HISTORY OF A RIVALRY: CLEVELAND BROWNS AND BALTIMORE RAVENS
By Joshua Edwards
Ahead of the first Browns-Ravens AFC North of the season clash on Sunday, Josh Edwards trawls the archives and takes a look at one of the newest, more unique rivalries the league has to offer.
Unsentimental, physical AFC North football. A relocation scandal and a ‘stolen’ Super Bowl. An excommunicated owner and a heavily one-sided stats sheet. The Browns-Ravens might not be as steeped in history as some NFL rivalries, but the contests are just as hard fought, and the contributing factors truly unprecedented. With the respective futures of the two teams looking as competitive as ever, let’s take a look at how the Browns and Ravens rivalry came to be.
November 1995. Cleveland has had a football franchise, the Browns, for 40 straight years. The team holds a special place in hearts and minds across the nation, having been exceptional throughout the 1940s and 50s under Paul Brown, for whom the team was named. Another Brown, Jim, was drafted in 1957 and became perhaps the best player in the history of the game during his time in Cleveland. It is safe to say that in 1995, despite limited success since the Paul Brown era, the Cleveland Browns were a mainstay of professional football.
At this point Baltimore has been without a team since their Colts relocated to Indianapolis 13 years prior in 1983. On a ‘where were you when?’ day for Browns fans, owner Art Modell calls a press conference from Camden Yards, the Orioles baseball stadium in Maryland. He does the unthinkable, and formally announces the team’s proposed relocation to Baltimore. Some had seen it coming. The Browns stadium had become unprofitable since the Cleveland Indians left the site in 1994, and Modell failing to foresee that his revenues would decline so precipitously with the departure of the baseball team.
The immediate reaction was one of disbelief, disgust and litigation. The City of Cleveland sued Modell and the Browns for breach of contract, as did a number of season ticket holders. Even Steelers fans protested in solidarity with Browns fans at their game on the 13th of November. Much of the anger was initially geared towards Modell himself, who suffered numerous death threats and required bodyguards when in public. Locally their was considerable business backing to the protests – McDonald’s, Revco, the Ohio Lottery, GTE Mobilet and Continental Airlines stopped advertising the Browns in solidarity with the fans. Sports talk radio was awash with calls from audibly distraight Browns fans who vented their anger on the airwaves.
“This is a historic agreement in professional sports that solves an emotional, difficult problem for the NFL, Cleveland and Baltimore,” NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said moments after he approved the move. “To the fans of the Browns I can say very simply you can count on us, the Browns will be there by 1999. The NFL is committed to this. There are no ifs, ands or buts.”
In February 1996 the league, true to its word, reached an agreement with Cleveland which promised the city a new ‘Browns’ team (either through relocation or expansion) and a new stadium, though crucially the team wouldn’t be activated until 1999, and Modell retained the rights to the Browns players and coaches he had moved to Baltimore. The settlement stated that Cleveland would retain the Browns’ name, colours, and records, and was approved by owners at a league vote by a 25–2 majority. In 1998, the NFL confirmed that the Cleveland Browns would once again operate, now as an expansion team, from the 1999 season. The newly formed Browns joined the now defunct AFC Central and have faced the Ravens (whose name was chosen via fan poll based on the Baltimore poet Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ poem) twice yearly since then.
Over the years rivalry between the two teams flourished, the Ravens becoming the embodiment of ‘The Move’ for Browns fans. The relatively quick success of the Ravens, who won the Super Bowl just 5 years later in 2001, didn’t help matters, nor did the fact that many of the ‘96 Browns coaching staff later went on to great success, not least head coach at the time Bill Belichick.
Modell died in 2012 having never returned to Cleveland.
Browns-Ravens and the question of what makes a true rivalry
The Browns-Ravens conflict throws up some valid questions about how we define and measure sporting rivalries, the first of which being:
How much does a rivalry need mutual animosity to be considered worthy of the moniker?
If one team hates the other because of perceived slights or injustices, but the other team could not care less, does it count? If the vitriol is palpable but one sided, should anyone else take notice? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d argue it’s worth considering the Browns-Ravens because of:
a) The uniqueness of the situation;
b) The sheer level of animosity shown towards Baltimore by Browns fans; and
c) The relatively young nature of the rivalry – that is to say, there could be way more to come
The second, oft cited criticism of the Browns-Ravens rivalry is the fact that over its short, twenty year history, it’s been such a one-sided affair on the field. In the 40 meetings between the two teams the Ravens hold a convincing 30-10 advantage. The Browns have never been to a Super Bowl and the Ravens have won two since the turn of the century. In that span the Ravens have won 15 playoff games. In contrast, the Browns have only been to the post-season once, losing to the Steelers in the Wildcard round in 2002. Even more remarkably, Cleveland have had just two winning seasons since ’99, 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 in 2007.
