Mark Madden: Only geography keeping Steelers-Browns a rivalry
The rivalry between the Steelers and Cleveland Browns was founded on geography: The cities are 132.9 miles apart.
Now, that’s the only thing defining it as a rivalry.
The games used to be meaningful and heated. But, in this series, each team has taken a turn as the windshield and as the bug.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the Browns were 31-9 against the Steelers.
Since Cleveland returned to the NFL as the “new” Browns in 1999, the Steelers hold a 33-6-1 edge.
The Browns used to win all the time. That’s hard to believe if you’re not a member of AARP.
The Browns have more championships than the Steelers: eight for Cleveland, six for Pittsburgh. (Four of Cleveland’s championships were in the old All-American Football Conference. Their last NFL crown was 1964. The Browns never have played in a Super Bowl. But the occasional 0-16 season makes you less picky when you parse your past.)
The Browns were once football’s reigning dynasty. Like the Steelers in the ’70s and New England now.
The Browns won all eight of their championships between 1949 and ‘64. They had Otto Graham, the premier quarterback of his time. Then they had Jim Brown, the best running back ever.
Their coach, Paul Brown, was so legendary they named the team after him. Chuck Noll was great. But the team isn’t called the Pittsburgh Nolls.
But Art Modell bought the Browns in 1963. He fired Paul Brown. The Browns got bad, then moved to Baltimore. It fell apart quickly.
In the ’70s, the Steelers grabbed the torch, elevating as quickly as the Browns faltered.
The Steelers had been a joke. They made just one playoff appearance before 1972.
Founder Art Rooney Sr. is a legend and was the team’s patriarch. That’s because we’ve ignored that he was a terrible football guy.
But Dan Rooney took control. The Steelers were a juggernaut during the ’70s, have been mostly good since and are good now.
But the Browns still have more championships than the Steelers. Just sayin’.
The Browns went 0-16 last season but are a bit better now. (That became true the moment they tied the Steelers in Week 1. The bar was set extremely low.)
The Browns have a dominant performer in defensive end Myles Garrett. He could be NFL Defensive Player of the Year if the Browns didn’t stink. Garrett might be the best pass rusher in football. (That includes the All-American Football Conference.)
Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is far from polished, but his energy and potential are undeniable. Mayfield didn’t play in Week 1. He’s not yet Otto Graham, but he’s better than Tyrod Taylor. Look out, Steelers.
But why do the Browns keep trading good players?
They kept pothead receiver Josh Gordon while he was suspended. Now Gordon can play, so they sent him to New England where he’s assumed a meaningful role (like so many misfits before him).
They signed running back Carlos Hyde in free agency. Good get. Then the Browns swapped Hyde to Jacksonville. (That reflects faith in rookie back Nick Chubb, which seems justified so far.)
The Browns are 2-4-1 and have played four overtime games. Losing by a closer score isn’t necessarily impressive.
The Browns and Steelers tied 21-21 in Week 1 because James Conner fumbled away a Steelers win. We ignore Conner’s inconsistency because Le’Veon Bell won’t show up.
Ben Roethlisberger didn’t get sacked in each of the last two games. But Garrett had two sacks and a forced fumble in Week 1, and he’s more than a match for Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the weakest link on a very strong offensive line.
But the Steelers will win. They always beat Cleveland. Except when they tie.
If the Steelers lose, their season is ruined. The toughest part of it is still to be played, and you don’t deserve to make the playoffs if you go 0-1-1 against the Browns. Baltimore and Cincinnati are bigger rivals. But for the Steelers, today is must-win.
Not to worry: Roethlisberger is 10-0 at home against Cleveland. (Terry Bradshaw was 11-0 at home vs. the Browns.)
The Browns’ season got off to a rousing start when they were made to look like a bunch of idiots on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” (That wasn’t much of a stretch for coach Hue Jackson.)
But that’s the purpose of “Hard Knocks.” Stupidity sells.
HBO would make any team into imbeciles. The ‘72 Dolphins would be presented as the dumbest undefeated team of all time.
Just as ABBA had its Waterloo, this game against the Steelers could be bad news for Jackson.
Jackson certainly doesn’t lack hubris for a coach nursing a 3-35-1 record with his current team. Todd Haley is Cleveland’s offensive coordinator, and Jackson makes him look humble. Maybe even smart.
The last five Browns coaches have been fired following losses to the Steelers. Tick, tock, Hue.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).