Twenty years after being involved in a major relocation controversy, it's fortuitous that the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens are playing each other this week, even though as AFC North rivals they meet twice a year.
This week, much of the conversation around the NFL this week revolved around relocation. NFL owners met Wednesday to discuss the efforts to move a team to Los Angeles, and it appears increasingly likely the league will return to the nation's entertainment capital within the next couple of years.
Though the situation will undoubtedly be messy if/when the Rams, Chargers or Raiders abandon their current markets for LA's glitzier pastures, it's unlikely it will become quite as unhinged as the 1995 season in Cleveland. Sports teams are more than cash cows for billionaire owners -- they're public trusts. Few historical examples embody that more clearly than how Browns fans reacted when owner Art Modell announced in November 1995 he was transporting the franchise to Baltimore the following year.
Why did Modell move the Browns?
Like almost every relocation story, Modell's dissatisfaction with the Browns' lack of revenue spurred the move to Baltimore. The Browns shared Cleveland Stadium with the Indians for more than two decades, but then the Indians opened up a brand new new ballpark, Jacobs Field, in 1994. Modell operated Cleveland Stadium, so he lost a tenant when the Indians moved out.
The lack of revenue was too much for Modell to bear, and he announced midway through the 1995 season he was abandoning Cleveland for Baltimore. The NFL allowed Modell to retain the contracts of all players and team personnel.
How did Cleveland react?
U-G-L-Y. Browns fans wore "Muck Fodelll" shirts for the duration of the '95 campaign, and many high-profile companies –– including McDonald's, Continental Airlines and Revco –– pulled their sponsorship. The city of Cleveland also partnered with fans in a lawsuit.
But perhaps no quote better encapsulates the rage Cleveland residents felt at the time than this offering from one Browns fan who purchased Modell's toilet at an auction: "I wanted to see where Art Modell made all of his bad business decisions," the fan said.
Salt in the wound
The especially cruel detail about the Browns leaving Cleveland in 1995 is that they were supposed to be really good. Like, Super Bowl contender good (Sports Illustrated predicted the Browns would be playing for the Lombardi Trophy that season). Head coach Bill Belichick led the Browns to a playoff appearance in 1994, and they started off the '95 campaign with a 3-1 record before dropping their next three contests. The losing persisted after Modell made his announcement, and Cleveland finished the gut-wrenching season with a 5-11 record.
The following spring, the Ravens selected both Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden in the first round of the draft. They won the Super Bowl just four years after leaving Cleveland. The Browns, meanwhile, have only posted two winning seasons since they were reactivated in 1999.
The Browns have never even made a Super Bowl appearance. They haven't won an NFL championship since 1964, the last time a Cleveland pro sports team has won a title.
Over the last 16 years, the Ravens have been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL whereas the Browns have been one of the worst. Baltimore has won 10 or more games nine times in that span, and made the playoffs on 10 occasions. The Ravens' most recent Super Bowl title came three years ago when they ousted the San Francisco 49ers. The Browns haven't even won a playoff game in that span.
Head-to-head, it's even more brutal for the Browns, who have lost to their rivals 13 of the last 14 times. Overall, the Ravens hold a 24-8 edge in the series.
But though the two teams have gone in completely opposite directions since the move, they both stand at 1-3 this season. The Ravens are coming off an overtime win against the Steelers, largely thanks to two missed fourth-quarter field goals from Pittsburgh kicker Josh Scobee and questionable play calling from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. The Browns, conversely, lost to the Chargers after San Diego's kicker Josh Lambo sent a 34-yarder through the uprights as time was expiring. (Lambo missed his first attempt, but in classic Browns fashion, they were flagged as offsides on the play.)
Whichever team wins Sunday will keep its playoff hopes alive, whereas the loser will likely have to start thinking about spending January on the golf course. Recent history says the Ravens will triumph and the Browns will fall, but given the timing of Sunday's game, maybe the stars will align for Cleveland. It would be a welcome change of pace for Browns fans, who have had to watch their new team sputter over the last 16 years while the club that never should've left wins at a high level.