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
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 NFL's 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.
On Cleveland's next play from scrimmage, running back Leroy
Hoard fumbled after a hard hit by Steeler safety Myron Bell.
Pittsburgh converted that turnover into a touchdown. When at
last, on their third possession, the Browns were able to run a
play without giving up the ball, they were showered with
The dark mood of the fans was to be expected--even before the
bonehead plays--and stadium officials were prepared for it.
Before the game a dozen members of Cleveland's finest took up
positions in front of the Dawg Pound, where behavior has become
markedly worse since Modell's Baltimore bombshell. There have
been several fights between fans and security guards, and
batteries have replaced dog bones as the projectile of choice,
according to one security guard.
The 67,269 in attendance on Sunday included thousands of
Pittsburgh fans, few if any of whom dared venture into the
Pound. In the past those sporting Steeler regalia were stripped
of the offending clothing. Said Pound regular John (Big Dawg)
Thompson, "I've seen tough, big, grown men reduced to tears in
the Pound during Steeler-Brown games. A couple of years ago we
had a huge bonfire using stuff we ripped off of fans, like
Starter coats and stuff. Those are expensive, like a hundred
bucks, and here we were burning them to keep warm and roast
Brown fans had little to cheer until the second quarter, when
Testaverde set about extricating Cleveland from the ditch it had
dug for itself. With 9:30 to go before the half, the Browns'
Matt Stover pushed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide right, but
he was given a second chance because the Steelers had 12 men on
the field. From five yards closer his aim was true. Just before
the half Testaverde connected with wideout Michael Jackson for
an 11-yard touchdown, and midway through the third he bolted
over the goal line from the one, tying the score at 17. It
looked as if Cleveland's luck had changed.
To that point the Browns had bottled up Kordell (Slash) Stewart,
Pittsburgh's quarterback/running back/wideout/defensive
coordinator's nightmare, whose nickname derives not from his
running style but from the punctuation that separates his
various positions. Lining up all over the field, running the
option, throwing and catching touchdown passes, Stewart, a
rookie from Colorado, had done serious damage to the Steelers'
previous three opponents.
"I don't think he's worth losing a lot of sleep over," Belichick
said of Slash on the eve of the game. "You have to know where he
is on the field. I know this much: If you let the guy run down
the middle of the field with nobody on him, you're going to give
up a 70-yard touchdown." Against the Bengals a week earlier,
Stewart had scored the game-winning touchdown on a 71-yard pass
play up the gut.
Thus, later in the third quarter, Belichick must have been
chagrined to see Stewart running down the middle of the field
with no one covering him. Slash's fingertip catch of O'Donnell's
soft, slightly overthrown ball was good for 31 yards, to the
Cleveland 37. Two plays later Stewart lined up at quarterback,
rolled right, faking the option, and threw back to his left to
tight end Mark Bruener for nine yards and a first down. Norm
Johnson's 27-yard field goal provided the margin of victory
seven plays later.
The Browns had almost an entire quarter left to regain the lead,
but Testaverde killed a drive with another interception. From
then on Cleveland was done in by its defense as Pittsburgh bled
the clock dry. On a key third-and-11 with four minutes to play,
O'Donnell hit wideout Ernie Mills for a 26-yard completion.
Belichick sat in his office for a long time afterward stewing
over the loss in general and that painful third-down conversion
in particular. Had O'Donnell made a good throw, or was the
Cleveland defense to blame? Belichick's acid response indicated
that he preferred to be alone. "We don't have any defenses
designed to give up 26-yard receptions," he said.
Rison, who had caught five passes for only 38 yards and had been
roundly booed all afternoon, didn't feel like talking, either.
"I didn't do -- to get booed, I just came here to play
football," he said. "And I'm going to play football. They can't
stop me, you can't stop me, can't nobody stop me." It hardly
seemed the time to point out that the Steelers had done a pretty
fair job of stopping him. Besides, Rison was just hitting his
Asked if it hurt that his dream of playing in the Super Bowl
would apparently be deferred at least one more year, Rison
shouted back, "I'm still dreaming! I'm going to get to the Super
Bowl!" Finally, he bade reporters to "get the -- away from me."
They were pleased to oblige. Outside Brown fans filed out of
their beloved scrap heap of a stadium for perhaps the
second-to-last time. Most had orange ribbons tied around their
sleeves; many carried signs. John D'Amico, a 40-year-old senior
draftsman for the city's water department, carried a Styrofoam
headstone he had painted gray and on which he had printed
CLEVELAND VS. PITTSBURGH, FOOTBALL'S GREATEST RIVALRY, OCTOBER
7, 1950 TO NOVEMBER 26, 1995.