CLEVELAND — So this was … what, exactly, for the Cleveland Browns? A 21-21 comeback tie against their perennial tormenters from Pittsburgh. A better result, objectively, than any they’ve had since Christmas Eve 2016. How many teams came out of Week 1 assured of a better record than they had last year? Just one, folks. Your Cleveland Browns.
And yet, they were not happy.
“This is nothing to be excited about,” said Browns receiver Josh Gordon, whose only catch of the day was a game-tying 17-yard touchdown with 1 minute, 58 seconds left in regulation. “We’re not celebrating this. We’re here to win games. It’s the equivalent of a loss, to me.”
But for a while, at least, it had the feel of something more. For one tantalizing hour, after Steelers running back James Conner fumbled with a 21-7 lead and the Browns came racing back with a pair of touchdowns to send the thing into overtime, this felt as if it could be something special. The thing for which these fans have been waiting for nearly 21 months. A win.
Every single turn that went the Browns’ way made the stadium pulse. When Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell missed a 42-yard field goal attempt with 1:47 left in overtime, the crowd roared to life. When their heroes went three-and-out right after, it groaned a familiar groan. When Genard Avery sacked Ben Roethlisberger to force a fumble and Joe Schobert recovered it and ran it back to the Steelers’ 14-yard-line — the sixth Steelers turnover of the game! — you’d have thought they won the Super Bowl.
This was unquestionably it, right? They had 36 seconds on the clock in field goal range, and a win doesn’t get any closer than that. Players jumped and danced on the sideline. Fans held their heads in disbelief. The elusive victory was in sight.
But it was not to be. First, a penalty pushed the start of the drive to the 24-yard line. Then a run that lost a yard, a spike to stop the clock and the field goal team on the field as northern Ohio held its breath and … T.J. Watt blocked the kick.
The air went out of the place, as you’d expect, but half-disappointment is an odd vibe in a stadium used to total disappointment. Fans cheered the players as they jogged off the field into the locker room, and it surely had been an effort worthy of praise. But still … weird.
“A tie,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said, “is just a sour taste.”
It’s tough to know how to feel after a tie. The Steelers, who are used to beating this team twice a year with relative ease, absolutely felt as if they’d lost. They have the highest of hopes for this season, and they fully expected to be 1-0 after this game and not 0-0-1.
The Browns, who went 1-15 over the past two seasons and 0-16 last season, unquestionably have a different standard. They’re working on changing that.
“I think the guys can see that we’re an improved football team,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “But there are some areas that we have to clean up and clean up fast.”
Hue Jackson discusses the Browns’ missed field goal in overtime and can’t wait to see the tape.
So how do you look at this, Cleveland? Do you take the glass-half-full approach? Your team forced a total of 13 turnovers all of last season and already has six for this season. That’s downright encouraging, right?
“Just got to put it all together,” safety Jabrill Peppers said, shaking his head and smiling.
Or do you take the glass-half-empty perspective, lament your missed opportunities, wonder why the offense looked so lousy and bemoan the depressing fact that your team and only your team could end a 17-game losing streak without winning?
“It’s not last year,” Peppers insisted. “It’s just a whole new feeling, that’s all I can say about it. We’ve got 31 new guys on this squad. A lot more veterans and guys who’ve come from places where they’ve proven themselves.
“0-16 shouldn’t make you hungry to win. You should always be hungry to win. We accept the 0-16. We take it on the chin. But that was last year, and it’s a whole new feeling around here now. We showed good things today. Just got to put it all together.”
Will they? Will it actually be different this time? The Browns came out of last year’s Week 1 loss to Pittsburgh feeling decent about themselves — that they’d played the Steelers tough and had a chance to beat them, and they haven’t won a game since. So you can forgive the Lake Erie pessimist if he or she doesn’t want to see Sunday’s rain-soaked tie as a sign of sunnier days to come.
But the Browns are working on it, they promise. And whatever you want to say about Sunday — however you choose to feel about a tie — it is, for this team, quite literally an improvement.