It was classy, it was compassionate. It was completely out of place. After driving to the Cleveland Browns' six-yard line with two minutes to play on Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers were content to run out the clock. Instead of trying to add to Pittsburgh's 20-17 lead, Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell genuflected three times, as if he were in church rather than in a 64-year-old stadium full of bitter and beer-drenched hostiles. Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher's decision to eschew a window-dressing score was an excellent display of sportsmanship—which is to say, it had no place in the annals of this rivalry.
From Cleveland defensive end Joe (Turkey) Jones, who used Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw as a lawn dart in 1976; to the passel of Browns who performed a tap dance on Pittsburgh linebacker Jack Lambert in '83; to the Cleveland fans who screamed, "We hope you never walk again!" at Steeler linebacker Jerry Olsavsky as he was carted off the field with a torn-up knee two years ago, this intradivisional jihad has seldom been about sportsmanship. Given the chance, says former Brown offensive tackle Doug Dieken, "Jack Lambert would have kicked my grandmother's cane out."
The scene following Sunday's battle between these two teams further suggested that the rivalry had lost a lot of its spice in the aftermath of Brown owner Art Modell's recent decision to move his team to Baltimore next season. Cleveland wide receiver Andre Rison was exchanging phone numbers with some of the Steelers on their way off the field. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh defensive great Mean Joe Greene and Brown tackle Bob McKay—whom Greene kicked in the family jewels in 1975—exchanging pleasantries after one of their afternoons together.
When he was finished socializing, Rison headed for the tunnel that leads to the home team's dressing room at Cleveland Stadium. As a precaution 'he put his helmet back on, because lately he hasn't been getting along so well with the Brown fans. They have become disillusioned with both Rison's on-field performance—they were hoping that the NFLs highest-paid receiver, who got a $5 million signing bonus this season, would have more than 34 catches and three touchdowns after 11 games—and his off-field comments. After Cleveland's 31-20 home loss to the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 19, Rison lashed out at fans who had had the temerity to boo the Browns. "——the booers!" he declared. "I'll be glad when we get to Baltimore. Baltimore's our home."
The Browns are not scheduled to relocate until after this season—and if Cleveland city officials have their way, the move will be delayed for at least three years (following story). Yet, in their minds some of the Browns, like Rison, have already skipped town, and Cleveland's season has all but gone down the tubes as well. Despite widely held preseason expectations that the Browns would journey deep into the playoffs, Cleveland is now 4-8, four games behind Pittsburgh in the AFComedy Central and all but assured of missing the postseason. While the Steelers, who have won five straight games, are coming together for a playoff run, the Browns, who haven't won since beating the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 29, are coming apart at the seams.
At the team's Berea, Ohio, practice facility last Saturday, the day before the Browns' penultimate game in Cleveland in 1995 and, perhaps, forever, coach Bill Belichick lamented a season gone bad. He had just finished chatting with LPGA star Michelle McGann, an ardent Brown fan who had dropped by to wish him luck. "We're not that bad," Belichick said. "But when you don't win, people lose confidence. I think once we win, we'll be fine."
In an attempt to bolster Cleveland's chances of beating Pittsburgh, Belichick appeared to concede before Sunday's game that a monthlong experiment had failed. He benched rookie quarterback Eric Zeier and reinstated to the starting lineup nine-year veteran Vinny Testaverde, who, upon being stripped of his job in the week before that Oct. 29 game, had lashed out at Belichick, complaining, correctly, that he was being made the scapegoat for the failures of his teammates.
Testaverde's mood did not improve when Zeier, in his first NFL start, led the Browns to a 29-26 win over the Bengals. But that victory was due as much to the ineptitude of the Cincinnati secondary as it was to Zeier's skills. Zeier didn't look so hot in a 37-10 loss to the Houston Oilers the following week, and he appeared downright hapless in a 20-3 loss in Pittsburgh on Nov. 13 in which the Browns mustered 10 yards of total offense in the second half. Afterward some of the tension between the Cleveland defensive unit and the offense percolated to the surface. "Saint Ignatius could do better," said strong safety Stevon Moore, referring to a local high school team.
Under Zeier's direction the Browns' offense went a span of nine quarters without scoring a touchdown. After relieving Zeier with Cleveland trailing the Packers 21-3 in the second half of their Nov. 19 game, Testaverde threw for 244 yards and two touchdowns, improving his quarterback rating to 92.5 for the season, fourth-best in the AFC. (By the time Zeier returned to the bench, his rating had plunged to 58.7.) Still, Belichick criticized Testaverde for a bungled sneak on a fourth-and-one near the end of that defeat, a failure that extinguished Cleveland's chances for a comeback. Then Belichick kept the Browns off-balance all last week by refusing to announce which of his two quarterbacks would start against the Steelers until the day of the game.
When Testaverde jogged onto the field for the Browns' first offensive series, he received a standing ovation from the Dawg Pound, that woofing, dog-bone-throwing contingent of crazies in the east end zone. But the possession was over before they could sit down. Testaverde was intercepted by Steeler cornerback Willie Williams on the first play when he tried to force a pass to Rison. Pittsburgh converted that gift into a field goal.