Hatred And History Run Deep Among AFC North Rivals
By Steven King
There are a lot of great and storied rivalries in the NFL.
There’s the one between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, who have been battling since George Halas was a young man and Vince Lombardi was in knickers. There are the ones between the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins, who have been spitting each other’s names on the Eastern seaboard since before World War II. There’s the one between the Dallas Cowboys and Redskins, who can’t even bring themselves to spit each others names. There are all of the ones from the old American Football League days, such as New York Jets-Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs-Oakland Raiders.
There are more than a few others as well.
But perhaps none of them are quite like those in the AFC North and its predecessor – the AFC Central – especially from the perspective of the Cleveland Browns. It is said that the most vicious and unrelenting fights are between siblings – particularly twins – which is exactly what you have in the AFC North with the Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The rivalries are engrained in the teams’ souls. There are strong bloodlines involved, so they are blood wars in which losing is personal and unacceptable. The Ravens, of course, are the original Browns, having moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season after a 50-year stay in Cleveland. That’s right: they are alter-egos of one another.
When owner Art Modell uprooted the Browns, it was as if he were carting away the Terminal Tower, Public Square, the West Side Market or the Lake Erie shoreline. Heck, he might as well have taken the statue of the city’s founder, Moses Cleveland. Modell wasn’t taking just a football team, but rather a fabric and a cornerstone of the community. As such, he could never safely return to Cleveland after he left. He quickly snuck into town once early in 1996 to settle his business relationship with old Browns employees still working in Cleveland, but he was well aware that if his cover had been blown, it would not have been pretty.
Even with Modell having passed away last September just as the 2012 season was beginning, the venom remains in Cleveland. So does the bizarre nature of the whole situation. When the handful of Ravens employees who worked for the old Browns come back into town for games, it’s like a scene out of the movie, Back to the Future Part II, where there’s a parallel 1985.
In the minds of many Browns fans, the two Super Bowl trophies the Ravens have won after the 2000 and 2012 seasons, especially the first one, could have – and should have – been earned in Cleveland. The fact that Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome – a Browns Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end – was the architect of those teams only served to pour more salt into the wounds.
The Browns and Bengals are indelibly linked, too, sharing the same father in Paul Brown. The Hall of Famer was the founding coach/general manager of both franchises, in Cleveland in 1946 and Cincinnati in 1968.
The Browns are named after him, so when Modell fired Brown in January 1963, it was akin to the Macy’s department store chain grabbing Mr. Macy by the shirt collar and unceremoniously throwing him out the front door. The fact that it really happened was – and still is -- unfathomable.
There are those in Massillon, Ohio – a city about 70 minutes south of Cleveland where Brown was raised, went to high school and coached the Tigers to national prep prominence in the 1930s – who remain bitter and upset to this day about Brown’s firing. The Bengals games were the biggest on Cleveland’s schedule every year in Modell’s eyes and the same was true for Brown with contests against the Browns. To wit, Massillon’s WTIG-AM has been on the Bengals Radio Network for years.
Indeed, the two men despised each other to the day they died. Theirs was a relationship like that of the Hatfields and McCoys. The fact the teams’ colors are almost identical – orange and seal brown (almost black) for the Browns and orange and black for the Bengals, just like those colors of Paul Brown’s high school teams – only adds to the flavor of it all.
The Browns’ rivalry with the Steelers is much, much longer than those with the Bengals and Ravens and there’s some real hatred to it with Cleveland DE Joe “Turkey” Jones taking Pittsburgh QB Terry Bradshaw and trying to drive him into the ground like a stake – head-first – in a 1976 game at Cleveland. That play – along with Steelers DT “Mean” Joe Greene delivering a kick Browns RT Bob McKay’s groin region in a 1975 contest at Cleveland -- epitomizes the rivalry between the teams.
There are also some direct bloodlines between the two franchises and cities. The Steelers had struggled for decades – never playing in even one postseason game – until Chuck Noll arrived in 1969. Noll – a Cleveland Benedictine High School product who went on to become a messenger guard and linebacker for Brown’s Cleveland teams from 1953-59 – quickly built Pittsburgh into a dynasty.
The coach who followed Noll was Bill Cowher. Though he is a Pittsburgh native, Cowher was a linebacker and special teamer for the “Kardiac Kids” Browns teams of the early 1980s, then went on to become an assistant coach in Cleveland from 1985-88 under coach – and fellow Pittsburgh area native -- Marty Schottenheimer. Even current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spent time in Browns training camp in 2000 as part of the NFL’s minority coaching program.
Schottenheimer’s successor in Cleveland was Bud Carson, who was born and raised in western Pennsylvania and then, as a coordinator under Noll, served as the architect of those great Steelers defenses in the 1970s.
In his first game as coach in 1989, his Browns went to Pittsburgh and crushed Noll’s team 51-0, handing the Steelers their most lopsided defeat in team history. He cringed going to midfield to shake hands with Noll after the game. He had embarrassed his good friend and the man who had given him his coaching break.
One time during his short 1½-season tenure in Cleveland, Carson was reminiscing with reporters about some of those great, all-out Browns-Steelers brawls through the years. In citing one specific fight, he said, “They started it.”
When he elaborated, media members chuckled when they realized the “They” Carson was referring to was the Browns.
Some allegiances die hard, and that’s certainly the case with the Cleveland Browns and their blood brothers – literally and figuratively – in the AFC North.