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Since the franchise was reincarnated as a gimpy runt in 1999, how often have fans of the Cleveland Browns been proud of their team?

After several seasons as cellar dwellers in the years that wrapped around the new millennium, the Browns made the playoffs in 2003, but lost to their “rival,” the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-33 in a first round, gut-wrenching affair that saw the Browns blow fourth quarter leads of 27-14 and 33-21. After glorious and heartbreaking runs to the playoffs in the 1980s, it was the first and last time the modern, discount Browns made the playoffs.

Another “high point” did occur in 2007, when the Browns went 10-6, but no matter – the Steelers won a tiebreaker and achieved the lone AFC North playoff bid that year. Just prior to that season, the Browns had drafted immortal lineman Joe Thomas, who would go on to be the longest tenured Brown of the new era, not missing a snap for 10 otherwise miserable, unwatchable seasons.

Joe Thomas was easy to root for in the sense that he seemed like a passionate guy who wanted to be in Cleveland (bless his heart, as they say in the south, in a most derisive, condescending fashion), but he was a left tackle. Give me the person who gets excited by offensive line play, and I’ll show you a football coach that isn’t very fun to be around.

I think most of us know about the jersey that logs every quarterback who has made a start for the Browns since 1999.

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Believe it or not, that jersey added several more names before finally being retired when the Cleveland Cavaliers somehow won an NBA championship in 2016.

I think most of us are also familiar with the Browns’ recent 0-16 season, which was preceded by a 1-15 season, which was preceded by a blurry, drunken stupor of 3-13, 4-12, and 5-11 seasons.

That’s not fair, in 2014 the Browns were 7-4 and had a real shot at the playoffs but instead reeled off 5 straight losses that included the worst performance I’ve ever seen a Browns quarterback put up (which is saying something) when the Cincinnati Bengals treated Johnny Manziel like dirty laundry en route to a 30-0 drubbing. It was Manziel’s first career start and he threw for 80 yards. We couldn’t have, but probably should have, known it then, but it would be a fair indication of the way Manziel’s once-promising tenure in Cleveland would go. Suffice to say no Browns fan was surprised when it was revealed that Manziel was likely drunk for that start and others, and had never really bothered to read the playbook. College habits die hard.

That 7-9 season was a great example of something I try to explain to everyone who assumes they know the Browns, and how miserable they are. It’s not just that the Browns are incompetent, or perennially terrible at football. It’s that they show these small glimpses of hope at every turn, only to find ways to lose in such consistent, alarming fashion that I should no longer be able to successfully claim surprise, even when I am truly shocked anew. There was the loss the Patriots in 2013 when the Browns lead 26-14 with just over 1 minute remaining. There was the loss to the Saints this year  that the Browns appeared to win on a Tyrod Taylor hail mary with 1:19 remaining, only to miss the go-ahead extra point and then surrender a game winning field goal seconds later. These are not isolated incidents, they are barely memorable chapters in the ongoing saga that is the Cleveland Browns.

Why am I recapping all of this? Why go back down this road? Because on Sunday, I was proud of the Cleveland Browns, even in a losing effort. The 26-24 setback in Baltimore in Week 17 was, somehow, the exclamation point on what I will go ahead and consider the Browns’ first successful season in over a decade.

When Baker Mayfield was drafted in late April, friends checked in: what do you think? Having never played football, I don’t know much about the sport. I can’t tell you what players will pan out and which ones won’t, but this is true of everyone else if they are honest with themselves, especially those people who have evaluated talent and made personnel decisions for the Cleveland Browns since 1999. So, I didn’t know what to say. He seems like a fiery, unique guy. A little small, I guess? Was fun to watch in college. It was tempting to compare him to Manziel, but Mayfield, Manziel, and many others considered that a cheap association, so I tried to tell myself the same – they are two different guys. As Mayfield has shown more and more poise and promise, he’s been more willing to say how he actually felt about those associations – “interesting,” he called them in an interview on Pardon My Take, but saying the word “interesting” in the way people say it when they really mean “I’ve never been more offended by a bunch of bullshit in my life.”

I simply told my friends I felt a cocktail of emotions, and that we’d just have to wait and see. I was reminded by one of those friends that I once believed Brandon Weeden was The Guy. Actually, I’d be embarrassed to take up more of your time listing all of the guys I thought might be The Guy, but let’s just say Cody Kessler is on that list. And to a certain extent, we are going to have to keep waiting to see if Baker is the one – he had an incredible rookie season, undoubtedly lifting the expectations of the Browns to heights I’m not sure we’ve experienced since maybe ever, and now he and the Browns will have to live up to that next season. They will be expected to compete for a spot in the playoffs next year.

That might happen, it might not. Things in the NFL can change on an injury, one play, a set of circumstances nobody could foresee. It’s a fickle league, and on and on. One thing I’m certain of though, is that the Browns showed up on Sunday in a game that meant nothing to them, and everything to the Ravens, and our most bitter “rival,” the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After going down 20-7 in the first half – and coming inches away from being down 27-7, but then again, a whistle away from only being down 20-14 at half – the Browns, dare I say, dominated the second half, outscoring the Ravens 17-7, and looking every bit a worthy adversary on the road against the league’s best defense in a game that shouldn’t have meant a thing to the players wearing white and orange.

It meant everything to us sorry ass Browns fans, though, and the team played like it, driving into Ravens’ territory before the game ended on a crippling fourth down interception  thrown by Mayfield himself, as an all-out blitz came exploding into his face. On that play, Mayfield – so poised all season long, so unafraid – blinked, bracing himself for impact as the throw left his hand like a whimper, falling harmlessly into the arms of Ravens’ stud linebacker CJ Mosley.

It was a disappointing end to a special season, conducted by the only team in professional sports that could claim a 7-8-1 season a success.

In so many ways it felt like a classic Browns-ian ending, I could have seen it coming: a glimmer of hope, taken away in a heartbeat.

The loss continued a dubious streak for the Browns. Just as they have not won a Week 1 game since 2004, the Browns have not won a Week 17 game since 2009.

Baker and the boys – Jabril Peppers, Nick Chubb, David Njoku, Jamie Collins, and too many others to name here – will try and change all of that in 2019. I’m not saying they will, but for once I’m not counting them out.

Knowing what the Cleveland Browns are capable of, hope is a welcome, if terrifying, feeling.