Why do we still love and follow the Browns?

The ball hit wide receiver Corey Coleman in the hands and fell to the ground.

The game and the worst season in Cleveland Browns history were over.

Hoping so much to avoid an 0-16 season, wanting so badly to avoid infamy for my team, was fruitless.

After 19 seasons of incompetence, the final exclamation point on the franchise’s ineptitude was stamped.

The Browns went a full 16-game season without winning a game.

It was infuriating. Frustrating. Embarrassing.

And yet, by 8 p.m. Dec. 31, 2017, I just couldn’t wait for the next season to start.

Nine months later, it’s finally here.

But why am I excited? Why are we, Browns fans, interested at all?

Everything that is bad that could have happened to a fanbase has happened to us.

Heartbreaking losses in big games? The Drive, the Fumble.

A heartless release of an area legend? Bernie Kosar’s “diminishing skills” come to mind.

A franchise move? Thanks, Art Modell.

The ultimate indignity: An 0-16 season.

But I’m still here. My friends, family and readers are still here. And I wanted to know why. So I polled my friends on Facebook and my followers on Twitter.

And the responses came in.

A friend from college, Angela, said it boiled down to loyalty.

“Born and raised a Clevelander,” she said. “Nothing better.”

Being from Northeast Ohio, I get this. My mother is from Cleveland. My parents met in Cleveland. The city — and our feelings about the city — has a way of getting to us. We believe in the city and the teams, and some of us hold grudges toward the people who mock it.

My mother hated David Letterman because he frequently joked about Cleveland and the Indians on his show. And the worse the teams get, the stronger our resolve in them get.

But it also seems to be about identity. Aaron Frazee, an assistant football coach for Upper Sandusky, said he was “Still a fan because it’s impossible for me to root for anyone else. My family roots for the Browns. Can’t imagine trying to root for anyone else.”

Family was a common word. Joe Boyle, a history teacher in Toledo who has been the topic of a few my columns, used that theme.

“The Browns aren’t a football team,” he said. “They’re my dad, my Uncle Tim, my cousins, my friends.”

And most people said they loved football. But it seemed for some, the Browns are football.

Michelle said on Twitter that she was still a fan because, “it’s part of who I am. That’s my team and a true and loyal fan always sticks with their team.”

But the next sentence hit me hard, because I could relate to it.

“I didn’t watch the NFL those years when the Browns were gone,” she said. “I can’t even be in a fantasy league because I only want to play Browns players.”

Sometimes I think the move has more to do with this loyalty than most realize. Like Michelle, I didn’t really watch the NFL when the Browns were gone. I didn’t watch games on Sunday.

I can’t fathom that now. But I think many of us are crazy about our usually-horrible football team because — unlike many fanbases — we know what it’s like to be without one.

I can’t imagine going one season without the Browns now, let alone three. But because of that hiatus, I know it’s better to have the worst team than have no team.

If you’re ignored at a party, at least you were invited.

But there was one other theme that emerged from the responses: Fear.

The idea that after all this, we Browns fans can’t leave now. The team might just get it right one of these days.

Another college friend, Jenny, summed it up:

“No one wants to be the one who jumped ship right before it’s finally our year.”

And maybe, just maybe, the year is coming up.

They have better personnel. Coleman won’t be dropping any more passes. They will be better.

How much better?

Let’s see if they beat the Steelers today.

We can only hope.