"Never feel sorry for the other team."
Words to live by if you're a sports fan. I learned this valuable lesson in the waning seconds of the Steelers' 43-0 win over the expansion Browns in their first game in nearly four years in the 1999 season opener.
The game was a total clown show for the Browns and a masterpiece for the Steelers. Ty Detmer and Tim Couch floundered while Kordell Stewart flourished. Cleveland's defense looked soft while Pittsburgh's looked like steel. The game was never in doubt.
Near the end between plays, ESPN showed Cleveland linebacker Jamir Miller looking dispirited and dejected. That's when I uttered the following statement for the first and final time: "I feel bad for the Browns."
My mom was right when she told me to never feel bad for the other team. The Browns defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh later that season en route to a 2-14 season. They defeated the Steelers again in Week Three of the following year as the Steelers became the only team to split with the Browns during their first two seasons back in the league.
Pittsburgh has utterly dominated the rivalry ever sense. In the first era of the Browns, Cleveland held a 52-41 series edge that included winning 16 of the first 18 contests. The switched was flipped in the 70s with Paul Browns departure from Cleveland and the Steelers emergence as the team of the decade. After Cleveland won 12 of the 20 meetings between themselves and the Steelers in the 1980s, the Steelers bridged wins-loss gap near the end by winning three games against Cleveland in '94 (that included a 26-9 playoff victory) and sweeping them again in 1995.
It was an intense rivalry, to say the least, and at times, it was the best in the NFL. There was Jim Brown, who was noted to say that even though his Browns normally got the better of Pittsburgh, he always knew the following day he had played the Steelers because of how sore he would be. There was the 70s, with Bennie Cunningham catching the trick play in overtime that helped the Steelers prevail en route to their fourth Super Bowl title. Cleveland fans would prefer to talk about Turkey Jones head slam of Terry Bradshaw in '76 that contributed to the Steelers 1-4 start before going on a historic run in that nearly landed them in a third straight Super Bowl. There was the Steelers dominance of the Browns in Three Rivers Stadium until Cleveland finally broke through in 1986. There was Neil O'Donnell getting drenched with beer in the dog pound (something Steelers fans would have applauded a few years later) in the early 90s and Eric Metcalf spearheading the Browns to victory with two punt returns for scores in 1993.
That final highlight must seem like an eternity ago for Cleveland fans. Since 2000, the Steelers are 25-4 against the Browns that included 12 straight wins that spanned seven seasons. It also included a 36-33 win in a 2002 Wild Card game that saw the Steelers overcome a 24-7 deficit behind 367 passing yards by Tommy Maddox.
Late season 41-0 and 41-9 drubbings in Cleveland in 2005 and 2010 by the Steelers have symbolized where this rivalry is now. Once known as the Yankees of the NFL in the 1950s, the Browns have the second longest playoff drought in the NFL while the Steelers have added two more Super Bowls to their collection. Once badly trailing in the all-time series, Pittsburgh has a commanding 67-57 edge in that department today.
While it still speaks volumes, the rivalry has certainly lost its luster. The Ravens have in many ways supplanted the Browns as the Steelers main rival, while the Bengals rivalry has heated up as well over the past decade. Some would even consider the Patriots a better rivalry now. It's not a rivalry until both teams are capable of beating each other, which the Browns have failed to show for the better part of two decades.
I'd love for the Steelers-Browns rivalry to return to its prominent place as one of the finest in the NFL. I'd love for the game to mean something again, with playoff birth and division titles on the line for both teams. I'd love for the passion in the stands to match that on the field. I'd love for the Browns-Steelers game to be the showcased game on prime time TV, much like the Colts-Patriots games were celebrated when Manning and Brady were in their heyday.
Sports is cyclical, just like life. Franchises have their rises and falls like a rising and fading sun. The Browns dominated the first 40 years of the rivalry, the Steelers the last 40. Who knows when the pendulum will swing the other way again.
But in the meantime, I'll enjoy the Steelers dominance over the Browns. I'll gladly watch the Steelers continue to distance themselves in the all-time series record. And the last thing I'll do is say I feel sorry for the Cleveland Browns.