'One of these days:' What it's like to be an NFL fan in Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland

Part protest, part show of loyalty, the "perfect season" parade in Cleveland gave Browns fans an outlet to express themselves following an 0-16 season. AP Photo/Tony Dejak

It was quiet. It was a half-hour before the NFL playoffs started, and out-of-town college basketball filled three of the televisions at The Clevelander Bar & Grill. Just one screen focused on the NFL pregame. No one inside the bar seemed to care much anyway.

The stools around the bar were full in this downtown Cleveland establishment, but otherwise, it was empty. The bartender, Maria Perkio, had time to chat with anyone. Some customers had been at the Browns "perfect season" parade/protest earlier in the day. Others were there just because it was a Saturday afternoon in frigid Cleveland. As for the NFL playoffs, it was almost like it didn’t matter that the game was on. The thought of the Browns in the playoffs was met with stifled laughter.

This is current playoff football in Cleveland. This season, they watched for 16 weekends. They saw 16 losses. And on a day when the postseason was starting, there was a protest instead. Two of the four televisions remained on college basketball at kickoff.

“After every Sunday of disappointment, to come down to going 0-16, I feel like it’s almost comical, you almost have to come down and celebrate it,” said Trey Hanes, 21, from Findlay, Ohio. “We all watch the games together, and it makes it seem like they are going to win, and they end up losing. We need some change.”

At least they hope it’ll happen. Adam Endicott, who drove from Findlay with Hanes, said he has a specific savings account that he has been putting money into to go to the Super Bowl when the Browns make it. He has been saving for about a year, setting aside $20 every now and then so he can pay for himself and his dad to go if it ever happens.

One of their friends, Jake Schmidt, joked: “He has plenty of time to save.”

Browns fans have lived decades of what-ifs and agony, similar to their counterparts in rust-belt cities Detroit and Buffalo. Yet year after year, they come back. They hope. They stick through the anguish of rooting for a perennial loser. But on this day in Cleveland, it’s worth wondering what the empty Clevelander would look like for a Browns playoff game.

“Ass to elbows right now,” one Clevelander employee said. “Wouldn’t be able to see the floor.”

The trio from Findlay lamented life as Browns fans -- story after story of screaming at the TV on Sundays, of anxiously wanting wins but knowing what would come, of jokingly blaming their dads for getting them into this. But still, they hope. Perkio said that if the Browns ever make the playoffs, lines to get in the Clevelander would be out the door.

“It’s one of those where once it pays off, it’s going to really pay off,” Schmidt said. “Like one of these days.”

One of these days was Sunday morning in Buffalo. It was a little after 10 a.m. outside 716 Food and Sport in downtown Buffalo, and the line only imagined in Cleveland was indeed out the door. More than 18 stories above the bar in the Marriott hotel, chants of “Let’s Go Buffalo” and “Let’s Go Bills” were audible.

The Bills’ wild-card game wasn't starting for almost three hours. The euphoria of an unexpected playoff berth led fans to be outside in single-digit temperatures in order to get in, waiting to party like it was 1999 and Y2K.

They have lived through the close calls, and last weekend, they saw one work out for them. This was excitement shown nationwide over the past week, with donations to Andy Dalton’s charitable foundation after the Bengals quarterback passed the Bills into the playoffs by beating Baltimore. Dalton later thanked Bills fans with a billboard along a Buffalo highway.

When Dalton’s touchdown was shown on the big screen in pregame, the whole bar cheered. Balloons in Bills colors and Bills helmets were everywhere. Reservations for tables in the two-floor establishment were booked an hour after the Bills clinched. Signs reading “The Drought is Over! 1999-2017 Let’s Go Buffalo!” adorned almost every table, creating a human sea of red, white and blue, of Jim Kelly, LeSean McCoy, Tyrod Taylor and Bruce Smith jerseys.

