“Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”
After a season from hell, the Cleveland Browns will return to FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday with a sterling 0-0 record. A new season beckons and none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers await to renew the once-proud Rust Belt rivalry.
The Steelers will be four-point favorites in Week 1. No one knows quite what to expect from either team. The Browns’ myriad additions look good on paper but still need to prove they can execute and finish during a regular season game. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh boasts a stronger pedigree, but questions linger in the backfield.
The Pride of Western PA leads the all-time series 72-58 including a 2-0 mark in postseason matchups. The Steelers have won six straight contests and ten of the past eleven. The lone Browns win in that stretch came on October 12, 2014, when Brian Hoyer engineered a 31-10 victory in Cleveland. Isaiah Crowell ran for a 5-yard score and Hoyer tossed a touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron. While those names feel as recent as those of Civil War generals I assure you it was only four years ago.
Has anyone seen Le’Veon Bell? The Steelers’ All-Pro running back has been away from the team the entire training camp and preseason, holding out for a better contract. The relationship between Bell and Pittsburgh has grown strained over the past two seasons thanks to unpleasant contract negotiations. When on the field, Bell is a devastating runner who collected 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. All signs indicate that Bell will not be in uniform or with the team on Sunday; he is officially listed as Doubtful. No one seems to know what the team or player’s breaking point would be, but Browns fans should thank their lucky stars if Bell’s holdout continues into Week 1. Of course, I’m not sure if anything would inspire Art Rooney’s checkbook more than an opening week loss to Cleveland.
Ben Roethlisberger will begin his fifteenth season under center on Sunday. At 36-years-old, questions linger about how long Big Ben will be strapping on the helmet; he has toyed with retiring in previous offseasons. Still, he proved more than capable last year with 360-of-561 passing for 4,251 yards, 28 touchdowns, and fourteen interceptions. The Steelers turned in a 13-3 mark in 2017 but shockingly fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars at home in the AFC Divisional Round. More than a few prognosticators expect Pittsburgh to claim yet another division title, and it’s not unreasonable for them to do so.
The start of a new Browns seasons serves as another chance for the Browns to start 1-0, but history is not on their side. Since returning in 1999 the Brown and Orange have lost every opening contest save 2004, a 20-3 victory over Baltimore. That’s a 1-18 mark in Week 1. There have been opportunities of course, but the Browns appear unable to start off the season on the right foot.
The Browns won three of their four preseason games, but the real tests now begin. Questions surround the team like smoke: What can Tyrod Taylor do under center? Will Baker Mayfield get onto the field this season? Which Josh Gordon will be suiting up? Can Myles Garrett make The Leap? Can the Browns win a game?
That last one seems loudest of all. The numbers distort more the further back one looks.
The Browns are a cumulative 4-44 in the past three seasons and have lost seventeen straight games. For the history-minded, the 1976-77 Buccaneers hold the record for most consecutive losses in NFL history with 26. So, the Browns are not in that range quite yet. Hopefully, they don’t get there this fall.
With so many new faces it’s hard to get a feel for this Browns team. There is more talent at most skill positions to be sure. The quarterback should protect the ball better than his predecessor. The defense turned in some impressive individual performances in the past. All the team must do now is rally around Head Coach Hue Jackson and put it all together for sixty minutes. If there were ever a weekend for hope to spring eternal, this is it.