When you stop and ponder just for a moment the Cleveland Browns’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday you can’t help but ask yourself what was the most improbable thing about that 20-14 victory?
Was it simply that the Browns actually beat the Steelers after bowing down to them in such subservient fashion for the last 14 years that the victory merely pushed their winning percentage against the Steelers over that span to a virtual tie with Brent Lillibridge’s lifetime batting average? (.217 vs. .213)
Was it that the Steelers committed 8 turnovers (could have been 11), the first time any team has done that in the last 11 years? Or was it that despite the turnovers the Browns still scored just 20 points and only won by 6?
It’s a classic half-glass full kind of victory, as George W. Bush might say. The victory surely was pleasing in the overall sense because it was against the hated Steelers, but had it been against, say, the bumbling Oakland Raiders, the team they play next week, would people still be walking around Monday morning with a little extra bounce in their step?
Probably. The truth of the matter is that as surely as some wins can be minimized and some losses maximized, there’s nothing that will ever diminish a Browns victory over the Steelers. Not a creaky, barely competent third string quarterback that the Steelers trotted out on Sunday in Charlie Batch, a player that I’m sure most fans couldn’t believe was still in the league, assuming he had just faded away after being cut by the Detroit Lions 11 years ago in favor of Joey Harrington. Not an injured Troy Polamalu out nursing either some sort of lower extremity issue or fussy hair extensions. Not the fact that the Steelers were so bereft of offensive linemen that they inquired earlier this week about acquiring Buster Skrine and moving him over to play right tackle (ok, that’s not exactly true because even the Steelers know that Skrine is untouchable.) And certainly not the fact that the Steelers are so thin at receiver that they turned to former Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress literally pulled him from a Manhattan Toys R Us “doorbusters” line on Black Friday, ill-fitted him for a uniform and then gave him the starting job.
The real reason you can’t diminish a Browns victory over the Steelers stems from the simple fact that notwithstanding every good reason to explain why the Steelers looked like the Browns circa “The Chris Palmer Years” (or “The Romeo Crennel Years” or even “The Eric Mangini Years”), the NFL is still a no excuse league. Shit happens and you have to roll with it. No team, no team’s fans, knows that better than the Browns.
If the Steelers want sympathy for fielding a team that apparently is so dependent on a healthy Ben Roethlisberger that the players literally shut down when he doesn’t play, they won’t get it in Cleveland. They won’t get it in Baltimore or Cincinnati either. Hell, they won’t get it in any self-respecting NFL town, including Pittsburgh. If the best the Steelers could do was Charlie Batch at quarterback then I say it’s their own fault. Seneca Wallace has been a free agent for months.
Besides, I don’t recall any teams or the fans of said teams throwing any sympathy Cleveland’s way as the Browns embarrassed themselves in one loss or another for years and the Browns are the ones usually compounding bad drafts with serious injuries in their usual quest for 4 or 5 wins a year. So the fact that the Browns scored a victory against a team clearly being held together by off-brand adhesive tape shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when it’s only the third win this season.
But if you want to take the victory, file it away, and then take a sobering look at the team that got it you won’t find a whole lot to really enjoy. It’s pretty hard, for example, to end up with merely 20 points when the team you were facing gave you 8 additional possessions, often in pretty good field position. That the Browns pulled off the trick tells you that even against a banged up Steelers defense and plenty of opportunities, scoring points is as hard as finding a critic that loved Lindsay Lohan’s turn as Elizabeth Taylor.
Quarterback Brandon Weeden continues what was always going to be an uneven rookie year. Neither plainly bad nor objectively good, Weeden kept the team moving Sunday mostly in neutral save for a nice touchdown pass in the second quarter to tight end Jordan Cameron. The same could be said for Trent Richardson as well as he ran the ball 29 times and still ended up with less than 100 yards rushing overall. Indeed, his stats were the marker for why the offense still had to struggle to win the game against a team practically demanding that the Browns finally give them the spanking they deserve.
There weren’t any particularly glaring errors by head coach Pat Shurmur and credit should be given to defensive coordinator Dick Jauron for not letting the defense fall into the trap of letting a never-was-been like Batch have one final career highlight.
But as games go, it wasn’t a thing of beauty. Then again either was Ohio State’s game against Michigan on Saturday and yet even with nothing particularly substantive riding on the outcome the Buckeyes victory was still pretty damn satisfying. Sometimes it’s just better to take the few victories as they come and save examining the warts in greater detail until the cold light of a few days later.