Seventeen years of frustration culminated in this. Most millennials in the bar -- and there were a lot -- weren’t of legal drinking age the last time Buffalo made the postseason.

“The thing is, we’ve been so conditioned to be this close,” said Larry Dubill, a 49-year-old music teacher from Hamburg, New York. “Seventeen years of being this close is just, you’re waiting for Dalton to not throw that pass. You’re waiting for that eventual. So when that happened, it blew the top off.

“It was so non-Billsy to have that thing happen. So yeah, it’s been pretty remarkable to have this happen. But what keeps you going is just having the memory of knowing that it will eventually come.”

When that moment happened, Bills fans across the country went nuts. They made plans to either go to Jacksonville or come to Buffalo for this once-in-two-decades experience.

Ryan Lampman and his friends drove nine hours from Louisville, Kentucky to Buffalo. As soon as Buffalo clinched, Lampman made the “no-brainer” decision to make the trip. One of his friends left his daughter’s birthday party early to make sure they reached Buffalo on time.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” Lampman said, as a Buffalo-themed chorus of “Shout” played over the loudspeaker. “Other than my children, this is the best moment of my life. No doubt.”

This was the answer for all the lean years. Ryan Spies wasn’t even a teenager the last time the Bills made the playoffs. He would root, cheer, “hope and pray.” He thought a day such as Sunday would never happen.

“Over time, it just became more and more sad,” Spies said. “Like, are we going to get it? Do we have to give up? Am I going to have to change teams? I could never change teams, so I would just stop watching football, in all honesty. It wasn’t a good feeling.”

It’s a feeling well-known in Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit, where finding something else to do on Sundays becomes more appealing, especially when change continually comes. Since 2000, the Browns, Bills and Lions have had 22 head coaches combined. Soon, it’ll be 23.

It’s lunch time on Friday afternoon at Nemo’s in Detroit, an iconic pub once considered one of the best sports bars in the country by Sports Illustrated. There’s a picture of the Stanley Cup visiting the bar after the Red Wings won hanging on the wall.

Across the walls are newspapers celebrating the success of the Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and Michigan and Michigan State football and basketball.

The Lions? Based on a quick sweep, there are two papers: one marking the firing of Matt Millen as general manager and one denoting the 0-16 Lions season in 2008. There might be more, but they weren’t noticeable.

“I get asked, how come no Lions?” said Tim Springstead, one of the co-owners of the bar. “I say, ‘Trust me, I’ve been waiting for 50 years to get a newspaper. They have one playoff win in my lifetime.’ That’s hard.”

Yet in Detroit, there’s hope amid another changing offseason. The Lions fired coach Jim Caldwell following a winning season, a marked change for a franchise known for being too loyal. It’s something that has been percolating since 2015, when owner Martha Ford fired general manager Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand midseason.

“This year, it shows me that somebody’s being held accountable,” Springstead said. “Think five years ago, would they fire a 9-7 coach? Are you kidding me? Never would have happened here.”

Springstead is willing to have a bit of patience as general manager Bob Quinn makes his hire, potentially Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. He understands the building of a business: Nemo’s has been open 51 years. In the history of the place, there has been only one Lions playoff win. But Springstead likes what Detroit has with its quarterback, front office and other players. If the right coach is hired, there is reason to believe. But he needs them to prove it.

Yet as a bar owner, he has seen what the Lions have, what businesses kill for: “loyalty.” He jokes that there should be an award given to Lions fans who have endured the rough decades and kept going. But why have they? One of his bartenders, 63-year-old Dave Stronski, shrugged and said, “hope.”

Right now, Stronski said, is the most hope he has had in the Lions.

“I think the new GM is going to turn them around,” Stronski said. “He’s from one of the best programs ever, New England, and I hope they get that defensive coordinator from New England as the coach.”

Until then -- and if Detroit wants to hire Patricia, it can’t do so until New England is out of the playoffs -- Lions fans have to do what they’ve done for so long: wait and hope this change brings the Lions their first division title and home playoff game since the 1993 season, a game that bar manager Pat Osman said would be “huge.”

