A hot college quarterback drafted in the first round upstaged by a cast-off that no one else wanted….
Optimism replacing pessimism in a town that has struggled in perpetual football purgatory….
A one-time division dominator now unsure of its identity shakiness lurking into the place of a long-faded strut….
The scenario above accurately depicts the run up to the Steelers-Browns rematch in Cleveland. The interesting thing is that the same statements were basically true before the teams first duel in 2008.
Derek Anderson was the upstart who supplanted Brady Quinn. Optimism was the watch word in Cleveland in September 2008, as the Browns had finished 10-6 and just outside the playoff bubble the season before.
And while “Shaky” may not have been an accurate description of the Steelers heading into week 2 of 2008 (the Steelers after all had manhandled Houston in week 1), Pittsburgh had ended 2007 on a thud, as Jacksonville became the first NFL team in history to defeat the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh.
- Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola joined the off season chorus of off season writers who warned that the Browns were bouncing back.
When the history of the 2008 season is written, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be remembered as Super Bowl XLIII Champions, the Browns for their 4-10 finish, and the team’s first game was a ho-hum 10-6 affair.
- Wait a minute? The eventual Super Bowl Champions only managed a 4 point victory over a 4-12 bottom feeder.
There are several morals to this backstory, all of which are relevant to the 2014 Steelers second AFC North road game.
In January, Steelers Nation smirked as the Brown executed yet another off season upheaval. Yet 10 months later, the Cleveland Browns are the AFC North team with the mojo. They almost beat Pittsburgh in the opener, came from behind to beat New Orleans, played Baltimore to a photo finish, and scored 26 unanswered points to come back from 28-3.
What’s more Brian Hoyer’s quiet competence is rapidly relegating Johnny Manzel’s “Johnny Football” bravado to irrelevance, while the Steelers find themselves arguing about whether Mike Tomlin was right or wrong to assent to Ben Roethlisberger’s request to keep Antonio Brown’s record alive.
With Cincinnati atop the AFC North, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland are now fighting to see who can stay out of the basement.
- We already know the story the media wants to write – The Browns are on the rise.
And the truth is, they’ve lent plenty of cause to this claim. Cleveland is playing with confidence, while Pittsburgh struggle for consistency.
- But that’s also where lesson of the ’08 game comes into play.
Overarching narratives are nice, the stories the spawn help us make sense out of unrelated events. But at the end of the day, the yarns that NFL writers and modern day bards such as the late Steve Sabol spin are ultimately reactions which are utterly dependent on the 45 men who write the real story on the gridiron. Case in point:
- Who exactly had the Dallas Cowboys at 4-1 at this point in the season?
The Browns entered 2008 as AFC North favorites in many parts. The Steelers traveled to Cleveland and fought tooth and nail for every inch, and every yards. They made plenty of mistakes. But time and time again, Mike Tomlin refused to coach scared, and placed his faith in the men on the field.
- At the end of the night, his team rewarded him with a 4 point victory.
Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong has said that this game will define the 2014 season for both the Browns and the Steelers. He’s probably right. The winner will occupy second place in the AFC North, the loser last place.
The Browns have home field advantage. Thanks to LeBron James, they have the Cleveland rust belt revival story to rally behind. A historic division rival who has owned them for more than a decade is coming to town and now looks vulnerable….
- You can imagine the editors at ESPN.com and MMQB have the story templates already queued.
And it makes sense. The smart football money would be on Cleveland this week. The Browns have some objective advantages and the subjective intangibles seem to be on their side.
But there’s a reason why we actually play games. The Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 story is still largely unwritten. The Browns may be favored, but the opportunity is still there if the Steelers can muster the discipline and consistency needed to seize it.