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‘We’re going to win:’ Browns of old believe in the Browns of today
Leroy Hoard and Eric Metcalf know emotions are running high in Cleveland. They've lived it themselves and know how far the team has come. (They believe the time is now, too.)
Watching the Cleveland Browns have success this deep into an NFL season is a ridiculously foreign, yet equally beautiful sight.
You cannot enjoy this sport and not appreciate what transpired at Heinz Field on Jan. 10.
It was just so damn strange to see players in those classic colors and those classic uniforms — In Pittsburgh! In January! — utterly dominate. The Browns unleashed years of misery and hell on the Steelers in racing to that 28-0 lead and right when it seemed like more sadness was looming? Right when Ben Roethlisberger put a scare in all of Ohio? The Browns answered. The Browns finished the job.
The Browns, now, are one win away from facing the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship.
If they somehow pull off the upset in Kansas City, we’ll be sure to take a full look at how the Browns persevered through 2020 here at Go Long. All the Covid. All the injuries. All the demons exorcised. Such a run to the conference title game would be unprecedented. But, in the meantime, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try to put this playoff run into perspective in real time, too. This team hasn’t even been in the NFL Divisional Round since 1994, one year before Art Modell ripped the collective hearts out of locals.
So maybe the only people who truly understand the emotional implications of this all are the players on that Browns team, guys like bruising running back Leroy Hoard and back/receiver/returner Eric Metcalf. Both believe, too. Both still think that their Bill Belichick-led team in the mid-90’s could’ve won it all. Both see elements of that Browns team in this Browns team and sincerely believe Cleveland — a 10-point underdog — can knock off the defending champions today at Arrowhead Stadium.
Asked if an old-school approach — running to daylight — can really work in 2021, Metcalf cuts in.
“We’re going to win,” he says. “We’re going to win.”
Metcalf lets those words sink in for a moment, then explains. Pittsburgh’s defense is better than KC’s defense, he says, and Pittsburgh knew that the Browns were running the ball… and still couldn’t stop it. He’s seen teams have success bashing away at KC, too, with a “hardnosed” brand of football.
“And that’s how the Browns are built,” Metcalf says. “And when you play like that, you’re built for the playoffs. When you can run the ball when they know you’re going to run the ball, not only is that a special thing but it’s demoralizing to the other team.”
Their ’94 Browns team went 11-5, too, and possessed minimal pizzazz. But Hoard remembers the attitude of that group well and he sees the same attitude in this year’s team. Take last week’s playoff win. The Steelers, in resting their starters in Week 17, basically told the Browns that they want them to make the playoffs because they knew they’d beat them.
To Hoard, the Steelers sitting Roethlisberger was the ultimate slap in the face.
“There’s no bigger sign of disrespect than to say to a team, ‘We’ll let you win this one because we know we’re going to beat that ass next week,” Hoard says. “That’s what they said! That’s what Pittsburgh said!”
And Cleveland smacked ‘em, 48-37.
Now, the Browns are rolling and Hoard allows himself to dream.
He, too, can see the Browns winning in KC.
Hoard watches games from his pool in sunny Florida these days but can feel the energy, back in Cleveland, picking up. By God, what a scene it’d be in Cleveland if the Browns found a way. He used to have the same agent as outfielder Kenny Lofton and was a season ticketholder to both the Indians and Cavaliers — Hoard knows how much the city loved its baseball team as they advanced to the World Series in ‘95 and he knows how important that NBA Championship was to the city in 2016. A burden was lifted.
But Hoard also knows this: The Browns winning it all would be next level.
“The celebration you will see in the city of Cleveland will be nothing like you saw with LeBron. Are you kidding me? If Cleveland even gets close? Oh. My. Goodness. You cannot explain what will happen in that city. It will be something. I’m telling you, they should do a ‘30 for 30’ on that.”
Safe to say, Covid-19 restrictions need not apply downtown.
“Everybody’s going to get Covid,” Hoard adds. “You think anybody’s going to stop ‘em? Who’s going to stop ‘em!? They’re going to be cheering, too!”
So, here’s what Browns football resembled the last time the team was this good.
Because it’s truly been this long — since 1994.
