Cleveland Browns fans have waited 3 1/2 years for this day.
Today the Baltimore Ravens will make their first visit to Cleveland since the franchise moved from there in February 1996. And the 73,200 orange-and-brown clad fans who will fill Cleveland Browns Stadium are not likely to give a warm welcome to the team that abandoned them.
The fans won't get the chance to vent their pent-up frustrations personally at Art Modell, who owned the Browns for 35 years. He plans to watch the game from Baltimore. Instead, the fans will be left to direct their vitriol toward the Ravens, particularly Coach Brian Billick.
Even before this week, Billick was reviled in Cleveland. He had been a candidate to coach the Browns, but club officials broke off negotiations after he refused to cancel an interview with Modell for the Ravens' job. Then, on Monday, Billick said: "I know darn well we are not going to get a call in Cleveland, no way, no shape, no how. The league would really like to see Cleveland beat us." He also joked about renting the Popemobile, used to shield the pontiff from possible harm, to protect him on the sideline from the fans.
Browns President and CEO Carmen Policy took offense, saying Billick impugned the integrity of the league and its officiating. He also called for the NFL to investigate the matter.
George Young, the league's senior vice president of football operations, faxed a letter to Billick asking for an explanation. The NFL is reviewing his response.
Billick later tried to apologize, saying he was only expressing his concern about the game's emotional aspect and how that would affect the game and the safety of those involved.
"It's going to be a very volatile situation that carries with it a number of things that [the Browns are] going to have to take care of, but I know they will do the typical professional job that they do," Billick said. "I was trying to compliment Carmen Policy and [director of football operations] Dwight Clark. I know the professional manner that they do their job--taking every possible measure to make sure that the game goes off smoothly. They want their organization, our organization, the league, the city of Cleveland, to come off well."
Browns fans are unlikely to be forgiving. Although hand-made signs are prohibited in Cleveland Browns Stadium, the fans likely will find a way to make their feelings known to Billick (and to Modell, for that matter).
Cleveland (1-7) is one of the two teams Baltimore (2-5) has beaten this season. The Ravens defeated the Browns, 17-10, at PSINet Stadium on Sept. 26. Baltimore's starting quarterback at the time, Stoney Case, rushed for two touchdowns and running back Errict Rhett rushed for 113 yards on 22 carries.
Case has been replaced by Tony Banks, who made his first start of the season last week against the Buffalo Bills. Banks, Baltimore's third starting quarterback this season, was unimpressive in his debut. He completed 13 of 34 passes for 129 yards. He also threw an interception, then lost a fumble that led to the Bills' winning touchdown.
The Browns are coming off their first win. They got it against the New Orleans Saints when rookie quarterback Tim Couch threw a last-second desperation pass that was deflected in the end zone before rookie wide receiver Kevin Johnson hauled it in for a 21-16 victory.
The Ravens' biggest challenge today will be to play well early and take the crowd out of the game as much as possible.
"I imagine if we jump on them pretty quick, there won't be much noise," Banks said.