The most captivating and entertaining game of the first Sunday of the 2018 NFL season ended in a 21-21 tie in rainy Cleveland, as both the Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers missed would-be game-winning field goals late in the 10-minute overtime session.
They’re not the same, old Browns. At least not quite.
The notion that these weren’t the downtrodden-as-usual Browns was relatively easy to conceptualize during the offseason. John Dorsey, the new general manager, remade the roster with the help of the draft-pick assets left for him by the previous regime. He brought in quarterback Tyrod Taylor, added wide receiver Jarvis Landry and welcomed back talented but troubled wideout Josh Gordon.
But actually seeing it on the field was a different matter entirely.
The new-look Browns were on display Sunday. Being 0-0-1 doesn’t mean much, of course. But it does mean something to an erstwhile laughingstock of a franchise that had a record of 1-31 over the previous two seasons and was winless last season.
The Browns are for real, at least in the sense that they are competitive. They aren’t an on-field punch line. They can play. The preseason prognostications that they might be in the playoff race in the AFC might be a bit ambitious. But at least they won’t be historically dreadful again, if the opener was any indication. They are on their way to respectability.
Taylor, the former Buffalo starter who certainly could have helped the Bills on Sunday (the Ravens blew out Buffalo, 47-3), ran for a touchdown and threw for another. Landry had 106 receiving yards. Gordon had a touchdown catch late in regulation as the Browns erased a 21-7 deficit in the fourth quarter. The defense forced six turnovers by the Steelers, including three interceptions of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Two of those interceptions were by cornerback Denzel Ward, taken fourth overall — somewhat controversially — by Dorsey in the NFL draft. Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, recorded two sacks and two forced fumbles in helping to spark the Browns’ comeback.
It wasn’t all good, of course. The Browns yielded 135 rushing yards by Pittsburgh tailback James Conner, who was filling in for the still-absent Le’Veon Bell, who is sitting out as part of a contract dispute. Taylor threw an interception in the final seconds of regulation. Then, with nine seconds left in overtime, Cleveland kicker Zane Gonzalez had a 43-yard field goal attempt blocked. To a small degree, the Browns are still the Browns, although there are now tangible reasons to believe that there are better times — and victories — ahead.
Gonzalez’s miss came after the Browns recovered a fumble by Roethlisberger as part of his five-turnover performance. Even with all of that, and even with Bell nowhere to be seen, the Steelers should have escaped with a triumph. But their kicker, Chris Boswell, pulled a 42-yard field goal try wide left with 1:44 to play in overtime.
It’s not exactly the way that a team with Super Bowl aspirations wants to start the season. It was a tumultuous week in which some Steelers players were outspoken and critical about Bell not reporting to the team. He has not signed his franchise-player deal and his teammates clearly were not pleased that he was not on hand in Cleveland. It is an unwritten rule of NFL locker rooms that players are not publicly critical of a teammate’s handling of a contract issue. For Steelers players to have violated that means that there are some deeper-than-usual issues at play.
Conner’s performance Sunday offset that to some degree. If not for Boswell’s miss, the Steelers would be talking about how they managed to get a victory without Bell. But they didn’t. They need him. He is one of the league’s best and most versatile offensive players. And Bell needs the Steelers, unless he wants to stay home and make no money this season. He’ll show up at some point. And then everyone should move on and go about trying to secure the Super Bowl title that has eluded Roethlisberger, Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown while playing together.
Tying the Browns just isn’t going to get it done.
The game was the first tie league-wide since the NFL shortened overtime from 15 minutes to 10 before last season. There wasn’t quite a panic among fans and other observers after the rule change, but there was a general level of concern about it, as if ties must be avoided at all costs. There was no tie-fest, at least not last season, but the first one of 2018 might have been Week 1’s most compelling game.