By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
This day has come: When Jimmy Haslam was introduced as the new Browns owner on Aug. 3, he was asked about his affiliation as a minority ownership partner (12 ½ percent) in the hated Pittsburgh Steelers the previous four years.
“Let me say this,” Haslam responded. “Even though I understand the rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, I get it … and our main goal is to return that to a real rivalry.”
In Haslam’s four years as a Steelers’ minority owner, he attended all eight meetings with the Browns and watched them win seven times, outscoring the Browns, 170-64. In those seven losses, the Browns scored fewer than 10 points five times. Their only double-digit scoring sprees amounted to 10, 13 and 14 points.
In those four years of apprenticing for his eventual role as a majority team owner, Haslam watched the Steelers reach the playoffs three times, appear in two Super Bowls and win one.
The only time the Steelers didn’t make the playoffs was in 2009 when the Browns beat them in Cleveland, 13-6. In fact, every year the Browns won a game against the Steelers in the expansion era – 1999, 2000, 2003 and 2009 – the Steelers failed to make the playoffs.
Sunday marks the latest date on the calendar for the first of the usual two meetings with the Steelers. (The Browns conclude their season Dec. 30 in Pittsburgh.) Right now the Steelers, 6-4, would qualify as the AFC’s second wild card and sixth seed.
The Steelers arrive in Cleveland Browns Stadium reeling, needing to play their third quarterback in three games and still without their best defensive player. With games next week at Baltimore and another game Dec. 23 against Cincinnati, which is breathing down their necks a game behind, the Steelers know that a loss to the Browns this Sunday – or even in the season finale on Dec. 30 – could derail them and knock them out of the playoffs.
The Steeler Way: In his introductory press conference, Haslam talked of the Steelers doing things “the right way.”
“They have the Steeler way of doing things,” Haslam said. “They build through the draft and those are the things that I learned there.”
The Steelers are also among the most resilient teams and organizations in the NFL. They don’t panic when adversity hits. They are 6-4 and in the AFC playoff hunt despite losing:
* Their star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in their ninth game with rib and shoulder injuries. He is out indefinitely.
* Their No. 1 running back, Rashard Mendenhall, for seven of 10 games because of offseason ACL surgery.
* Their No. 2 wide receiver, Antonio Brown, for two games (probably three on Sunday) with a rib injury.
* Their top draft pick, guard David DeCastro, for the season, and starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert, for most of the season, with injuries.
* Their top outside linebacker and pass rusher, James Harrison, for all of training camp and three games with a knee injury that required two procedures. Harrison, the league’s most intimidating head-hunter of his era, who has knocked out three Cleveland players in the past three years, has not been the same player because of the knee problems.
* Their premier play-making safety, Troy Polamalu, for eight games with a torn calf injury.
All this and the Steelers are in the playoff hunt.
Reality check: Haslam has infused the organization, team and long-suffering market with his Type A personality. According to a report by ESPN Cleveland’s Will Burge, Haslam intends to debut a new player introduction production on Sunday with pyrotechnics orchestrated by the same firm employed by the Baltimore Ravens.
The smoke and fireworks won’t hide the fact the stadium will be far under the listed capacity of 73,200. The Browns have had 28 consecutive home games below an announced paid attendance of 70,000. The actual in-house figures are generally much less. Stadium corporate suites are about one-third empty. How this team avoids a local TV blackout is a mystery.
Steelers fans routinely have occupied a large portion of the stadium seats during the current lopsided turn in the rivalry. They make their presence known because their team almost always wins. The game usually ends with an embarrassing display of yellow Terrible Towels waving the Browns bye-bye for another year.
This game on Sunday, if it turns ugly as it usually does, will give Haslam a valuable first-hand look at where the Browns are and how much work there is to be done to return this stale franchise back to relevance, dignity and innovation.
It’s an organization thing, not just a team thing, and it all starts at the top.
|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 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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