Derry: Have We Seen This Before?

Shifting gears, Frank Derry looks at the slumping Steelers and sees an image of the Browns past...

Is the 2007 season turning into a repeat of the 1989 season for the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers … only in reverse roles?

Let's examine the facts.

The 1989 season was the first for Bud Carson as head coach of the Browns. In his first game, he took his team to Pittsburgh and the result was a 51-0 Browns romp. It was probably the most thorough thumping a Browns team has ever given its arch-rivals and the victory gave Browns fans everywhere the feeling that a Super Bowl might be right around the corner.

Fast forward to 2007.

The Steelers, under first year head coach Mike Tomlin, open the season at Cleveland and crush the Browns 34-7 in a game that is not nearly as close as the final score might indicate. Pittsburgh fans are confident quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's injury-marred 2006 season is now just a distant memory and a return to the Super Bowl is right around the corner.

Return to 1989.

The Browns end up capturing their division crown with a 9-6-1 record, but win only two of their final six regular-season games and get whipped by the Broncos in the AFC title game. It's a sign of things to come as the Browns fall to 3-13 in 1990 and Carson fails to survive the season.

Meanwhile, the Steelers, who had been 5-11 in 1988, finish the 1989 season with a very respectable 9-7 record. They go on to win five division titles between 1992 and 1997.

Back to the present.

As the curtain begins to fall on the 2007 season, the Browns are coming on strong and are seriously challenging the slumping Steelers for the division title. Only time will tell whether they are able to catch the now-vulnerable Steelers, who just a few weeks ago seemed a lock to capture the AFC North. Tomlin's team has now lost two straight and three out of five.

Regardless as to whether the Browns win the title, it is obvious that the talent level, which until this year weighed heavily in Pittsburgh's favor, is now very close to being equal, at worst.

The reality of the matter is that the Browns probably have more Pro Bowl caliber players on their current roster than do the Steelers. Legitimate arguments can be made for Jamal Lewis, Derek Anderson, Kellen Winslow Jr., Braylon Edwards, Joshua Cribbs, Eric Steinbach, Phil Dawson and Kamerion Wimbley to be considered for a trip to Hawaii.

The only missing ingredient for the Browns is confidence when they go heads up with the Steelers. The Browns have been dominated in the series for so long that there seems to be a mental block when the two teams play, even for young players who haven't been around long enough to realize just how one-sided the series has been.

Crennel-coached Browns teams are 0-6 against the Steelers, who have beaten the Browns nine straight games, 14 out of there past 15 regular-season meetings and once in the post-season.

Maybe it isn't so much that the Browns lack confidence when they play the Steelers but rather the Steelers, no matter the circumstances, come in convinced that they will not lose.

That, however, could change very rapidly if these two rivals happen to meet in the playoffs in January.

There's no doubt in my mind that if they do play, either in Pittsburgh or Cleveland, that things will be much different from their season opener and their Nov. 11 rematch in which the Steelers were outplayed but still managed to rally for a 31-28 victory.

Even though the Browns lost that rematch, they had to come away knowing that they are every bit as good as those guys from the Steel City.

In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if the Browns and Steelers do meet in the playoffs, it'll be the Browns who prove victorious no matter the venue.

Come next season you will likely see a changing of the guard in the AFC North and it won't be at all surprising if the Browns go on a run similar to that of the Steelers in the 1990s.

There's another similarity to what happened to the Browns in 1989 that happened to the Steelers this year.

Gone from the Browns in 1989 were key members of the 1988 assistant coaching staff, including offensive line coach Howard Mudd.

Mudd, in his 10th year with the Indianapolis Colts, remains one of the best offensive line coaches in the history of the NFL. He was with the Browns from 1983-88 and is finishing up his 34th year as an NFL offensive line coach. His absence from the Browns sideline was definitely felt in 1989 and beyond.

The 2007 Steelers also lost a number of excellent assistants, including long-time offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who moved on to Arizona with former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who got the Cardinals' head coaching job.

The offensive line, without Grimm, has struggled this year to protect Roethlisberger, especially as of late.

Will the Steelers slip to the Browns' 1990s level? Probably. But if they do, there will be few tears shed in Northeast Ohio.

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