Being an Ohio State fan with a rooting interest in the NFL is not without its occupational hazards.
For one, you might choose to be a Cincinnati Bengals enthusiast - a hobby that ranks among the most unrewarding volunteer work American fall weekends have to offer. Shouting Who Dey at a team destined for calamity clocks in with a ranking similar to picking trash up alongside the highway and just a tick above getting arrested for lewd conduct at a Chuck E. Cheese.
Almost everything is better than rooting for the Bengals. Almost.
That's because the dumbest and most reckless activity you can do to harm yourself in Ohio on a fall Sunday that doesn't involve firearms or scheduled narcotics is rooting for the Cleveland Browns, the sports equivalent of the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic for 16 straight weekends. Congratulations, Bengals fans - Cleveland's football team is your Mississippi, that convenient and reliable last-place dynasty that gives you comforting shade and false confidence.
I root for the Cleveland Browns. I know why I started, but I don't have the discipline to stop.
Those of us who care about Ohio's pro teams rely on the Buckeyes to keep us sane in preparation for the dirigibles that slam into ocean liners every Sunday. But sometimes that Saturday passion backfires in a manner that tests the resolve and makes us question the few absolute truths that we cling to in life - like for example, that Michigan sucks. We know that. Everyone knows that. Forty-nine and a half states out of 50 enthusiastically agree.
That's part of what makes this so hard. Folks, Jabrill Peppers is now a Cleveland Brown. Yes, that Jabrill Peppers.
Over the weekend the most inconsequential villain to ever undeservingly grace the marquee in the only college football rivalry that will ever matter was abruptly converted into a Sunday protagonist for a significant number of Buckeye fans. This is that occupational hazard. Investing emotion in the Browns is already damaging enough to vital organs, but now openly pulling for the Latest Next Charles Woodson - mere months after diminishing him for years - adds injury to insult.
This was supposed to be over. When we last checked in with Peppers he was chirping about how Curtis Samuel had not yet been hit hard enough and that the Wolverines were going to attack him with bad intentions. Michigan's Swiss Army Knife fired a verbal shot directly at Ohio State's, and it was great theater. However, it elevated the already misplaced animus for Mr. Jack-of-All-Trades-and-Master-of-None to new heights.
Michigan Men who reach that righteous pedestal of being supremely hated generally do so for heinous crimes committed against the Buckeyes. They earn it. Peppers, who hit an Ohio State fan harder after the game than he hit Samuel during it (*narrator's voice* he didn't touch him, not once) achieved Most Hated status for having done almost nothing in The Game to deserve it. Not since 1994 when Walter Young openly gushed about wanting to get John Cooper fired has a Wolverine been hated so much without bringing any malice.
Young accumulated zero statistics against the Buckeyes in four years, but he was part of a vicious run against the Buckeyes in the 1990s that was only rebalanced toward the end of the Jim Tressel era. Meanwhile, Peppers took three Ls against Ohio State during his time in Ann Arbor, a feat that each of the 14 classes of Wolverines who have entered the rivalry since 2001 can also claim. But few have had a better view of a game-winning touchdown in any of those games.
And that was how we left it. This was how we said goodbye. But now there's a sequel, and the script has Mediocre Darth Vader transforming into Anakin Skywalker.
Jabrill's new home stadium plays Hang on Sloopy with regularity. He's a dynamic alpha energy merchant-type the Browns desperately needed, and you have to assume he was also the guy Cleveland's front office wanted, as well as the best defensive player available to them.
Browns coach Hue Jackson wanted the team to draft Malik Hooker at 12 instead of trading down to 25.
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) May 1, 2017
Did I say this was an occupational hazard? This is worse. It's a hostile work environment.
There's nothing rational about being an Ohio State fan and even less reason when it comes to rooting for the Browns, so let's apply some logic to this move. First, remember that the free safety whom Hooker could not get off the field in 2015 is currently on the Browns' roster. Second, Cleveland has drafted just three Buckeyes over the past 31 years - it wasn't going to transition from that to let's just take all of the OSU safeties in a matter of months.
Third - and this is the hardest one here for the Buckeyes on Saturday/Browns on Sunday types to accept - Peppers' role last season was not designed to accumulate statistics or elevate him into the Heisman discussion (which happened anyway). If we can correctly interpret what the Browns were thinking here - wow that's a scary sentence - then Peppers' transition from playing for Don Brown to being a Brown should be no transition at all.
Because that's what made him appealing to a defense like Cleveland's, which needs holistic help. Brown used Peppers as the queen on his chessboard last season, which opened up a number of options and made the players around him - namely Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and Taco Charlton - much more effective. It's less about his mastery of a single position and more about what he allows an entire defense to do. That's a cheat code for Hue Jackson's current roster.
Peppers' transition from playing for Don Brown to being a Cleveland Brown should be no transition at all.
If this use of Peppers successfully elevates the whole of the Browns' defense beyond the sum of its parts, Buckeye fans who punish themselves by rooting for Cleveland will find their girthy, joyous bodies on the right side of his entire football career. However, this elevation won't be measured in primitive statistics, like when pass after pass bounced off of Braylon Edwards' clubbed hands or when Kellen Winslow soldiered into town and took two years to do anything of consequence before being traded away.
The whole Browns defense will rise if Peppers works out. If it doesn't, that's just business as usual for Cleveland.
His enthusiasm and chutzpah are already undeniable without having played a professional snap. Peppers brings an energy that Cleveland's 53 desperately need and there's no utility in diminishing what is possible for him as he enters the NFL's worst franchise at its bottom (which, to be fair to Cleveland, is a multi-decade plateau). His runway in the NFL is even longer than the one he had in college. This should be exciting, not conflicting.
But if that's still not enough to bring you peace with the reality that Peppers now plays for your team, let these two facts calm you: One, it is impossible for him to make the Browns worse.
And two, he will never beat Ohio State in his life. That's over. There's no hazard here. Rooting for Peppers to finally win in Ohio is your safest space.