CLEVELAND — For a team that contends for the playoffs about as often as Appalachian State beats Michigan, today is as big as it gets for the Browns.
The opener. At home. Versus the Steelers.
“You can’t ask for anything better than this,” quarterback Charlie Frye said.
Add to the backdrop the uncertain futures of coach Romeo Crennel and Frye and the debut of 35-year-old Mike Tomlin — just the third Steelers coach since 1969 – and it’s the perfect setting for the first Sunday of meaningful football.
“I’m conveying that message this week,” receiver and Northeast Ohio native Joe Jurevicius said. “If there’s any better atmosphere, I’d like to see it.
“They’ve got some new faces. We have new faces. But I think we’re a better football team than we were last year.”
The Browns need to be. They went 4-12, were swept by the Steelers and have lost a team-record seven in a row in the series. They were 0-6 inside the AFC North, 1-11 over Crennel’s two years.
With home games vs. all three division rivals within the first month, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the start of the season – for Crennel, for Frye, for the organization. And it all begins today.
“This whole beginning of the season is really going to play a big part in how we end up doing this season,” Frye said. “Coach has been preaching all camp about starting fast. If we want to win the division this year, we have to do well the first games.”
With that in mind, the Browns signed Jamal Lewis, Eric Steinbach, Seth McKinney Robaire Smith and Antwan Peek in the offseason, then drafted Joe Thomas, Brady Quinn and Eric Wright. Of the group, only Quinn won’t start.
Hence, the uncertainty with Frye.
He beat out Derek Anderson in a sloppy but tight competition, as the Browns brass decided Quinn would be better off beginning the season on the sideline. But it’s only a matter of time before Quinn will take over. And even sooner before the “Brady” chants begin.
So Frye opens the season under pressure. Much like he opened training camp.
“He’s taken the bull by the horns and shown he should be the starter, and rightfully so,” Jurevicius said. “Now we rally around him, he rallies around us and we start trying to win football games around here.”
Tight end Kellen Winslow said the quarterback battle was close, but the right man won.
“I think Charlie Frye deserved it,” he said. “I wish you could have seen some of the work he was doing during the offseason. This guy was up at 2 o’clock in the morning going through his plays, when I was staying with him for a little bit.
“He is growing as a leader and is focused. He is ready.”
Tomlin’s debut brings an unknown dimension to the rivalry. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher was an expert and went 21-5 vs. his former team.
“It’s an important game for us, not only for our season but the Coach Tomlin Era that we can go forward,” receiver Hines Ward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Since the Browns joined the NFL in 1950, Steelers coaches are 0-8 in their first meeting with Cleveland. The Browns hope the trend continues.
“There is no better feeling than to win a home opener versus the Steelers,” Jurevicius said.
Wright has yet to play a real game for the Browns, but he already has a good grasp of the culture.
“Beat Pittsburgh, it’s really black and white like that,” he said. “As soon as I got here, every time I saw fans, the only thing they’d say was, ‘I don’t care what you do, beat Pittsburgh, beat Pittsburgh.’
“I definitely understand how heavy it is, how important it is.”
Punter Dave Zastudil, a Bay High School graduate, was downgraded to out for the game with a back injury. He will be replaced by Paul Ernster, who was signed Saturday. Defensive back Jereme Perry was waived.
Ernster was with Denver last year, averaging 41.7 yards for 80 punts. He also kicked off.
Linebacker/special teamer Mason Unck (knee) reached an injury settlement and was removed from the team’s injured reserve. He’s no longer with the Browns. … Recent Hall of Fame inductee Gene Hickerson, a Browns guard from 1958-73, will be an honorary coin toss captain today. At halftime, he’ll be presented with his Hall of Fame ring in a special ceremony. … The Hall of Fame busts for all 16 enshrined Browns will be at the stadium.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.