To paraphrase a certain Pittsburgh receiver who’s eating a lot of crow this week, the Browns isn’t the Browns anymore.
Most of you are aware of the ill-fortune and futility the Browns have experienced for most of the past six decades. But I bet very few of you have felt it. I am one of those few. Thanks to my dear wife.
Full disclosure: she was born and raised in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb. One of her many endearing qualities is her steadfast love for her hometown. Woe unto anyone who cracks a Cleveland joke in her presence.
Over the years, a few good, most awful, she has stayed true to her Browns. This would be an inexplicable phenomenon were it not for the fact that her husband is a life-long Red Sox fan. Being a Browns fan has become a badge of honor of sorts, a mark of the ability to withstand intolerable suffering. Much like being a Cubs or Red Sox fan was for so long.
I also have a son-in-law who suffers from the same malady. A die-hard Browns fan from Toledo, he owns Browns season tickets despite living in Forsyth County. In a normal year he makes it up for a couple of games a season. For the rest, he buys the NFL television package so he can spend his fall Sundays with his beloved Browns.
I won’t detail the gory history, but just hit the lowlights. Since winning the NFL championship in 1964, the Browns played for the NFL title in ’65, ’68, and ’69. They lost each time.
When the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, longtime rivals Art Modell and Art Rooney agreed to move into the new American Football Conference. Their Browns and Steelers, separated by 120 miles, have played each other twice every season since the Browns joined the league in 1950.
The Browns would play for the AFC championship in ’86 and ’87, losing to Denver both times. They remain, along with the Lions, the only two teams eligible for every Super Bowl that have never made an appearance.
The ‘90s saw Modell battling with the city for a new stadium. In ’95, he fired coach Bill Belichick and moved the team to Baltimore. He never dared set foot in Cleveland again.
The new Browns arrived in ’99. They amassed five wins in their first two seasons. They’ve now gone through a dozen coaches and even more quarterbacks. Their last playoff win was Jan. 1, 1995, last playoff appearance 2002, last winning season 2007.
Everyone thought the Browns hit their nadir in 2016, when the won one game. Wrong. They went 0-16 in 2017.
So, when Kevin Stefanski was introduced as the Browns latest coach last Jan. 13, he was met with the usual overwhelming skepticism. An opening 38-6 loss to the Ravens did nothing to spur expectations. But then a funny and unusual thing happened. The Browns started winning.
They won four straight, and then got thumped by the Steelers, 38-7. Nothing unusual there; it was the Browns’ 17th straight loss in Pittsburgh. After splitting the next two games, they went on another four-game winning streak.
At 9-3, any other team would have been deemed a lock for the playoffs. These being the Browns, nothing was certain. Especially after losing to the Jets. The Browns were missing all their wideouts due to COVID issues, but still. The Jets?
They had to beat the dreaded Steelers in the season’s final game to clinch an elusive playoff spot. That earned them the right to play the Steelers again, this time in Pittsburgh. But that wasn’t the only obstacle.
Stefanski would miss the game due to the virus, along with several assistant coaches, including offensive line coach Bill Callahan, three starters in the secondary, and their best offensive lineman. With their facility closed, they could only practice on Friday, with walk-throughs on Saturday and Sunday.
So what happened? The Browns led, 28-0, in the first quarter. The Steelers would never get closer than two scores. M J Stewart, a third-string safety, and Sheldrick Redwine, a fill-in safety, had two of the Browns four interceptions.
Two more offensive linemen went down during the game. Blake Hance wound up playing left guard; he met quarterback Baker Mayfield in the locker room before the game. This makeshift line, without its coach, didn’t allow a single sack.
And Alex Van Pelt, calling the plays in Stefanski’s absence, proved masterful. His key call was a fourth-quarter screen pass to Nick Chubb, which became the icing 40-yard touchdown.
The final score of 48-37 made a mockery of Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Shuster’s comment that “the Browns is the Browns.” No. Not anymore.
The significance of the win was not lost on interim coach Mike Priefer, who grew up a Browns fan. “I know what this means!” he told the Associated Press.
“We believe in the people in this room,” Mayfield told USA Today. “We knew everyone would count us out. We just had to cut it loose and give it everything we have. No one believed in us, besides us.”
No one will believe they have a chance this Sunday in Kansas City, either. Maybe not. But these aren’t the same old Browns. As long as they’re knocking down doors, why not one more?