History of Hatred - A Pittsburgh v Cleveland Story
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
By Tom Chappell.
Tom co-hosts the Stiff Upper Lip Podcast with fellow site contributor, Ed Wilkins.
Inspiration took its time to strike this week, and with the rest of GridironXtra’s writing staff churning out the best content on the internet, it was time for me to step up. Usually I’m all for shenanigans, hijinks, and the like – but this week, it is business.
You see, week 6 of this 2020 NFL season; a season which has contained so many twists and turns already, is Browns @ Steelers week. This is a rivalry that has been left dormant for years. Not since 2004 have we seen a competitive Cleveland Browns team, one that didn’t completely blow any talent’s chances of making an impact. This is entirely displayed on the field though, as even in these down years the continued propaganda of hatred was being pedalled by the two sides, in almost Montague & Capulet fashion. People from Pittsburgh & Cleveland hate each other. No, let me emphasise that more. They HATE each other. They are taught to hate each other, they are brought up on this idea of city superiority, and nothing will ever change that.
This year sees the return of the most intense and heated rivalry in the NFL on the field though. The oldest rivalry in the AFC. Move over Philly/Dallas, the old boy is back to reclaim its crown. “But Tom” I hear you say to your Samsung, Apple, and other devices. “Why is this any different to any other rivalry in sports, surely this is just a divisional game like any other?”
Because folks; like a dormant volcano, the magma doth lay beneath the surface. It may appear extinct, but all it needs is a seismic level event to awaken it – sending soot and ash 5,000 feet into the air and molten rock soaring. Like said dormant Super volcano, this rivalry has been bubbling away beneath the surface, hidden behind Hue Jackson, Johnny Football and Tim Couch. But why does this previously great rivalry lay dormant?
While the Steelers have spent the last two decades asserting dominance with the ghost of Cleveland past in Baltimore, the Browns have amassed a 105-235-1 record, starting in 1999 as the reborn Browns. They have in that time been through 32 quarterbacks who have started a game, a lot of whom were backups, but they count. This has culminated in just one playoff appearance in that time, 2002 – a 36-33 loss against who else but Pittsburgh. They are yet to make it back, but this year they have been a revelation under Kevin Stefanski. Long gone are the disorganised and ill-disciplined Browns teams of old, this is a different beast: heavy run usage, play action galore, big playmakers making plays – Cleveland can be proud of their team again.
On the other side of the turnpike, both physically and metaphorically, the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1999 have been in three Super Bowls, winning two of them. Their record over the same stretch of time has been 215-135-2 and if we were to include backups, the Steelers have had 12 quarterbacks to start a game, only four of whom have started more than six games in a season though. Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox, Ben Roethlisberger, and then due to injuries, Mason Rudolph. This isn’t just a trend for the quarterbacks however, as the Steelers unlike their Ohio rivals, have had just two head coaches. These two teams’ records couldn’t be further apart since 1999 but in reality, the two franchises have a lot in common.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Browns fan who wouldn’t be familiar with the litany legendary defensive players in their esteemed history: Clay Matthews (not that one) was one of the finest tackling linebackers to ever take to a football field, defensive lineman Michael Dean Perry (brother of William “The Fridge” Perry) – 2x First team All-Pro, AFC DPOY in 1989, and a 5x time pro-bowler in his six years in Cleveland, and Len Ford, the defensive end who spent seven years in Cleveland, winning three NFL championships in the pre-merger era, he was a 4x pro bowler and part of the NFL 1950s all-decade team.
In fact, speaking of the pre-merger championships, the Cleveland Browns are one of the most successful NFL franchises with nine appearances in a championship game – winning 4 of them under the watchful eye of Ohio football hero and pioneer of the game Paul Brown, regarded as one of the finest coaches the game has ever seen. Their last however was in 1965, and since then they haven’t even been in a conference championship since 1989.
The Steelers’ successes didn’t begin until after the merger – where the Browns are one of the most successful pre-merger teams, the Steelers are one of the most successful post-merger franchises.
