How to rekindle Browns-Steelers rivalry
BEREA, Ohio -- For more than a decade, it's been the same old story in Cleveland.
The Steelers come to town, the city gets hyped for the rivalry and then Browns fans are disappointed after another Pittsburgh win. Rewind. Recycle. Repeat.
Sure, the Browns split last season's series (including a rare win at home). But including playoffs, Pittsburgh has won an astounding 20 of the past 24 meetings with the Browns, including a 28-10 victory this year at Heinz Field. Cleveland (5-10) has a long way to go to close the gap as the playoff-bound Steelers (11-4) once again are heavily favored in Sunday's regular-season finale at Browns Stadium.
This once-intense rivalry has been surpassed in the division by Pittsburgh's heated battles with the Baltimore Ravens -- and it's not even close. But there is hope for the Browns.
The AFC North blog offers five ways Cleveland can help rekindle this rivalry that dates to 1950:
1. Browns must take the rivalry more seriously
Don't believe the spin coming out of Cleveland. The Browns have not taken this game as seriously as Pittsburgh has recently.
In Cleveland's first game back in its return to the NFL in 1999, the Steelers pounded the Browns in Cleveland, 43-0. That set the tone for this stellar run by the Steelers the past 12 seasons.
"Ah, man, [we take it] very serious," Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said of games against the Browns. "We know that they don't like us there in Cleveland, and we don't like them very much over here either. So it's a big-time game."
"I was just telling someone the other day, it’s just such a unique game in a lot of aspects," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. " The close proximity -- I can't say I've been involved in a bus trip in any NFL city that I've been in. It's just not the nature of our business." (Pittsburgh and Cleveland are only 130 miles apart, roughly a 2 1/2-hour bus ride. Each team takes a bus to these games.)
Added Tomlin: "Of course, the history of the two organizations and the success that they’ve had in the history make it a unique matchup." (Pittsburgh leads the all-time series, 61-56, including two playoff wins.)
I've spent a lot of time in both locker rooms the past three years, and there is a significant difference in culture and expectation. Cleveland hopes to win this game, but Pittsburgh expects to win -- and win big.
The expectation level for both organizations is a world apart, and until that changes, the Browns will not close the gap on the Steelers. For example, Pittsburgh went 9-7 last year and you would think it was 0-16 by how upset the players were. Two assistant coaches also were let go after the Steelers' nine-win season.
How would the Browns react if they were 9-7? Think about that.
2. Cleveland must find a quarterback it can count on
Pittsburgh has an advantage over Cleveland in most personnel areas. But the most important position is quarterback, and that's been one of the biggest disparities the past several years.
On one side, the Steelers have two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. On the other, the Browns have had a revolving door that includes Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, Charlie Frye, etc.
Cleveland might have found its counter in rookie quarterback Colt McCoy. The 2010 third-round pick has had only one awful game in seven starts.
In the first meeting with Pittsburgh, many expected McCoy to fail in his first NFL game. But McCoy looked poised at Heinz Field, throwing for a season-high 281 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He also completed 69.7 percent of his passes against the NFL's No. 2 defense. Afterward, the Steelers said they were impressed with the rookie.
"I watched the tape when we played earlier in the season, [and] I watched myself and thought, 'Man, I've come a long ways from that. I'm playing a lot better.'" McCoy said this week.
3. Develop continuity
The Browns are expected to get rid of another head coach (Eric Mangini) and make their fifth head-coaching hire in 12 years. With a new coach usually comes different players, and there has been a lot of roster turnover in Cleveland.
With so many people coming in and out of the organization, the importance of beating Pittsburgh can get lost. Meanwhile, the Steelers are a model for consistency. Pittsburgh has three head coaches since 1969. It makes good coaching and personnel decisions that provide stability, and it's understood that beating Cleveland is expected every year.
There are some career Browns such as kicker Phil Dawson, receiver Josh Cribbs and left tackle Joe Thomas who have a firm understanding of the rivalry. But too much turnover in Cleveland has made it difficult for that message to sink in with all 53 players.
4. Cleveland must winA rivalry isn't strong unless both teams are winners. This has been one of the more lopsided division matchups in the league for the past decade.
The Browns have nine seasons with 10 or more losses and only two winning seasons since 1999. Mangini is 2-9 against AFC North opponents since joining the Browns in 2009. In their win against Pittsburgh last season, the Browns found a winning formula by making the game low-scoring and not making many mistakes. They likely will look to win that way Sunday. Cleveland isn’t good enough now to sweep the Steelers, but winning more home games against Pittsburgh would start to develop confidence and momentum.
"We've had success against them a lot of different ways in the past. Some of it's scheme," Mangini explained. "Josh has done a good job against them in the past with some of the Wildcat stuff. ... Now being able to do it consistently, that's the important thing and that’s the challenging thing."
5. The Browns must become a contender
This final step is perhaps the most difficult. Not only must the Browns beat Pittsburgh consistently to make it a rivalry, but Cleveland must win marquee games. This is what makes the Steelers-Ravens rivalry special. When those teams play, first place in the AFC North and playoff implications are in play. Ravens-Steelers games get national exposure because both organizations are consistently good.
The Browns have a long way to go for this final step, as evidenced by their one playoff appearance in the past 12 seasons. But if Cleveland is going to turn the franchise around, it must get by Pittsburgh -- and lately that's been nearly impossible.