For the Browns, winning the season opener over Pittsburgh could bring closure.
The end of a 17-game losing streak. The first opening-week victory since 2004. More relief from the haunting memories of an 0-16 season. A new beginning for a franchise and fan base that has suffered far too long.
Rarely has a first game felt so important. Beyond big.
“Whew,” Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon said as he considered the multilayered impact of beating the Steelers. “That’s the equivalent of making the playoffs here, almost a Super Bowl win. It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time.”
It’s been five years since Gordon played in an opener, and his return after being sidelined for years by personal demons may best symbolize Cleveland’s rebirth.
The Browns believe they’re back.
When they take the field at FirstEnergy Stadium to face their hated rival, the Browns will have 31 new players – including new quarterback Tyrod Taylor and Pro Bowl wide receiver Jarvis Landry – on a roster demolished over the past few months by general manager John Dorsey and his staff. Dorsey was the mastermind of a similar rebuilding project in Kansas City, and he’s in the early stages of pushing Cleveland back to relevance.
The Browns, so accustomed to drama, seem to be coming together. The Steelers, one of the NFL’s standards of consistency, aren’t themselves.
Pittsburgh will likely be without star running back Le’Veon Bell, holding out in a contract dispute that triggered teammates to turn on him earlier this week.
“Honestly, it’s a little selfish,” said centre Maurkice Pouncey. “I’m kind of [ticked] right now. It sucks that he’s not here. We’ll move on as a team.”
Bell returned from a lengthy absence last season in time to play in the opener at Cleveland, but he was mostly ineffective and ran for 32 yards on 10 carries in Pittsburgh’s 21-18 win.
The Browns were without dynamic defensive end Myles Garrett that day because of injury, and the second-year defensive end is positive he would have made a difference in the outcome.
Garrett’s healthy and the 2017 No. 1 overall pick knows what a win for the Browns could bring.
“It’d be an eye opener for the rest of the league,” he said.