Red Right 88

Life as a Cleveland Sports Fan

Is Browns vs. Steelers still a rivalry?

browns steelers rivalryThe Cleveland Browns take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, meaning that it is “rivalry week” along the North Coast.

As Browns fans, we have been taught from a very early age to dislike the Steelers, not only as a division rival but as “the rival” for the Browns.

But is the series between the Browns and the Steelers really a rivalry? We started to think about that after reading Craig Lyndall’s piece earlier today at Waiting For Next Year, where Craig asks the question, Can the Browns rivalry with the Steelers ever return?

That made us wonder if the rivalry ever really existed in the first place.

The Browns and the Steelers have been playing each other since the Browns entered the NFL in 1950, and the rivalry has in some ways been one of geography rather than competition. Rarely have both teams been good at the same time, and the series is most notable because one team generally been the dominant force. 

From 1950 until 1969, the final year before the NFL and AFL merged into one league, the Browns were 31-9 against the Steelers. Starting in 1970, things took a turn for the worse. The Browns were just 5-15 during the one decade that the Steelers were truly dominant. Things balanced out a bit more in the 1980s, with the Browns holding a 12-7 edge that was built on the fact that the Browns won seven of the final eight games played in the decade.

Things got worse once the calendar flipped to 1990, as the Browns went 5-10 during the decade, and even worse in the new millennium, as the Browns have gone just 4-23 against Pittsburgh since the start of 2000. (We knew there was a lot of losing going on, but seeing the raw numbers is still a shock to the system.)

Throughout the years, the Browns have had rivals that have had far greater on-field importance. In the 1950s it was the New York Giants, as six times the Browns and the Giants finished first or second in the NFL’s East Division. In the late 1960s, it was the Dallas Cowboys, who beat the Browns for the division title in 1966 and beat Cleveland in the playoffs in 1967. The Browns returned the favor, knocking off the Cowboys in the playoffs in both 1968 and 1969.

Finally, the Browns games with the Denver Broncos in the late 1980s were as intense as anything seen in these parts in a long, long time.

The fact that those rivalries have come and gone over the years – after all, when was the last time you heard a Browns fan talk with malice about the Giants? – made us think that maybe rivalries should not be defined by just the games themselves.

Maybe it is up to the fans to determine what a rivalry is.

As Jeff Rich pointed out on Twitter, the players and the scores may have changed over the years, but the rivalry lives on through the fans.

We also posted the question in the comments section of Craig’s article, and the responses were similar.

As CB Everett pointed out: Just because one side has the might (temporary or long term), it doesn’t mean a “rivalry” ceases to exist. Maybe the Hatfields get the upper hand over the McCoys, or maybe not, but the competitive fire still burns.

In fact, one could argue that an imbalance stokes the fires even more so. Think Boston’s hatred for the Yankees. Between 1918-2004, how many championships did Boston win vs, New York? And yet, it was still accepted as a quintessential rivalry because the fans deemed it to be for all those long years.

They could be on to something. After all, so many of our Browns memories come from games against the Steelers.

David Mays only played 11 games in a Browns uniform, but we still remember the day in 1976 when he came off the bench to lead Cleveland to an 18-16 win against Pittsburgh.

We were at the old Stadium for Brian Sipe’s last game, a 30-17 victory over the Steelers in 1983.

Or what about 1986? The Browns swept the Steelers for the first time since xxx by finally breaking the Three Rivers jinx and then beating the Steelers in overtime as Bernie Kosar hit Webster Slaughter.

Coach Rob Chudzinski, who grew up a Browns fan in Toledo, knows what Pittsburgh week means to the fans.

“There was a number of games I remember, I think it was in ’80 when (Brian) Sipe brought the team back, was down and Ozzie Newsome caught a pass there with a few minutes left in the game,” Chudzinski told the team’s website. “But it’s an important week. There’s always a little bit extra for the Steelers and Browns games and everybody’s excited about them in the community and the division rival and so close together, the cities, and the history that is all there. It makes for a particularly fun week.”

Just as the Grinch learned that Christmas isn’t about packages and bows, maybe a good sports rivalry is about more than just what the scoreboard says at the end of the game. Maybe it is about the shared memories of games past and the experience of rooting against a particular team that unites fans across generations.

If that is the case, then maybe the rivalry doesn’t have to return because it never left in the first place.

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