CLEVELAND: The sign draped over the railing in the west end zone was almost too optimistic to be real, especially in a stadium where dog masks are the lone vestiges of personality.
It read “11-5 starts today.”
It seemed as if incoming owner Jimmy Haslam III had taken a spray can to a white sheet and let his excitement loose, except that doesn’t seem like the 58-year-old’s style. In his Sigma Chi days at the University of Tennessee, perhaps.
“I wish they would let the fans do that more often,” Browns linebacker and co-captain D’Qwell Jackson said of the message. “It was huge. It took you to that next level. And every guy was talking about it.”
If Haslam sees fit, Browns season-ticket holders will be repurposing old sheets before the snow flies.
At a Tuesday meeting in Chicago, Haslam’s $1 billion purchase of the Browns from owner Randy Lerner will be approved by a vote of NFL owners. So Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium marked the changing of the guard.
The Randy Lerner era ended as it began, with a victory, as the Cincinnati Bengals fell 34-24. The Browns also prevailed after the death of Lerner’s father, Al, in 2002, winning on the road against the New York Jets.
Randy Lerner did not make a postgame locker room appearance; presumably he did not attend. He returned to his home in Long Island after the sale of the team was announced Aug. 2 and has not been seen since.
He missed what seemed like an important victory, not just because of the ownership transition. It also saved Browns coaches and players from the ignominy of a franchise-record 12th consecutive loss. Their 11-game futility mark had been matched only once, in 1974-75. It also marked coach Pat Shurmur’s first AFC North triumph as his team improved to 1-5.
In the closing seconds, Haslam watched from just outside the Browns’ tunnel. When the game ended, he shook hands with two well-wishers and headed to the locker room.
Browns receiver/returner Josh Cribbs said Haslam’s impending ownership was brought up during pregame festivities.
“When we saw the jets fly across at the beginning of the game for the first time in a long time, that’s when the feeling came. It was like, ‘We got jets? Haslam’s in town,’ ” Cribbs said. “Then there were jokes like, ‘That’s his jets.’
“It’s a sign of things to come. He’s really hands-on. He’s down there greeting the fans, greeting the players. We love to see that because he cares. Not saying that past regimes didn’t, but you all know.”
Once upon a time, Browns players loved that Lerner granted their every wish, from valet parking at the stadium to gourmet meals during training camp. In a sense, they seemed spoiled by Lerner’s frivolity.
But for all his ill-fated hires and his well-meaning attempts to get it right, the reclusive Lerner was not the type of owner the Browns players and their fans need.
They need leadership. They need direction. They need someone to shake their hands and pat them on the back and thank them, just like Haslam did Sunday when he entered the triumphant locker room.
“He came over to me and said ‘Man, it was good to get one, it was good to get one,’ ” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. “Then he was messing with me about my Gators tattoo. I said, ‘I’ll get a Tennessee one if you want me to.’ ”
Haslam did not address the team, but rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden figured Haslam will have something to say in the coming days.
“He’s such a great guy. We’re happy for him,” Weeden said. “He’s about to take over a franchise that just won a big divisional game. Hopefully with his help we’ll keep moving forward.”
Jackson was impressed that when Haslam made the rounds that he already knew every player by name.
“You can tell he’s going to be around,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be a good thing.”
Shurmur also felt the Haslam glow. Before Shurmur arrived in the interview room, Haslam peeked in and gave Shurmur’s wife, Jennifer, a thumbs up.
“My conversations with him have been terrific to this point,” Shurmur said. “He has a business model that works and every time we finish a conversation, he keeps asking, ‘What can I do for you?’
“The fact that he was in the locker room after our first victory this season says a lot.”
Cribbs said there is an unseen benefit that Haslam’s presence already brings.
“When we’re out there on the field, it’s not just the fans and the coaches, but the owner’s down here — that’s accountability,” Cribbs said. “If you don’t do well, you know you’ve got the owner watching. He’s not off somewhere, he’s right here down on the sideline looking at us. That lets us know that he cares about us.”
Haslam saw the Browns play their most complete game in two years. He saw the offense start to discover its weapons, survive an injury to running back Trent Richardson and shake off a mind-numbing streak of seven series without a first down. He saw the defense make big plays. He saw their two special-teams mainstays — Cribbs and kicker Phil Dawson — come through again.
Haslam might have discovered the seeds of a credible franchise.
He already knew the incredible support has never waned. Cribbs saw the sign in the end zone, too, and he believed it was a testament to the fans.
“It says that they never give up,” Cribbs said. “We’re 0-5, and they’re still packing the house; they’re still cheering for us. They believe in us. That’s why this is Believeland. And we’re right there with them.”
When the evening ended, “11-5 starts today,” didn’t seem nearly as outlandish as it had a few hours before.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.