While Detroit might be closer than it has been in a while to true success, there are reminders of the past. They are on the walls at Nemo’s. When Springstead heard about what was happening in Cleveland the next day, he shook his head.

He couldn’t believe it.

It happened twice Saturday afternoon. As the group of fans protesting the Cleveland Browns mismanagement over the past two seasons drove and walked in a loop around First Energy Stadium, at least two carried signs saying essentially this: “Welcome to the club.”

The club of 0-16 teams is an exclusive one: the '08 Lions and '17 Browns. Lions fans understand the pain of Browns fans. On this day, with wind chills making the temperature feel like minus-12, that pain and frustration yielded to another emotion: hope, for a change.

It’s what this parade-slash-protest begged for. Almost 3,000 people showed up to send the message that they were tired of what they’d seen the past few seasons: 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 in 2017. Poor ownership from Jimmy Haslam and a coach, Hue Jackson, still employed despite a 1-31 record.

The first float in the parade, driven by 27-year-old Kyle Snyder of Columbus, Ohio, petitioned for Bernie Kosar to join the player personnel department. It went from there, including a giant Minion from "Despicable Me" on the back of one float with a sign reading, “Mr. Haslam, are you even listening?”

“We’re sick of getting beat up. We’re sick,” said 53-year-old Mike Cooper from Cleveland, who drove a waste disposal truck with "CLEVELAND BROWNS" painted on it along with "0-16" and "SUPER BOWL 20??." “I mean, year after year after year, 20 quarterbacks. I mean, at what point? This is basically making a statement that we are tired of being the losers in the nation. I mean, what other team has lost this many games?”

Cooper loves football. So he keeps returning. The reason echoes Stronski’s shrug in Detroit.

“It’s the slightest bit of hope that we all hang on to,” Cooper said. “It’s that little slice, and we’re just waiting for that opportunity.”

While those at the parade in Cleveland on Saturday know some viewed it as being disloyal, those marching and riding were doing so because they believed they were being loyal to the team they love that returns the passion with misery-times-16.

“This is our team,” said Tony Timoteo, who organizes a Browns quarterback “graveyard” at his home in North Ridgeville, Ohio. “No matter what, we’re always going to support them. We’re not the type of people that are going to jump ship to other cities. We’re one of the cities that notoriously stay loyal.

“No matter what, 0-16, we’re still loyal. I always think that there’s a better way, but never, ever think about joining another team. Ever. Ever.”

Timoteo supports Buffalo and Detroit because of the similarities. Those fans understand where Cleveland is and where Cleveland wants to be. They understand the blue-collar culture of the communities and how they stay loyal to their teams despite a lack of success.

“I’m actually really happy for the Bills Mafia and their tailgaters and all their fans for getting into the playoffs,” Timoteo said, “because that’s what we hope to be. Because if we get into the playoffs, that’s what we’re going to be like.

“We’re just waiting for our time, for our moment.”

The moment had nervous energy Sunday afternoon in Buffalo. Despite the chants of “Shady! Shady!” ringing through 716 Food and Sport whenever LeSean McCoy broke off a run and the cheers whenever the Bills' defense made a play on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, nothing felt easy for the Bills.

Few things have ever been easy for this team. A chant of “trust the process” -- a motto of the still-new Sean McDermott era -- started as the Bills had their best drive of the game, the one that led to their only points, a field goal.

Buffalo’s DJ Milk continually yelled, “Keep your spirit up.” For most of Sunday, Bills fans did. During commercial breaks, he played the Prince hit “1999.” The Bills mascot showed up and danced on a booth, turning 716 into a combination of high-anxiety football and high-intensity dance club.

“We live for this. ... We’ve been waiting for this our whole life," said Emory Weber, who was at the bar with his brother.