Hoard loved how intertwined his team was in the community itself. He remembers going to bars downtown and making friends with locals. He joined a bowling league. He golfed. He knows times have changed but believes that “personal relationship” between team and city is as alive in Cleveland as it could be anywhere in the NFL. And having started at running back on the last Browns team with legit Super Bowl dreams — totaling 890 rushing yards, 445 receiving yards with nine touchdowns in ‘94 — he knows what’s going through these locals’ minds right now.
Back then, these fans were so close to championship glory. Three times — ’86, ’87 and ’89 — the Browns reached the AFC Championship and three times they lost to the Denver Broncos. Belichick arrived. Hoard and Metcalf tag-teamed defenses. Life was good.
Hoard still remembers the scene in the 90s: Fans parking their cars on Saturday just to ensure their tailgate spot for Sunday — they’d sacrifice their vehicle for a day if it meant prime real estate. The team’s morning drive to Municipal Stadium was always special, too, with every possible street lined with tailgaters. (“You could barely get through!”) The Browns beat New England in the ’94 playoffs, then lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round, then were full of hope to start the ’95 season with a 3-1 start… and found out owner Art Modell was moving the team to Baltimore. A “terrible feeling,” Hoard says. Cleveland finished 5-11.
His memories of Municipal Stadium getting torn to bits that final game remain fresh, too. Hoard wasn’t playing in that game himself — he was out with broken ribs — so he made a point that day to really take this all in. The booming cheers still ring in his head.
He knows all of those fans in the stadium that day now have kids cheering on these Browns.
“When the game ended, nobody left,” Hoard says. “It’s the first time I ever saw a game where the game ended and everybody was still there. We ran around the field. The fans basically said, ‘You all want a new stadium? We’re taking this one with us.’ That’s what they did. And you know what? Nobody was mad. … The funny thing about it is — and you see what’s going on in society right now — that’s the closest thing to chaos I’ve ever seen and nobody was injured, nobody was hurt, nobody got into a fight and they literally tore the building down.”
And, in full perspective, here.
There were signs. There were fake knives implanted in fans’ backs. Ushers wouldn’t rip the ticket stubs to this game, either, because they knew this game was special. You bet fans ripped seats out individually. By the row, too. And when this 26-10 Browns win over Cincinnati was all wrapped up, players and the 55,875 fans in attendance embraced for what felt like forever.
All the boos all season long directed at Modell were cheers for one day.
“That last game, it was incredible,” Hoard says. “It was like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be six years or seven years before we get a stadium, so we’re going to give you seven years of cheering in this game. While we take our seats with us. It was incredible. What I would say is… it was one of the more incredible things I’ve seen in my career, how that many people can make that much noise, tear a stadium apart and then go home and be sad for six years.’”
He’s told it’s really been 26 years. Because once the Browns came back, in ’99, they were terrible for two decades. And the coach they fired, Belichick, went on to become the greatest ever. And the Browns-turned-Ravens won Super Bowls in 2000 and 2012.
It’s been a long slog to today, to this opportunity in KC.
“They’ve waited so long — so long — just for the hint of success,” Hoard says. “They don’t even have to be successful. Just give us some hope! Give us some promise! And within a year with what Kevin Stefanski has done, look, it might not be as good next year. But guess what? There’s hope. There’s promise.”
Metcalf really believes if that Belichick-coached team stuck together, they would’ve won a Super Bowl. He was traded to Atlanta in ’95 but he, too, could feel the city’s pain from afar. It was “gut-wrenching.” And then for the team to lose for two decades when football returned to Cleveland? All the different coaches, all the quarterbacks? Brutal. Metcalf makes a good point: There’s been nobody on either side of the ball that has really scared anybody for those two decades.
The roster, year in and year out, was numbingly bland.
Not anymore. Not with these weapons.
“They have people that teams are scared of,” says Metcalf, a three-time All Pro himself who was a rookie sensation on the Browns’ ‘89 squad that was one win away from the Super Bowl. “And that run game that we have right now? It’s lethal. So before the Cleveland Browns walk off the bus, the other team is figuring out how they’re going to stop the run.”
