BEREA — Mike Pettine’s question mark made a statement.
The rookie coach talked to his players about the history of Browns vs. Steelers, who will renew acquaintances Sunday in Pittsburgh in the season opener. His presentation included a slide: Rivalry?
“I researched the history and I talked to the players about it. It’s not pretty,” Pettine said Wednesday. “I put rivalry, and I put question mark. From the Steelers standpoint, it’s not much of a rivalry. When you look at one win in Heinz Field in 14 tries, two wins in the last (10) years, five wins in the last (37) times against them.
“It’s brutal when you truly look at it, but that’s something that’s a big part of our prep, understanding that that has nothing to do with us, that has nothing to do with this game and nothing to do with us moving forward. It’s important that we understand that the rivalry is important, but at the same time we’ve got to find ways to get it flipped.”
Every new coach that dons the Browns logo is grilled about his appreciation for the rivalry. Some make it a huge deal (Eric Mangini), some dismiss it (Pat Shurmur). Pettine has questioned it.
His message and visual aid seemed to get through to the intended audience.
“It’s a challenge from Coach, and challenge accepted,” outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “Everybody’s excited for this game and we’re ready to go. It’s a rivalry for us. I feel extremely confident, I really do.”
“It’s sad. I don’t want to be a part of history,” said outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard, who’s 1-5 against Pittsburgh. “I’ve been part of it enough the last three years. It’s time for it to change.
“I’ve been a part of programs where we’ve been down and changed the program. I think it’s time for us to take that role of the bully.”
The Browns would need a decade of dominance to get close to even, but a win Sunday would be a nice start. The Browns’ last win against the Steelers came Nov. 25, 2012. They’ve lost three straight, seven of eight, 19 of 21 and 26 of 31 since 1999. The only win at Heinz Field was in 2003.
“I knew it was bad,” new strong safety and Cleveland native Donte Whitner said. “Pittsburgh has been winning a lot of football games for a long time and Cleveland has been at the bottom of the division. It can’t be a rivalry until both sides throw punches and win football games. It’s not a rivalry until we beat them.”
Quarterback Brian Hoyer will play against the Steelers for the first time. But he grew up in North Olmsted, so he’s also an expert on the rivalry.
“I’m a player. I have to take the personality out of it. This is my job,” Hoyer said. “I want to go out and execute well, but I know what Steelers Week means to Clevelanders all across the city. I mean, we hate them, they hate us and that’s the way it will always be.
“The biggest thing is whatever the record is before this year, that means nothing when we step out on that field on Sunday.”
The Browns last opened the season against Pittsburgh in 2007, a 34-7 home loss that saw quarterback Charlie Frye benched and traded days later. The previous opening matchup was the return of the franchise in 1999, a 43-0 drubbing on the lake.
Pettine’s in an unusual spot in his head coaching debut, but he also knows this week is about more than just the rivalry? with the Steelers. He wants to set a tone in the AFC North, where he believes the Browns can be a serious challenger.
“I just think you cannot be a NFL coach and not believe that,” he said. “I think it’s important that you’re confident through your preparation, and I don’t think an NFL coach would have gotten to where he is without having that belief that, ‘Hey, we can put this together.’
“I’ve been in the league long enough to know that any team can beat any other team when the plan is right, the circumstances are right. I would never sit up here and say I don’t think we can compete in this division. That’s the way the NFL is built. It is a win-now business, and I truly believe that.”
Pettine admits the Browns are a work in progress, but wants to win during the construction. He feels a division game is worth 1½ or two.
“For us to accomplish what we want to accomplish, it goes through the division, and I think most people would agree — maybe Baltimore and Cincinnati would disagree — the road through the AFC North really does travel through Pittsburgh,” he said.
The Browns will make that trip this weekend, with a chance to perhaps revive a rivalry.