Sooner or later, the phrase “Browns gonna Brown” is going to mean something good instead of what it’s come to signify since 1999.
It has to, right?
Cleveland fans have been waiting for the expansion Browns to get themselves together for nearly a generation now. Some fans have pretty much given up on the idea altogether.
But rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer’s NFL debut — against the Pittsburgh Steelers of all teams — could be a signal that better times are coming for perhaps the most star-crossed pro sports franchise of all time.
No, Kizer wasn’t perfect nor did the Browns beat the Steelers on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. But after all the blowouts and agonizing close losses in which Cleveland inexplicably snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, a 21-18 loss to a decades-long rival doesn’t seem so bad.
Kizer (20 or 30, 222 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception) showed some play-making abilities in his first real game. It also was his first extended action after sharing time with Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan during the preseason.
There were other bright spots.
The defense of first-year coordinator Gregg Williams limited the Steelers to 35 rushing yards on 17 attempts (a 2.1-yard average). The only player they had no answer for was wide receiver Antonio Brown, who caught 11 passes for 182 yards. Every time Ben Roethlisberger targeted Brown — 11 in all — the receiver made the catch.
Roethlisberger was 24 of 36 for 263 yards, mostly on the underneath routes that Williams was basically giving the Steelers by playing his safeties 25-30 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Roethlisberger was pressured just twice on 36 dropbacks. The Browns didn’t have top draft pick Myles Garrett (ankle) and struggled to get to Big Ben, who at 11-2 at FirstEnergy Stadium, is the winningest QB in the facility’s history.
But with a couple breaks, this was a winnable game for Cleveland.
“It was not a moral victory — I’m not saying that — but I watched our football team fight and play,” Browns head coach Hue Jackson said. “
It wasn’t just that the game was close. These Browns have always seemed to have a knack for sticking around just long enough to blow sure wins in excruciating fashion.
This time, the adversity came early when the Steelers’ Tyler Matakevich stormed untouched up the middle and blocked a Britton Colquitt punt on the game’s first series. The ball was recovered by linebacker Anthony Chickillo in the end zone and the Steelers led 7-0 before some fans had their first non-Muni Lot beers of the day.
You could almost hear 70,000 people sigh in unison and lament: Same old Browns.
And yet, they showed this team is different.
Kizer led Cleveland on a 12-play, 68-yard scoring drive two possessions later, capping it with a 1-yard keeper.
It was just the sort of response the Browns needed and although they never led, they also never let the game get away from them.
Kizer’s first NFL touchdown pass — a 3-yarder to second-year receiver Corey Coleman with 3:36 to play — cut a 21-10 deficit to 21-18 after Isaiah Crowell’s two-point conversion run.
The Browns never got the ball back after that, but even without an opportunity to win it at the end, there was a sense that the gap between these teams — Grand Canyon-esque for many years — may no longer be as wide.
ROOKIE’S REPORT CARD
Kizer did plenty right in his first NFL game, but the interception was a poor decision and rookie T.J. Watt made the rookie pay for it. Watt and fellow linebacker Chickillo spent significant time in the Browns’ backfield. Each sacked Kizer twice and the Steelers had seven sacks altogether.
“I like DeShone,” Jackson said. “I like the feel of him on the sideline with me, I like our communication. He had some opportunities that he’ll be the first to tell you he’d like to have back. But he gives us a chance.
“I thought he made some plays, maybe held the ball a little too long. Young quarterbacks do that sometimes. He’ll grow from it.”
It seems he already has.
“I’m holding the ball a little too long at times,” Kizer said. “You have to make sure when a check-down is possible that you go out there and get the check-down quickly
“I don’t think here was a sack out there I couldn’t have avoided by moving around of throwing it away.”
Kizer said the Steelers didn’t catch the Browns offense with anything they hadn’t seen.
“We prepared well for this game,” the rookie said. “We got every look that we were expecting.”
SAY IT ISN’T SO, JOE
Former Browns cornerback Joe Haden made his first NFL start for a team other than Cleveland when he started the game for Pittsburgh.
Three hours later, he had another first — his first season-opening win.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin recognized Haden’s first such victory by awarding the veteran defensive back from Florida a game ball.
Haden said there were no awkward moments despite his history with the Browns.
“I still have some really good relationships with those dudes that I have built up over a long time when I was there,” he said. “Once the game started, it was just football.”
Haden made four tackles, broke up a pass and had a QB hurry in his Steelers debut.
The Browns visit the Baltimore Ravens, another division rival next week. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens beat the Bengals 20-0 Sunday in Cincinnati.
The Steelers host the Minnesota Vikings at 1 p.m. next Sunday at Heinz Field. The Vikings open tonight at home against the New Orleans Saints.
Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at email@example.com an follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.