Monday, January 16, 2006


It's the AFC championship game no Browns fan wanted to see.
The team by which John Elway used to torture Cleveland, revamped with Browns retreads on the defensive line, versus the arch-rival Steelers, in the AFC title game for the seventh time since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1991.
Either way, one of the Browns' old foes is going to get richer while Cleveland remains huddled in the football poorhouse.
Last spring, when Phil Savage unloaded Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Mike Myers to Denver, we knew we were finally going to see whether the Browns' defensive problems lay with a lack of talent, or ineptitude in the front office and coaching staff.
Guess what? The bad apples weren't foisted off on Denver, as we had hoped. The rot is embedded in Cleveland.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan took the Browns' garage-sale merchandise, refurbished it, and could now probably sell it on eBay for a tidy profit. The Broncos had the third-best defense in the NFL this year.
Warren was right when he said the Browns would be sorry for letting he and the others go. Not that any magnificent change would have happened in Cleveland, as it has in Denver. Shanahan runs a tight ship focused on winning, and the Cleveland castoffs have benefitted from the heathier environment.
The Browns, too often, get team leaders focused on themselves more than anything else (Carmen Policy, Butch Davis, Jeff Garcia, John Collins).
The same stable environment exists in Pittsburgh. One of the most astounding statistics in football is the ratio of head coaches to home stadiums the Steelers have had since 1969. Since Chuck Noll was hired as Pittsburgh's coach in 1969, the Steelers have had one coaching change, hiring Cowher when Noll retired.
In that span, the Steelers have called Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and Heinz Field home.
Three home stadiums to two head coaches. That, my friends, is stability.
The stability has lent itself to a great team environment, free of John Collins-esque fiascos. Great draft picks are nurtured and cultivated into productive players. As a result, the Steelers won four Super Bowl titles under Noll, had a fifth Super Bowl appearance under Cowher, and score almost-yearly playoff appearances.
With the Colts and Patriots knocked out of the playoffs this year, the Vince Lombardi Trophy appears up for grabs. Nobody should be surprised if the Steelers are hoisiting it in three weeks.
Cowher has developed a reputation of a coach who can get his team to the doorstep of a championship but never to the summit. But if your team is banging on the door almost every January, sooner or later, you're probably going to get in.
The sustained success of the Steelers, and to a lesser extent the Broncos, is probably as painful to watch as anything if you are a Cleveland fan. It is for me.
Shots, drives and fumbles I can get over. What really gets under my skin is watching a rival win a championship. More than anything, it rubs salt in the wound of wanting, reminding me what my teams don't have.

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