To top things off it was a former Browns linebacker Chuck Noll who is responsible for this success; he is also regarded as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Between 1972-1979 the Steelers and their patented Steel Curtain lead by “Mean” Joe Greene and Jack Lambert won four Superbowls, with star Quarterback Terry Bradshaw under center.
This change in fortunes however did not sit well with Cleveland who, after years of dominance, were suddenly facing some competition for their crown from their nearby black & yellow neighbours. The resentment was there and with two hardnosed competitive defenses we were left with heavy hitting, stodgy games between two teams who hated each other. It was mirrored off the field too – the closeness of these two passionate industrial cities rooted around their NFL franchises meant fans would have plenty of opportunity to take it upon themselves to rip the ever-living piss out of each other.
Because of the Browns’ troubles on the field (and off it) and the contrasting successes of Pittsburgh, combined with the fact that the Browns are basically an expansion team formed in 1999 now (courtesy of Art Modell), the rivalry has been on the backburner, but now we get to the present day. Both teams are fighting for AFC North dominance; Steelers 4-0 undefeated, Browns 4-1. They both feel they have assembled a team capable of going for a deep playoff run; with solid front heavy defences filled with stars, different coaching philosophies, and promising young talent throughout. The competition is back at last, and it is FIERCE. But that’s not the main reason for its emerging resurgence on the banks of the Ohio river…
We’re going to have to talk about the incident.
Yes, because despite all the history and all of the hard work that both teams have put in to make this arguably the most competitive game in this long-storied set of meetings between the two. The seismic event needed to awaken the aforementioned Super volcano actually happened. Mason Rudolph, the backup quarterback for the Steelers, and Myles Garrett famously got into it during a Browns win over Pittsburgh last year in Cleveland. The game was over, and the Browns had already allegedly been targeting Steelers players due to their new-found confidence of having actual receivers in the team.
“This is our year!” said Cleveland, forgetting that Freddie Kitchens was incapable of handling the egos on show like a good head coach would, they would show their bullies now! This game was never one to shy away from violence, like I say; I mean, who can forget James Harrison, the hardest hitting outside linebacker this side of the late 80s, body slamming a wandering Browns fan? Who could forget all the beatdowns and bruising and battering that these two teams would deliver on each other regularly – twice a year, without fail?
Except that this incident wasn’t quite the same; tempers flared quickly, possibly due to Mason “conservative is my middle name” Rudolph being a bit of a little bitch boy and not liking the late game late hit shenanigans from Garrett, Rudolph went for him.
Garrett, being a 272lb human being with biceps that Adebayo Akinfenwa would be proud of clearly would not be sat down by a man who looks like he came straight out of a Minecraft Server, and he proceeded to whip off Rudolph’s helmet and play ‘Pin the Assault Charge on the Edge Rusher’.
Blood boils, Maurkice Pouncey jumps to the defense of Rudolph about 80 snaps too late and delivers a Lou Thesz press ground and pound attack in honour of Stone Cold Steve Austin who was most likely watching at home with a ‘Pabst Blue Ribbon’ in hand.
The fire was back. The world was stunned. Hairy podcast hosts from Sheffield would spout tirades never seen before about the ugliness (check out Stiff Upper Lip Podcast Season 1, Episode 19 for my live thoughts on ‘The Incident’).
Suspensions and fines were handed out. Garrett had the book thrown at him – likely costing the Browns their season. This would spill over. Tempers were eerie in the return tie when duck caller Devlin Hodges delivered a win over the stumbling and fumbling Browns, but that was that.
Now, the stage is set for Big Ben’s return, Pittsburgh’s messiah who sat out last season with an elbow injury, to set everything right. Browns fans hate Ben Roethlisberger, with good reason. Since 2004 the Cleveland Browns’ First Energy Stadium has only now just seen a Browns quarterback complete 11 wins as of Baker Mayfield’s win over Indianapolis last Sunday. In that same time, Ben Roethlisberger has had 11 wins at First Energy Stadium. He is their ruse, their crux.
So that is where we stand. Heading into Sunday we’ve got two of the most historical franchises in NFL history, reigniting their molten rivalry at the stadium of mustard seating.
It’ll be a fun one that’s for sure, even if I for one will be absolutely crapping myself.