The Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns meet today for the 71st time in the NFL version of The Battle of Ohio. These two rivals first started playing in 1970 as part of the AFL-NFL merger. For those who don’t recall those days, in order to balance the number of teams in the two conferences, the NFL Browns, Steelers, and Colts agreed to move to the new-AFC; hence the start of the Cincinnati-Cleveland-Pittsburgh divisional games. Of course the Browns and Steelers already had a storied, fierce rivalry.
Besides being in-state foes, the rivalry had added significance as Bengal owner and founder Paul Brown was a former Cleveland head coach who was fired by Art Modell. Yes, there are Clevelanders to this day who still criticize that move. Surely you don’t think the use of black and brown to differentiate their common orange is a matter of coincidence?
Browns-Bengals games were a circled date on the calendar. Fans of each team live in the other’s city, and marriages are often divided on this rivalry – as it is in this house. Many years ago we were in Cleveland for a Thursday night game that served as the gateway event for my sister-in-law’s wedding that weekend. Of course there weren’t too many of we Bengal fans at that wedding!
The cities are culturally different too. Cleveland is rich with blue-collar backgrounds from eastern European heritage while Cincinnati was a blend of both the north and the south. Cleveland was built on heavy industrial while Cincinnati’s roots are in stockyards. Cincinnati is a GOP stronghold, while Cleveland is more Democratic. Cleveland has a lake; Cincinnati a river. Of course former Bengal coach Sam Wyche helped emphasize a difference with his PA comments.
The late 70s and 1980s were great years for this rivalry. Quarterbacks as Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Brian Sipe, and Bernie Koser led some very good teams. Browns fans learned to cringe on the thought of the Anderson to Isaac Curtis combination, while Bengal fans would hold their breath if the Cardiac Kids had the ball in the final two minutes.
The 1990s brought us where we are today. With only one winning season since 1990, the Bengals struggle. Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season and the Browns have struggled since returning in 1999.
It’s all sad. It’s no longer a national TV marquee game. Game week no longer dominates the local media. Heck, the game was one page 4 in Saturday’s Cincinnati Enquirer Sports Section.
Many fans on both sides have lost interest; including our house. Sundays haven’t meant the same for my wife since 1995 and she still scoffs at any mention of Art Modell; meanwhile Bengal futility has caused me to make better use of my time.
The series is tied at 35 wins apiece, so today’s winning team will give one team the series lead. If we’re home this afternoon, the game will be on, but it won’t be the focal point of the day. When the winner says something to the other, the other will still sneer, but will also give a “so what/big deal” type of response because all of us yearn for what was – the days of two very competitive teams that needed to win as part of their drive to the playoffs.