King: Home Field Disadvantage

If the Browns really want to come back, they need to make Cleveland Browns Stadium their real home. Steve King offers some history, some analysis, and a couple of ideas how to bring the old home karma back...

Maybe it's the fact the Browns now use the north side of the field as their sideline, instead of the south side.

Maybe it's the fact the grass is nice and plush instead of being sparse and painted green.

Maybe it's the fact the Browns no longer enter the field from a long, narrow tunnel leading from the locker room to a first-base dugout, now coming out a short, wide walkway that leads directly to their locker room.

Maybe it's the fact there are no support posts that fans have to look around to see the action at home games, making every seat a good seat now.

But whatever the reason, this is not your father's Cleveland Browns home stadium.

Including their 0-2 start this year, the Browns, heading into yet another – gulp! – home game on Sunday when the Green Bay Packers visit, are 28-54 for a .341 winning percentage at Cleveland Browns Stadium since they returned to the field in 1999.

Compare that to the roughly 63-percent winning percentage – almost 180 degrees the other way – the original Browns enjoyed over their 50-year existence at Cleveland Stadium in the days of the original franchise.

To say the former Browns had a home-field advantage at the old place is like saying the trough-like latrines used to overflow "just a bit." That is, it's a vast understatement.

Teams hated coming to Cleveland to face the Browns. The Browns were usually as good as the field and weather conditions were bad. The fans were so loud and raucous that silent snap counts, when they eventually came into being, were as much a part of every opponent's offensive game plan as draw plays and fly patterns.

And, especially during the last 11 seasons when the Dawg Pound came into existence, no team – absolutely no team – wanted to be driving toward the bleachers at the east end of the stadium down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when games many times are won and lost. It was like walking into the bowels of you-know-where. It was someplace you didn't want to go, no matter what.

Even when the Browns were bad, they were tough at home. In 1974 and '75, when they had their two worst seasons to date at 4-10 and then 3-11, respectively, they still defended their home turf. In 1974, they were 3-4 at home and 1-6 on the road. In 1975, the Browns were 4-4 in Cleveland again and 0-7 away from there.

In 1990, which the Browns called "The Season from Hell" in their highlight video after going a then franchise-worst 3-13, they won two of the games at home.

And in that forgettable season of 1995, when the Browns finished 5-11 and then bolted to Baltimore, they were 3-5 at home.

Yes, the home field hardly ever let the Browns down – literally and figuratively.  The field seemed to develop a mind of its own, and sometimes when the Browns couldn't do the job, the field stepped in and got it done.

How else do you explain the Kansas City Chiefs' Nick Lowery, one of the most accurate field-goal kickers in NFL history to that point, looking like someone who couldn't make the worst high school team when he shanked kick after kick in a 1989 game at Cleveland, helping the Browns hold on for a 10-10 tie in overtime? Was the field the Browns' 12th man on special teams? You could make a case for it.

Or how about when Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who had played his first 10 seasons in the NFL injury-free, going down as if he'd been shot when he tore his Achilles tendon as he was scrambling across the re-sodded portion of the baseball infield in a 1993 game at Cleveland? Did the field reach up, grab Marino by the ankle and knock him to the turf? It sure looked like it.

Compare that to what has gone on at Cleveland Browns Stadium in the expansion era. The opposite has happened. It is the field that has reached up and sacked the Browns.

Remember when cornerback Gary Baxter, in simply jumping to try to break up a pass play against the Denver Broncos in 2006, suffered the rarest of knee injuries when he blew out two patella tendons, effectively ending his career?

Matt Bahr, who went on to play for the Browns, missed a kick at Cleveland early in his career as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers that he's still shaking his head about. The wind was blowing hard one way across the field, and then the other, like a pendulum, making the goal post look as if it were doing a hula dance in perfect rhythm. Just like you do in miniature golf when you try to hit the ball through the opening in the wind mill without striking any of the rotating blades, Bahr figured out the sequence of the wind shifts and then gave the ball a kick.

But after he had done so, the wind suddenly changed for whatever reason and started blowing the opposite way. As a result, Bahr's kick just barely went outside the left upright as the bar bent to the right instead of the left.

Just as they used to pull out games in the end in the old place, the new Browns have lost any number of times in the waning seconds. In the Browns' first game under head coach Butch Davis in 2001, the Seattle Seahawks' Rian Lindell somehow drilled a 53-yard game-winning field goal into a very stiff breeze. It would have been good from 70 yards. In fact, he hit it so well that it might still be going. How he hit a ball that far in that kind of wind still hasn't been figured out.

There was the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars late that same year when a controversial call went against the Browns and angry fans pelted the field with plastic beer bottles, some of them still full. Some of those bottles hit Browns players and coaches. In the old days, only the opponents were struck.

At the end of the 1999 season, Browns right tackle Orlando Brown was nearly blinded when the weighted end of an official's penalty flag hit him in the eye after it was thrown to signal a false-start penalty. That official couldn't have been so hurtfully accurate with his toss again if he had tried 1,000 more times – 1 million more times. With that kind of accuracy, the official should have changed jobs and been a police sharp shooter.

Only in 2007 when the Browns went 7-1 at home en route to an overall 10-6 finish, did it seem like the old days. In a late-season 8-0 win over the Buffalo Bills in a blizzard, Phil Dawson kicked 49- and 35-yard field goals that appeared to have been guided by a higher power who may have dusted off his – or her -- plain orange helmet and strapped it on again.

Then last season, things got back to normal for the expansion era as the Browns went 1-7 at home, losing three games by exactly four points. They lost to both the Baltimore Ravens and Broncos in back-to-back contests when it seemed they had those games well in hand. It appeared it would take an act of God for the Browns to lose. Well, guess what? He – or she – strapped on a different-colored helmet this time.

Sure, the Browns haven't done well overall in the expansion, no matter where the games have been played, but they actually seem to perform better on the road. In 2002, their only playoff season since coming back, their 6-2 road record helped nullify a 3-5 mark at home en route to a 9-7 finish.

In 1999, the Browns' only two wins came on the final plays of those games. Both were on the road. One of them was a 16-15 win over the Steelers – at haunted Three Rivers Stadium, no less – after Pittsburgh had crushed them 43-0 at Cleveland in the opener. The original Browns were better than the 1999 team every year, yet they struggled there, losing their first 16 games at the place. Go figure.

If Browns head coach Eric Mangini is to build a winner here, then he is going to have to establish a home-field advantage. He remembers the old place, for he spent the 1994 and '95 seasons with the Browns as first a public relations intern/ball boy and then a coaches assistant. Now he has to find a way to replicate the success the Browns used to enjoy there.

Our suggestion? Switch to the south sideline, for no matter if it's the old era or the new one, Cleveland Stadium or Cleveland Browns Stadium, 1955 or 2005, the winning team is on that side of the field well over 60 percent of the time.

It's worth a shot, isn't it?  

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