sailboats were seen out on the lake during the game, in spite of the savage conditions. Excellent timing, and one small consolation for the good sports fans of Cleveland--on the day the football season ended, the yachting season kicked off.
It wasn't supposed to happen that way. Sunday was to be a day of triumph in Cleveland.
"No More Cleveland Jokes," bragged (begged?) one stadium banner.
The city so often maligned and made sport of by the rest of the nation--and world--was going to send its proud warriors off to the Super Bowl.
They were going to do it with style, with barking and bellowing and bluster. It was as if the pride and very future of the city rode on the Browns' shoulders.
But in the end they all left quietly, the players and fans filing silently out of the stadium, beaten like you-know-whats.
You almost had to feel sorry for the Cleveland fans, even if John Elway didn't.
"After hearing them yell 'Elway (bleep)!' all day," Elway said, "my heart doesn't exactly go out to them."
And, to be honest, the local fallen heroes themselves didn't show a lot of outward signs of grief or remorse over having blown a seven-point lead and a Super Bowl trip, dashing the hopes of a suffering city.
Maybe the Browns were simply numb.
The lone exception was nose tackle Bob (Mad Dawg) Golic, the designated sufferer. In the locker room Golic, who looked like he'd been dragged through the streets by a runaway pack of dawgs, sprawled belly-up on a small equipment trunk, covering his eyes, seemingly lifeless.
When no one came to draw a chalk line around the corpse, Golic finally rallied, and sat up. Eyes red with tears, he chatted with the media.
"It's about the lowest thing that's ever happened to me, as far back as I can remember," Golic said.
The other Browns, for the most part, accentuated the positive, no mean feat in this city and this situation, standing knee-high to a Milkbone.
"You've gotta give Denver credit," said Brown quarterback Bernie Kosar, sunglasses hooked in the neck of his sport shirt, just in case. "They played a good game. . . . We believe in ourselves, we believe."
Cleveland wideout Brian Brennan, who caught what most locals thought was the winning touchdown pass from Kosar late in the fourth quarter, said, "To myself, what I think about is coming back next year and trying a little harder. We should have won and we know that, and if we have any feelings for the game and for ourselves, we'll have to come back and aim for next year."
"It was disappointing," said defensive end Carl (Big Daddy Dawg) Hairston. "We had a great year. It's a great bunch of guys and a great coaching staff."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And a great city, a great group of fans, a great gimmick, a great lake. . . .
But in the end it was a great fall.
The Browns suffered it quietly. The mighty Dawgs showered and dressed, slapped on some cologne and filed out of their locker room.
Nothing left for them to do but make one last sweep of the slushy, frozen Cleveland Stadium gridiron. Gotta bury those bones.