By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
The cold, hard facts on Game 1: Every year on the eve of the season-opener, the NFL distributes the lowdown on winning Game 1 v. losing Game 1. Here is the update:
“Since 1978, when the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule, and excluding the abbreviated season of 1982, teams that are victorious in their season opener are more than twice as likely to reach the playoffs than losers of their opening game. Of the 506 teams which won openers, 266 went to the playoffs. Of the 507 teams which lost openers, 120 went to the playoffs.” (The discrepancy in game totals is due to the fact the NFL had 31 teams from 1999 through 2001.)
How this relates to the Browns, of course, is reflected in this sorrowful fact: Since their return as an expansion franchise in 1999, the Browns have gone 1-13 in season-openers. Thirteen of those season-openers have been at home, at which they are 1-12.
Aside from the obvious playoff ramifications, the now-traditional loss in the Browns’ opening game has come to symbolize season-long despair. An 0-1 start turns into 0-3, 1-5, 5-11. An 0-1 start convulses a dark cloud into a funnel cloud.
The Browns open their 15th season of the expansion era at home Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. So here we go again.
Cornerback Joe Haden, who is a mere 0-3 in season openers, beautifully captured the mood of the city, if not the locker room, on Wednesday.
“It’s not a kill shot (if we lose), but we have to get over that hump,” Haden said. “It’s not gonna be, ‘Ok, let’s get the next one. Let’s get the next one.’ We have to win this first game. I mean, not putting all the pressure on us, but it’s time to nut up. We always talk about it and talk about, but if we can’t come out here and win, it’s not a step forward.”
The coaching challenge: Sell out for a win in the first game or take them one at a time? It’s the head coach who makes this call.
It so happens that Rob Chudzinski has worked under head coaches who have tried both approaches. In Cleveland, no less.
Chudzinski was Browns tight ends coach in 2004 when Butch Davis spent the entire offseason game-planning Game 1 opponent Baltimore. The previous season, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis had embarrassed Davis’ defense by gashing it for 295 yards and 205 in two Ravens’ wins over the Browns.
In the 2004 opener, the Browns held Lewis to 57 yards and defeated the Ravens, 20-3. It remains the only Browns victory in Game 1 since 1999. Alas, the Browns lost 12 of their last 15 games to finish with a 4-12 record.
“That’s the danger of putting all of your eggs in one basket,” Chudzinski said Wednesday. “I can’t remember how many games we won that year, but it wasn’t a lot.”
Emotionally drained by November, Davis had a panic attack before the 11th game and resigned/was fired.
Chudzinski returned to the Browns in 2007, hired by GM Phil Savage to replace offensively-challenged coordinator Maurice Carthon. After a summer-long “quarterback competition,” Crennel flipped a coin after the fourth preseason game to choose his Game 1 starter, Charlie Frye.
Frye was pummeled by the Steelers and yanked at halftime after five sacks and one interception. Two days after the 34-7 Pittsburgh triumph, Frye was traded to Seattle and replaced by Derek Anderson. The Browns proceeded to win 10 of their next 15 games. It was the only season in the last 10 the Browns won more than they lost
“The key is the approach that we’re talking about,” Chudzinski said. “This game is the most important game we’re playing -- this week. That’s the approach we’ve taken. We’ve talked to our guys all along about every segment, everything that we’re doing is the most important thing at that particular time. Whether it’s OTA’s, whether it’s minicamp, whether it’s training camp, whatever the practice is, whatever the meeting is, that’s the most important thing. That’s the focus. That’s the only way I know how to do it.”
Win at all cost: The most important first game the Browns ever played was their very first game in the NFL in 1950. Paul Brown’s football creation had dominated the All-America Football Conference for four seasons, effectuating a merger of three teams into the NFL.
NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and team owners looked snobbily at the Browns’ dominance. They purposely scheduled the Browns to face the reigning NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles to teach the Browns a lesson.
The Browns were the team that did the schooling. They clobbered the defending NFL champions, 35-10. Brown would later call it his most important victory because it validated his franchise as the best in pro football. The Browns proved it months later by winning the NFL championship in their very first year.
At the risk of over-exaggeration, I believe this Browns’ opener is the most important one since 1950.
This new Browns’ regime is all about new energy. From Jimmy Haslam to Joe Banner to Alec Scheiner to Chudzinski and all the way down the line, these new Browns have preached a new direction. They’re all about analytics and social media and thinking out of the box. They want to be the Amazon.com of pro football.
Well, this football business is not overly complicated. Customers react favorably to wins and unfavorably to losses. Winning the first game will do more than any marketing plan could accomplish. It would dump a whole lot of baggage into Lake Erie.
The coaches and some players want to approach this season one game at a time. Fine. Start 1-0 for the rest of us. The 15 other games are yours.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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