The scene was an aisle in a huge retail store, several years ago and an hour or two after the Browns had — as they tend to do — snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This will surprise some people, but I don’t own a lot of football jerseys. I’m more of a baseball cap guy. But one football jersey that has been part of the rotation for me dates to 1993 and I happened to be wearing that brown jersey with orange and white on the sleeves and the No. 19 that day.
As I turned down the aisle, I found myself face-to-face with a woman dressed head-to-toes in Steelers gear. She looked at me, smiled — maybe even sneered — and said:
“Sorry for your luck, hun.”
If looks could kill, that lady and her Steelers garb would have been a pile of dust in the cereal aisle.
But I said nothing, of course. What could I say? She was right. If it weren’t for bad luck — as the song goes — Browns fans would have no luck at all.
Gloom, despair and agony on us.
It has been that way just about every year since the Browns returned in 1999.
This is where I’d ordinarily dig up some depressing numbers about the Browns-Steelers rivalry to illustrate just how one-sided it has been and how — if you think about it — a rivalry ceases to be that when one team doesn’t beat the other for an extended period.
The Browns were playing Michigan to the Steelers’ Ohio State even before Jim Tressel and later Urban Meyer made beating the Wolverines seem so easy.
You know how the numbers look. For a while, the Browns seemed to end nearly every season with a loss at Heinz Field and then fired their head coach somewhere on the turnpike on the way back to Cleveland.
But maybe things are about to change. These Browns — pieced together over the last 11 months or so by general manager John Dorsey via trades, free agency and the draft — could be the most talented team the franchise has had in the post-Art Modell era.
They’re capable at quarterback with Tyrod Taylor starting and rookie Baker Mayfield awaiting his opportunity.
They’re stocked at running back with former Ohio State standout Carlos Hyde, third-year player Duke Johnson and rookie Nick Chubb.
Josh Gordon has always been one of the NFL’s best wide receivers, but he’s almost never on the field. But he figures to play plenty today against the Steelers. He’ll be joined by free-agent acquisition Jarvis Landry, who led the NFL in catches with Miami last season, and rookie Antonio Callaway and third-year player Rashard Higgins, who stood out in camp. Tight end David Njoku is another athletic freak.
The line is the wildcard with the offense. The retirement of left tackle Joe Thomas created a huge hole, but it is one the Browns have had months to go about filling. But even with veterans Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, this unit looks like the weak link of the offense.
The defense appears to be the best the Browns have fielded since their 1999 return.
End Myles Garrett is healthy and poised to have a breakout season in his second year in the NFL. Jamie Collins, Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey are solid linebackers, which made the loss of Mychal Kendricks a little easier to stomach. The secondary has been augmented through the draft, with Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, and free agency, with Terrance Mitchell and Damarious Randall.
Dorsey has orchestrated a 59-percent turnover of the roster. Some familiar names — defensive linemen Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard among them — didn’t make the final cut. Even before that, Dorsey either traded or waived other familiar names beginning just days after he replaced Sashi Brown, when he waived the useless Kenny Britt.
Most recently, Britt’s young running mate Corey Coleman was unceremoniously dealt to the Buffalo Bills for a seventh-round draft pick. Coleman’s most memorable moments in two seasons were the two times he broke a hand and drops against the Bengals and Steelers that cost the Browns chances to win games last season.
Some fans lamented giving up on Coleman — inexplicably the 15th pick in the 2016 draft — but they fell silent when the Bills cut him before breaking camp. That move was notable when you consider that the Bills’ current receivers include Kelvin Benjamin, Andre Holmes, Ray-Ray McCloud III, Zay Jones, Jeremy Kerley and Robert Foster.
Fact: With a 1-31 record over the last two years, precious few of the 2016-17 Browns should have had any job security.
That head coach Hue Jackson apparently did was a surprise, but with more talent than he’s ever had before, we’re about to find out if can win.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Browns are 4-44 in his last 48 games. They haven’t won a season opener since 2004. Your starting QB in that one was Jeff Garcia.
Yes, these Browns are better on paper than the team has been in some time. But as they showed last season, winning in the preseason means nothing.
So as Bitonio said — and I’m paraphrasing for obvious reasons — it’s time to actually win some games. The Browns would like nothing better than to show their culture change has really taken hold than by beating the Steelers.
It’s one thing to suggest it has when the “Hard Knocks” cameras are rolling. It’s another to do it on Sunday afternoon when the games matter.
Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.