The Browns rushed for 148.4 rushing yards per game this season, hitting defenses with a 1-2 punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Baker Mayfield has blossomed into the best play-action quarterback in the NFL off of this, too, with 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and one interception on his last 349 attempts. The days of Mayfield recklessly throwing into double coverage sure seem over. When the Chiefs do load up to stop the run — and they’d be nuts not to — Mayfield has an arm to make them pay.
Even without Odell Beckham Jr.
Mayfield has been much more disciplined without his No. 1 receiver this season, something we discussed in The Thread this past week.
This would be one striking difference between these Browns and those Browns. You’d rather have Mayfield than Vinny Testaverde in a game against Patrick Mahomes.
Adds Hoard: “Our team was very similar to the team we have now. We ran the ball. We just beat you down. It wasn’t no four wides and bubble screens and slants. It was two tight ends, two big backs, a defense that got after you and that’s how we won. If I say ‘Cleveland Browns,’ you now go ‘Chubb and Hunt.’ Oh my goodness. Jarvis Landry. What do they all have in common? Tough, physical guys that you know — when you play football against them — you better bring it.”
It’s simple to Hoard: If the Browns hit the 175-yard mark on the ground — if they’re able to stick to their style of play — they win.
The Browns are the team that’s rolling right now, too. The Chiefs haven’t played a meaningful game in what feels like ages.
“When you look at Kansas City — I don’t care how good their players are — the last month they’ve played average football,” Hoard says. “This is not basketball. You do not have one player who can just turn it up and score 50. This is the ultimate team sport and if you’ve been playing average football, chances are, you’re not going to be able to just flip that switch and play great football. Now, the Browns have been playing some of their best football. I know Kansas City is a juggernaut. I do believe that they are the best team in football but, sometimes, you get caught in that buzzsaw. Ask the Steelers.
“There’s something to be said for playing your best football in January when two or three teams kind of limped in.”
Other teams had success running the ball this season, like Tennessee and Baltimore. But Metcalf believes the Browns just run it “differently.” Like the sport intended.
This is the kind of football that’d make Jim Brown proud. (With guys like fullback Andy Janovich who want to kick your ass.)
“They run it like old-school football,” Metcalf says. “They have a fullback back there. And when they don’t have a fullback back there, they might motion in a tight end. So, it ends up being the same thing with more blockers than there are guys actually coming downhill. So that creates a problem. A lot of teams run RPOs and these spread offenses. They’re out-numbered a lot of times in the run game, so everything has to be blocked perfectly and then the running back has to make somebody miss. But when you have a hat on a hat, it’s easier to get these big runs the Browns get.”
Metcalf knows emotions will be strong — very strong — either way by Monday morning.
Fans have bought in. All of those fans who had their hopes and dreams shattered by Modell have had kids now live through Couch and Quinn and Weeden and Manizel and all the rest… and now fathers ‘n sons all have a team worth rooting for. Together.
“The love for the team is so great that it’s almost a problem — it’s tough on the fans,” Metcalf says. “They stay pessimistic because they don’t want their hearts broken. And it’s hard to balance because you love the team but you don’t want to say, ‘We’re going to the playoffs! We’re winning the Super Bowl!’ because they’ve seen so many bad things happen to the team. We’re up 28-0 the other day and I still was nervous. Like I was playing! Because of all of the things that have happened since the team has been back. So if I was a regular fan, I can’t even imagine the swings of emotions and how it feels to be in that position.”
Now? Metcalf sees the Browns sustaining this, too. Reaching the Super Bowl is the new, realistic expectation.
Their head coach, Stefanski, will be back on the sideline after recovering from Covid. The roster is as healthy as it’s been in a while.
The Browns, both Hoard and Metcalf believe, are unquestionably back. And the Browns absolutely have a chance to win today.
Hoard’s only hope is that Stefanski is able to control possession. Because, to him, it’s one thing to be cocky when you can’t back it up like Pittsburgh a week ago. It’s another when you’ve got Patrick Mahomes on your side. The Chiefs have a reason to be cocky with this quarterback, he says, and “the fastest people on this earth.” Yet right when you think Hoard’s getting worried about this one, his confidence resets.
It’s a new day after all.
“When you get in a situation like this,” Hoard says, “and you haven’t played football in three weeks you blink and it’s like ‘Uh, oh, they are dominating us. How do you turn that around?’”