After thinking about this carefully, it occurs to me now that the single most significant goal of my childhood was for the Cleveland Browns to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh. Yes, this is sad. But it goes without saying that this was way more important to me than school or jobs or girls or responsibilities or any of that. If I had found a genie in a bottle at age 12, and it gave me only one wish, and I was not allowed to wish for more wishes … yeah, no doubt, I’m wishing for the Browns to win at Pittsburgh.
“Wait, you didn’t wish for money or a nicer house or world peace?” my mother would have said to me, no doubt glaring at me the way Jack’s mother looked at him when he showed her the magic beans he got for the family cow.
“Um,” I would have said sheepishly, “Yeah, you know, I didn’t think of those. But anyway, it’s been a long time …”
The Steelers moved into Three Rivers Stadium when I was three years old. And for the next 16 years, the Steelers beat the Browns in that haunted place every single year. Sixteen straight. In the early years, the games were clear-cut. The Steelers were good, the Browns were lousy, and the first seven years, Pittsburgh outscored Cleveland 199-71.
Then, as I was coming of age as a football fan, the so-called rivalry entered a new phase, with the Steelers finding annual ways to humiliate the Browns with some last-minute mischief. There was an overtime loss in 1978. The next year, the Steelers came back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter and again beat the Browns in overtime. The next year, Terry Bradshaw threw a last-second touchdown pass to Lynn Swann for the win. And so on.
Beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh became an obsession. I would say that I spent hundreds of hours on it every year, even though there was absolutely nothing I could do. I wonder what my parents did with all those scraps of paper I used to devise plans.
Some of those childhood emotions came back on Sunday before the Browns played at Pittsburgh. Yes, I could feel myself getting fired up. Cleveland against Pittsburgh! Three Rivers Stadium is gone and so are Bradshaw and Swann and those old Browns and also any hope for even a decent Browns season. But, hey, maybe they could beat Pittsburgh. That would be something. The Browns have not won at Pittsburgh in 12 years, but this time they were facing a beat-up Steelers team with Landry Jones starting at quarterback.
I could feel that young voice inside: “Maybe this time they win at Pittsburgh.”
On the Browns’ first offensive play, Johnny Manziel dropped back to throw, saw an open receiver, began the throwing process, and then had the ball slip from his grip during the throwing process. You see this happen now and again, but rarely in dry conditions and never on the first bleeping play of the game. Pittsburgh got the ball.
“You should literally make your entire Browns piece this week just be a photo of Manziel with the ball just floating out of his hand,” pal Michael Schur texted me.
“On the first play,” he texted next.
“Against the Steelers,” he added helpfully.
Sigh, another long week in the life of a Cleveland Browns fan.
* * *
I guess the only thing to ask at this point in the Browns’ nightmare season is how much of this is the fault of coach Mike Pettine and his staff. I can’t help but like Mike Pettine. I like the faces of disgust he wears on the sideline. He’s usually wearing sunglasses, so I imagine his eyes are just those spinning lines you see on Austin Powers’ time machines. I like that Pettine began as a high school coach and worked his way up. I like that cool Browns shirt/jacket thing he wears sometimes; it almost looks like an army jacket. I want one of these.
So I want to believe that Pettine is merely a victim of circumstance. But, I have to concede that his team sure does some preposterously stupid things. Take Sunday, when they jumped offside on fourth-and-goal. On a Pittsburgh field goal, they were penalized for something called “leverage,” which I thought just meant the exertion of force by means of a lever, but apparently also means “trying to stupidly step on your teammate’s back to reach for a field goal you have exactly zero percent chance of blocking.” The Browns were called for pass interference twice on the same drive. They were TWICE called for multiple defensive fouls on the same play, which seems excessive to me. On one of those plays they were called for roughing the passer AND pass interference, a double of ineptitude I don’t recall seeing before*.
*This particular double led to a text exchange between me and Schur about how football really should have a jury system for penalties. For instance, the Steelers at one point in the game had the most blatant facemask foul I’ve ever seen — the guy just about twisted Johnny Manziel’s head off. Fifteen yards does not seem a fair punishment for that. There should be some higher court where you can plead for damages — maybe 15 yards for the penalty and another 30 for pain and suffering. Meanwhile, on weak penalties — say, a shaky holding call — there should be a way to go to a jury that can decide “OK, that hold is only a three-yard penalty. We’re taking seven yards off for good behavior.”
These are the stupid things we talk about during Browns games.
Here is another helpful text from Schur, this time after Landry Jones got hurt and the Steelers put in (voila!) the injured Ben Roethlisberger. He promptly set an NFL record for most yards passing by a quarterback who didn’t start the game — this, even though he apparently can barely walk.
MICHAEL: “You know one thing you should definitely never do to an opposing QB that has a bad foot is blitz him. The Browns are being smart, by not at all blitzing, I think.”
ME: “Yes, I think you are best off giving him space to make his throws.”
MICHAEL: “Yes, it’s just polite.”
Wait, one more comical Browns play. On a passing play, Cleveland’s best player, left tackle Joe Thomas, was knocked to the ground. Then Manziel ran into him and fell down.
You know, I’ve been having a discussion with another friend about Joe Thomas vs. Cincinnati’s brilliant Andrew Whitworth. My friend pointed out that Whitworth had some crazy long streak where he did not allow a sack — more than 800 snaps. Joe Thomas now has a one-game streak where not only did he give up a sack, but he was the actual sacker of his own quarterback. This will hurt my argument.
