In 1995, the late Art Modell moved his NFL franchise Cleveland Browns from the shores of Lake Erie to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, ending a 49 year love affair between the team and its rabidly loyal fans.
While it was an NFL sanctioned move, it was not without its detractors; the Steelers were one of only two teams who objected to the move, and to show solidarity to the people of Cleveland, the Rooneys had orange arm bands handed out to the Steelers' home crowd when the Browns played their last game at Three Rivers Stadium.
The vitriol felt, and often expressed by Cleveland fans for Art Modell's betrayal has never faded. When the NFL announced a plan to honor Modell by observing a moment of silence after his death in 2012 in both Baltimore and Cleveland, there was such uproar in Cleveland against the idea, with threats of public demonstrations against the man who stole their team that the Browns' organization had to publicly announce its decision not to participate.
All this is just background for what could become one of the greatest revenge stories in sports history as the Cleveland Browns have the means, motive, and (possibly) the opportunity to steal the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl winning, MVP quarterback Joe Flacco.
There are beginning to be some news reports that the Ravens will consider placing Flacco, who is an unrestricted free agent, under the franchise tag if the two sides cannot come to terms on a long term contract before March 4. If they do tag Flacco, they could use the exclusive tag, which prevents any other team from making the player an offer. However, this would cost the Ravens (approx) $20.1 million and would most likely represent a substantially higher value than what they felt Flacco was worth at the beginning of last year. In addition, this figure would directly impact what they would owe Flacco the following year, either as part of a long term deal, or a second consecutive franchise tag number.
Or, they could place the non-exclusive tag on Flacco at a cost of (approx.) $14.3 million and hope the two sides come to agreement sometime before the end of the 2013 league year; if they didn't they presumably could franchise Flacco again, at 120 percent of the previous tag's final number.
The non-exclusive tag carries some risk however, and that's where Cleveland comes in. Cleveland could make Flacco an offer that the Ravens would be unable to match, and in return the Browns would owe the Ravens two first round picks, one each in 2013 and 2014.
Cleveland certainly has the means for exacting revenge: They are (approx.) $45 million under the salary cap, with a payroll that is approximately 63 percent of the 2013 cap of $122 million. Beginning in 2013, all teams must spend at least 88.8 percent of the cap over a four year period. That means the Browns must find ways to spend an additional $31.1 million, annually, over the next four years, just to reach the minimum salary cap floor. Granted they have free agent issues of their own, but some of those free agents might think twice about leaving given the amount of cap room the Browns have, and the opportunity to bring a quality quarterback to the shores of Lake Erie for the first time since 1999.
Cleveland could certainly have the opportunity to exact revenge: Baltimore reportedly made Flacco an offer at the beginning of the 2012 season which the five year veteran elected not to accept. Now, the Ravens find themselves having to negotiate up from that offer, facing the added pressure of trying to avoid for the second time in franchise history a situation where their Super Bowl winning quarterback may not be on the team the very next season. In 2001, after having followed the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2000, Dilfer was allowed to leave via free agency, signing with the Seattle Seahawks. Flacco has long considered himself an "elite" quarterback and, despite his successes in post-season play in years past, has not received the recognition nor accolades some might believe he deserves. Nothing salves a wounded ego like being the highest paid quarterback in the league, but the Ravens are facing salary cap issues of their own. Some reports show the Ravens to be $9.45 million under the cap, but that is before they strike deals with their seven Restricted Free Agents, nine Exclusive Rights Free Agents, and 13 Unrestricted Free Agents, including Flacco.
And Cleveland certainly has the motive to exact revenge: They have in their current quarterback Brandon Weeden just another in a long line of forlorn quarterbacks the franchise has endured since its re-birth in 1999; a lineage of mediocrity that spans Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, and Colt McCoy, with Couch, Quinn and Weeden being dubious first round picks.
And why wouldn't the Browns seize any opportunity to exact revenge?
They could make Flacco an offer containing a starting salary in Year 1 of $25 million and still have $6 million left at the very least to spend on their other free agents to just reach the minimum salary cap floor. This offer would force the Ravens to match it and thus prevent them from signing free agents of their own like Cary Williams or Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, Sean Considine, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Dennis Pitta, and multitudes of others, possibly hamstringing the reigning Super Bowl champion from effectively competing next year, and for years to come.
Or, the Ravens would be forced to pass and have to rely on Tyrod Taylor as their starting quarterback, or use one of the first round picks they got from Cleveland in this year's draft on a QB in a draft class where the quality of choices is mediocre at best.
Revenge would cost the Browns their next two first round picks, but they've already spent three first round picks on quarterbacks in the past twelve years with nothing to show for it. Wouldn't what the Washington Redskins spent to get Robert Griffin III (beating out Cleveland, no less) indicate that there is value in doing so, especially for a proven quarterback?
For the new Browns' owner Jimmy Haslam, such revenge would instantly enter him into the pantheon of Cleveland Browns heroes by being the first owner to stand up for the honor and reputation of Cleveland, avenging the wrong that was done to that proud and storied NFL city.
But the sweetest aspect of this scenario, the ironic twist that makes this so interesting to contemplate, is the fact that Haslam, as the architect of this Machiavellian maneuver, could not fail; he would either end up bringing back to Cleveland a franchise quarterback the team has lacked for over a decade, and in the process both embarrass and incapacitate the bitter divisional opponent that so wronged Cleveland, for years to come. Or, he could saddle a bitter divisional opponent with the quarterback it desperately wants to keep, but at a price that would prove to be ruinous to the Ravens' hopes of remaining competitive, for years to come.
And as a former part-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Haslam could return the honorable gesture made by the Rooney family 16 years ago by returning one half of the renowned rivalry between two venerable franchises back to the city where it rightfully belongs, and by making Cleveland the city with the second best franchise quarterback in the AFC North.