CLEVELAND – Maybe it was the proximity, with the cities separated by only 130-some miles of easy turnpike driving. Maybe it was because the cities were more alike than either populace would care to admit. Whatever it was, there long has been a rivalry between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and when it came to football, a sport that always has been equally important to the people of Western Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio, well, the rivalry was bitter.
When the Cleveland Browns were absorbed into the National Football League from the All-American Football Conference for the 1950 season, the team’s respective owners quickly learned that the contempt bred by the proximity and familiarity of the two cities was good box office. Steelers vs. Browns was staged at least twice a season from 1950 through 1995 when Art Modell packed up his team and moved it to Baltimore, and for those 46 years the teams would fill 80,000 seats in Municipal Stadium in Cleveland and come close to capacity in Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium.
When the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, Modell and Art Rooney Sr. were savvy enough to know they had to keep the series alive and so both agreed to move into the newly created AFC provided they would be in the same division. In every realignment since, the Steelers and the Browns used their political capital within the NFL to make sure they were not separated, because even though the teams rarely were contenders at the same time, the games within their annual home-and-home series always were highly anticipated within the boundaries of the two towns and well-attended at either venue.
For a while now, ever since the Browns re-entered the NFL in 1999 when the franchise was restored after Modell’s desertion, the rivalry has been a rivalry in name only. Bill Cowher’s teams were 21-5 vs. the Browns, and coming into the 2019 season, Mike Tomlin’s teams were 20-3-1. For the NFL, restoring Steelers-Browns to something resembling competitiveness would be good for business, but what happened last night at FirstEnergy Stadium was a black mark on the sport and on the league.
As far as the game itself, the Browns won, 21-7, for their first victory over the Steelers since Oct. 12, 2014, and only their third since early in the 2012 season. The loss dropped the Steelers to 5-5 and made the Browns a more respectable 4-6, but it was made very clear over the course of the exercise that neither team is a championship contender in 2019.
The Steelers found out what will happen to them in games where their defense isn’t pillaging the opponent with sacks and takeaways, and the Browns continue to learn that the road from finishing 0-16 in one season to being a playoff team a few years later is neither a quick nor easy journey.
But analyzing whether the Browns franchise took a step forward or if it was just a fun time in primetime for their beleaguered fans, and whether the Steelers just had a bad game after five wins in their previous six games or had their fatal flaw exposed in definitive fashion will not be how the most recent meeting between these teams will be remembered, nor will any of those issues be the major topics of discussion when this game is dissected.
That’s because this game, this matchup between these teams, will be remembered for and come to be known by the unsportsmanlike conduct that overshadowed everything else. Just like the Turkey Jones game and the “criminal element” game, Thursday night’s Steelers-Browns forever will be associated with Myles Garrett ripping Mason Rudolph’s helmet off and using it as a weapon at the end of an otherwise insignificant play very late in a game with the outcome already having been decided.
That will be the lasting image, Garrett swinging Rudolph’s helmet and cracking him on his exposed head with it, just as it is with Joe “Turkey” Jones flipping Terry Bradshaw into the air and planting him head-first into the turf, or George Atkinson clothes-lining Lynn Swann from behind, or Albert Haynesworth stomping on Andre Gurode’s face and opening a huge gash on his forehead. That’s what everyone will be talking about in the next several days, and that’s what everyone will remember about Nov. 14, 2019 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Before the final eight seconds of the game were completed, FOX already had shown the replay from several angles. Rudolph had just gotten rid of the ball on what would end up being a completely insignificant 11-yard catch-and-run by Trey Edmunds when he was taken to the ground by Garrett. Not only have similar hits and the timing of such been flagged for roughing the passer in this era of “above all, protect the quarterback,” but Garrett laid on top of Rudolph long enough after the play that had the quarterback been Tom Brady …
Anyway, a scuffle broke out between Garrett and Rudolph, and that’s when Garrett ripped off Rudolph’s helmet by the facemask and swung it down on the quarterback’s exposed skull. David DeCastro was in the middle of it and trying to get Garrett away from Rudolph, and then Maurkice Pouncey was on the scene quickly and pounced on Garrett. Others from both teams joined the insanity, and when the officials finally restored something resembling order, Garrett, Pouncey, and Larry Ogunjobi were ejected.
This clearly is a problem for the NFL, whose game officials allowed things to get out of control on a night when only one game was being played and telecast nationally. When JuJu Smith-Schuster was concussed with a helmet-to-helmet shot with nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, no penalty was called for that, and when Diontae Johnson was concussed with eight minutes left in the third quarter by an even more blatant helmet-to-helmet shot from Damarious Randall and was helped off the field with blood dripping from his ear it took intervention from the league office in New York to get Randall ejected.
Before the sun rose on Friday, players on other NFL teams had taken to social media demanding harsh punishment for Garrett, and based on the swiftness of that reaction it will be interesting to see how long it takes the NFL to impose discipline.
There are still six games left in this NFL regular season, and the Steelers, while flawed, still are in the hunt for one of the six playoff spots available to teams from the AFC. But nobody will be talking about that because of what Myles Garrett did to Mason Rudolph. Your move, Commissioner Goodell.