Should a one-sided series be considered a rivalry if one team expects to win every time they meet? There’s certainly plenty of precedent in the sporting world for that scenario and if you discount the Browns-Ravens on that basis you have to ignore a pretty valid list of rivalries, including, to mention just a few:
Navy-Notre Dame (CFB)
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (CFB)
Texas-Texas A&M (CFB)
Try telling fans of these teams that their rivalries aren’t real because they’re one-sided.
The defining contests
First Browns win over Baltimore: Browns 24-14 Ravens, October 21st 2001
In week 6 of the 2001 season, and on their fifth attempt, Cleveland finally got their first series win against Baltimore, and it was their defense which led the way. The Browns finished the game with 7 sacks of Ravens quarterback Elvis Grbac, two picks and a fumble recovery at a raucous a historic win for the fanbase.
Bizarre Phil Dawson FG forces overtime in Browns win: Browns 33-30 Ravens, November 18th 2007
A topsy-turvy affair in which Baltimore trailed 27-14 in the fourth quarter but fought back to lead by 3 after a Matt Stover field goal inside the 2 minute warning. The Browns got the ball back needing a field goal to tie and send the contest to overtime, and Phil Dawson attempted a 51 yarder to try and match the scores at 30 apiece. Then the weirdness started. Dawson’s kick hit the upright, then the crossbar, then bounced into the endzone, and the Ravens ran onto the field in celebration. However, after a lengthy review, it transpired that the ball had in fact gone through the posts off the uprights and rebounded off the centre support back into the endzone. The Browns went wild, the Ravens were in shock, and in overtime Dawson nailed a 33 yarder to seal the win.
Ravens 20pt comeback to avoid upset: Ravens 25-20 Browns, September 18th 2016
Finding themselves trailing an unprecedented 20 to nothing on the road at Cleveland in 2016, the Ravens rallied to score 25 unanswered points and shut out the Browns through 3 quarters, pulling off the comeback win of the series. Joe Flacco threw two picks but bounced back with a pair of touchdowns to wide receiver Mike Wallace which, combined with 3 Justin Tucker field goals, was enough for the 25-20 win.
Here and now
The Ravens Super Bowl win in 2012 was the most recent championship for either team and the first since 2000, also won by Baltimore. Characterised by their defensive strength and well-run football operations, the Ravens have been a playoff team in 11 of the past 18 seasons, winning 15 post-season games under Brian Billick and Jon Harbaugh combined. Harbaugh has a solid 106-73 record as head coach in Baltimore, though was considered to be on the hot seat after three playoff-less seasons between 2015-2017. Enter Lamar Jackson, the Ravens first round pick in the 2018 draft out of Louisville. Thrown in to the fray last season when veteran signal-caller Joe Flacco went down with injury, Jackson has been a revelation and become the most exciting dual threat quarterback since Robert Griffin III (and he’s proven, thus far, to be durable). The Ravens now have a ‘run it down your throat’ identity befitting of their history and a balanced, well stocked roster with perennial playoff aspirations. The Ravens have started 2-1, losing only to Kansas City at Arrowhead last week after a host of questionable two point conversion attempts when trying to keep pace.
Cleveland’s ‘factory of sadness’ has had an almighty makeover in the past few years. Former head coach Hue Jackson finished with a 3-36-1 record over 3 seasons between 2016-2018 and, upon his firing, remarked that winning with the Browns was ‘the Mt Everest of the NFL’. Jackson’s head coaching performance was historically bad but he was undoubtedly working with a threadbare roster, quality wise, for the majority of his tenure. The Browns ongoing rebuild, facilitated by the quasi-socialist nature of the NFL, has been impressive. Analytically driven chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta (of Moneyball fame) and former GM Sashi Brown assembled plenty of draft ammunition and scouted well – their offensive picks are headlined by Baker Mayfield at QB and Nick Chubb at RB, and a host of defensive talent including CBs Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward and Pro Bowl pass rusher Myles Garrett. The off-season’s biggest blockbuster trade saw Giants receiver Odell Beckham Junior sent to Cleveland to be reunited with former LSU teammate and wideout Jarvis Landry. This season started disastrously at home to Tennessee, with Mayfield looking skittish and the defense failing to contain Marcus Mariota and the Titans. The Browns sit at 1-2 after another beating a banged-up Jets team and losing to the Rams last week.
Sunday’s game was supposed to mark the beginning of a new, highly competitive era for this rivalry, but the Browns are once again struggling to find early season form and, at 1-2, aren’t living up to the hype quite yet. Fans might get impatient quickly, and who’d blame them given how long they’ve waited for a competitive roster? Nevertheless, we’re only 3 weeks into the season, and with the Bengals in freefall and the Big Ben-less Steelers season in doubt, the road to the post-season is less fraught than most years for Baltimore and Cleveland.
JOSH IS A CFB SPECIALIST, LONG SUFFERING RESKINS FAN AND BUDDING HISTORIAN OF THE GAME BASED IN LONDON. CHECK OUT HIS ARTICLES HERE AND FOLLOW HIM @JOSHWA_1990 ON TWITTER.
Image credit: Edward Wagner/Chicago Tribune/TNS