You have to hand it to Browns’ fans though. One low stakes, ugly win against an arch rival and suddenly nothing looks as bleak as it did just a week ago. Now fans are talking as if this ship is finally turning. Then again the exact same talk, even more so, followed the victory against the Bengals and then the Chargers and we know what happened next.
There’s no way of knowing whether this thing is turning until it actually turns. When that happens it could be that the win against the Steelers will serve as a key point on the map. But as any Browns fan knows, the Browns have had more than anyone’s fair share of false starts and shattered hopes. You could certainly make the case here that the defensive line is surely getting more formidable and the offensive line, despite giving up 4 sacks on Sunday, is better. Given the ages of the players on those lines, it’s fair to get a bit charged about the future. And if you’re like most people that know anything about football, you start to realize that good teams are built from the lines out. That’s all good.
But the Browns aren’t suddenly a 9 or 10 win season based on anything they showed against the Steelers. Are they more like a 6 or 7 win team? That’s a better question and an affirmative answer certainly would constitute progress of sorts. Having weathered this team for way too long, curb the enthusiasm for now, enjoy the win for what it was, and then check back in next week to see if the team can actually do what progressing teams tend to do—use one victory as the springboard to the next.
Sunday’s win is a pretty good lesson about why it’s so difficult to call one team’s schedule tougher than another’s. In the NFL, it’s not merely the teams you play that make a schedule difficult. There are two far more important variables: when you play them and, to a lesser extent, where.
Looking at the Browns’ schedule last fall, it certainly looked pretty scaring to be playing the Steelers twice in the last 6 weeks of the season. By late November the good teams are showing their mettle and the early season pretenders are fading. It’s usually the exact wrong time to face a team like the Steelers.
If nothing else, the Browns found the most opportune time to face the Steelers and to their credit exploited it like Donald Trump exploits his ego. You couldn’t have seen that coming last July. And if Roethlisberger continues to hurt and the Steelers continue to lose, then they’ll be a mostly disinterested team when the Browns face them for the last game of the season, thus giving fans a real hope that the annual holiday ass-whipping won’t take place this year.
On the other hand, there’s nothing about the remaining schedule that lays out hope for anything more than a 5 win season. With Oakland and Kansas City next, a 3-game win streak is certainly plausible or at least not nearly as ridiculous as that concept appeared at any time prior to this past Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
Can the Browns steal another victory in there and make it six wins? If they do that, then there may be actual progress taking place because one of those wins will have come against a legitimately decent team.
The timing of it all was strange and there may be nothing more to read into it then the announcement signified that the Browns and Holmgren reached some sort of financial settlement to get him out of the way as quickly as possible. But since no one loves a good conspiracy more than me, my working assumption until proven otherwise is that Holmgren’s leaving now is probably the worst news Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert have received since they found out that Joe Banner had been hired.
Within hours after the Browns play the Steelers in the final game of the year, Banner will surely announce at least Shurmur’s fate, if not Heckert’s as well. With Holmgren pushed aside now, those two lose their biggest ally inside the Berea headquarters. And while it’s entirely possible and maybe probable that Holmgren’s actually leaving now is nothing more than him just being told that the buffet line at Berea could no longer accommodate one more mouth to feed, there’s at least some likelihood that it’s related to the already-decided fates of Shurmur and Heckert. Holmgren certainly wouldn’t support dumping either one and thus wouldn’t want to be seen as part of that decision making process. Leaving now, with a little more than a month remaining in the season, gives Holmgren plausible deniability of having participated in firing two coaches in three years.
I don’t think anything about the Steelers win on Sunday signals a change of heart regarding Shurmur. If there’s one abiding truth in professional sports is that upper management likes to make its own hires. Mark Shapiro fired Charlie Manuel. Holmgren fired Eric Mangini. These things just happen.
Shurmur wasn’t Banner’s choice and never will be and his departure, couched in the usual terms of “he did a great job but we need to move in a different direction” is inevitable. Put it this way, Banner has had plenty of time to affirm that Shurmur is just as much his guy as Holmgren’s and not only has not done so but has actually done the opposite. He’s left Shurmur dangling with the “we’ll evaluate everything once the season ends” line. I don’t see how an ugly win against Pittsburgh changes anything in that evaluation.
Banner could surprise everyone and make Shurmur his guy as well but that seems as unlikely as the Browns running the table the rest of the season and even if they do it probably won’t matter. Banner was not brought in to keep the status quo and if there’s one thing Shurmur represents more than anything else, it’s the status quo.