But hope started to disappear. The Bills couldn’t move the ball on Jacksonville’s defense. Ben Koyack’s third-quarter touchdown for the Jaguars silenced the bar. DJ Milk tried to keep the energy lively. With Buffalo trailing 10-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, Lampman was ready for the Bills “to make a comeback.”

It was a sense of dread and hope all rolled into one three-hour period that fans of the Lions, Bills and Browns could relate to. After the Bills dropped an interception, Lampman turned around and cursed. Another fan, having seen this too often, kept muttering, “He’s killing us. He’s killing us,” as he watched Bortles run to extend drives.

There was one last chance. Buffalo got the ball with two minutes left. The Bills started moving. Then Tyrod Taylor got hurt. In came Nathan Peterman, the quarterback whose one start and five-interception performance almost cost the Bills a playoff berth.

Peterman ran for a first down, eliciting perhaps the loudest cheer of the day. Then he threw an interception. Checks were asked for. Jackets remained on. En masse, people filed out almost in silence, exhausted. The drought was over. And so was Buffalo’s season.

“Roller coaster,” said 35-year-old Tom Hughes of Buffalo. “Edge of your seat the whole time. We knew going in it was going to be that kind of game, where it was low-scoring and any big play was going to be the difference.”

Hughes thinks the combination of McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane has potential. That’s the hope to hold on to. This season was unexpected. After the Bills made the playoffs, Hughes watched videos of celebratory reactions for an hour.

Now there might be something to build on, though there still is the reality. As he was leaving, a visitor told Hughes that he was sorry the Bills lost. Hughes’ response: “We’re used to it.”

Yet he’ll be back. They’ll all be back. Hope -- something all three of these franchises essentially trade on -- is strong now.

“It’s just the dedication that this city has to the team, and it’s something that I’m never going to let go of, personally,” 28-year-old Buffalo resident Christina Carbone said. “I love the Bills. I love everything that this city and the team stands for, and I think that’s what keeps this city going -- with the hope for next year.”

The drought in Buffalo is over. Cleveland now has the NFL’s longest postseason absence -- 15 years and counting. The Bills, Browns and Lions are three of the four NFL teams that have gone 20 or more seasons since their last playoff win.

Yet the Bills will enter the 2018 season coming off a playoff appearance. The Lions will have a new coach and a team with enough pieces to expect to contend. The Browns have two of the top four picks in the draft, some quality young players, a new GM with a track record of success and the wonder of next season.

That’s what all these franchises hold on to: dreams of next year, of what it would be like if their team, their long-established losers, turned into winners, hosted a playoff game and maybe even reached the Super Bowl -- or won it.

In Detroit: “Everybody’s been waiting so long. It’s been such a drought,” Stronski said. “I mean, they’ve never been in a Super Bowl. It would be pandemonium. Everybody would be ecstatic. It would be like the war’s over.”

In Cleveland: “It would be insane. I just think the year the Tribe made the wild card, it was like Mardi Gras down here,” said Adam Wilson, the general manager of the Winking Lizard, another downtown Cleveland bar. “Because we hadn’t had a championship. If the Browns were good, it would be amazing. Just the intensity because we’re a football town. We love the Cavs. We love the Tribe. We love all that. But football, that’s where everybody’s passion is.”

In Buffalo: “It would be mayhem, honestly,” Spires said. “We would be in the streets. It would be a lot of craziness. A lot of excitement. Just a good time.”

In these three cities, waiting for next year is more than a phrase, it’s a generational motto of tortured football lives. In Cleveland, there are teenagers who have never seen the Browns in a playoff game. In Buffalo, some fans experienced their first one as adults. In Detroit, there have been three playoff games in five seasons but no division titles since 1993 and no playoff wins since 1991. So they wait. And they hope that next year really is the year.

“It was much, much better this year,” Osman, the manager of Nemo’s in Detroit, said. “And it’ll be much, much better next year. Right? Right? Right?”