So, how much of this is Pettine’s fault? Obviously he doesn’t COACH THEM to do those stupid things. He didn’t teach them to jump offside on a field goal attempt or run into your own offensive lineman or commit as many penalties as you want on each play. In fact, I feel quite sure that he’s probably told them a few times, “Guys, uh, don’t do that.” But they do keep all doing that, again and again.
* * *
Let’s talk for a minute about the drive. The Browns had a first down from the Pittsburgh 12. The Steelers already had a commanding 24-3 lead so a touchdown wasn’t likely to make much difference, but, hey, you never know. Pettine was asked by the sideline reporter what his message was to the team at halftime, when the Browns trailed 21-3. He apparently told them: “We’ve been here before.”
I’m not sure how this is supposed to be an inspirational message. But it is unquestionably accurate. The Browns have been trailing by a lot of points at halftime before, lots of times.
Anyway, down 24-3, Manziel led the Browns on a nice drive until they had first down on the Pittsburgh 12. And then Manziel did this awesome Johnny Football thing where he avoided several defenders, somehow spun away, broke for the end zone and seemed to score. It was the coolest and most exciting play of the year, and while this is faint praise, hey, as I’ve often told my kids: You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.
Unfortunately, the officials determined that Manziel did not score, that his his knee hit with the ball inches short of the goal line. The replay was inconclusive because, get this, some guy was blocking a view of the ball. Having watched it a few times, I think it was probably a touchdown but you get what you get … So, the Browns had first-and-goal from half a yard away.
Are you sure you are ready for this?
On first down, running back Isaiah Crowell breezed in for the touchdown. So, obviously there was a holding penalty on rookie guard Cameron Erving. I do not think it is possible for an offensive lineman to have a worse game than Cameron Erving had on Sunday. I say this because he would have to be incredibly bad for me to even notice him. The Browns have enough problems that I would prefer not to be watching to see how the left guard is playing.
But Cameron Erving was SO bad on Sunday, that he actually became a meme: Was this the worst block in NFL history? I don’t think you can judge such things, but I do think you can say without hesitation it was at least TIED for the worst block in NFL history. Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward knocked Erving so far backward and with such violence, it looked as if he was pushing Erving down a flight out of stairs. Heyward then smashed Crowell for a 5-yard loss.
This was not Erving’s only moment of unfortunate hilarity. On another play, he literally just missed the defender he was supposed to block. Just missed him entirely. It’s hard to describe — put it this way, I once had a friend who was driving to Philadelphia and somehow he missed Philadelphia. The whole city. This play was like that. The defender was standing in front of Erving, He wasn’t hiding. The defender didn’t exactly make a move — he just ran forward. And Erving missed him.
Then there was this blatant and obvious holding penalty on a touchdown run. I imagine this will not be a fun week in the film room for young Cameron Erving.
OK, so now it was first-and-goal from the 11-yard line.
At this point, for reasons I cannot quite summon, the Browns decided to pull Manziel from the game and run the Wildcat offense with Crowell in the backfield. When was the last time the Wildcat worked? FIve years ago? Eight? Obviously Crowell went nowhere but the Browns also lined up in an illegal formation. Well, of course they did.
Now it was first-and-goal from the 16-yard line.
Manziel came back in the game. He took the snap and dropped back to throw. He was smashed to the ground by Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier, who did not seem to be blocked. I do not know if Cameron Erving was involved.
Now it was second-and-goal from the 25-yard line.
At this point, I have to admit, I wondered just how far this could go. It seemed at least possible the the Browns could have a fourth-down play from Row GG in Section 522. A different friend emailed me with this magnificent bit: Apparently the Browns were TAKEN OFF the Red Zone channel. The guy apparently said, “Let’s cut away, the Browns can’t get out of their own way!” Now, THAT is gold, Jerry.
As it turned out, the Browns managed to get the ball back to the Pittsburgh 7, at which point on fourth down Manziel dropped back, ran around like crazy and threw an interception.
So, how much of this is Mike Pettine’s fault? How much is the fault of the coordinators? How much of it is the fault of general manager Ray Farmer who, among other things, drafted Cameron Erving with the 19th overall pick in the draft? I don’t have any idea, and I suspect neither does owner Jimmy Haslam or anyone else.
I think this is why the Browns have been such a mess for a decade, and why Haslam has such a crushing rebuilding task on his hand. The Browns are so bad that you can’t even pinpoint where the leaks are (or in their case, where the dam is). It’s hard to believe that all these people are incompetent. It’s hard to believe that somewhere, among this collection of hard-working people with the Browns now, there are not some excellent football people who, given the chance, could be part of the solution.
At some point, there really wasn’t anything else to see in the Browns game, so I turned to the Tampa Bay-Dallas game to observe the leadership of Greg Hardy in action. And for the first time I noticed the font for the last names on the back of the Bucs uniforms. What the heck is that about? It looks like the font they used on the old “Shazam!” television show. Of course, I texted Michael immediately.
Me: “What font is that for the last names on the Bucs uniforms? Looks like some kind of space thing.”
Michael: “It is one of the fonts from the fake teams in ‘Any Given Sunday.’”