CLEVELAND — Beer flew through the air when Josh Gordon bounced a touchdown ball off the helmet of Pittsburgh Steelers defender Cameron Sutton and pulled it in to tie the score.
The scene in the stands at FirstEnergy Stadium looked like the Browns had just won, even though 1:58 remained in regulation. That’s the feeling fostered when a fan base hasn’t had a chance to celebrate victory since Dec. 24, 2016, when it has seen its beloved team win just one opener since 1999, when it has witnessed a once-bitter rivalry dissolve into Steeler dominance.
In true Cleveland fashion, that beer-mixed-with-raindrops moment was followed by a punch in the gut. After the defense came up with its sixth turnover to set up the Browns at the Steelers 24, Browns kicker Zane Gonzalez had a 43-yard game-winning field goal attempt blocked by Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt with nine seconds remaining in overtime.
The game ended in a 21-21 tie. The thud that could be heard on the NFL’s video from Gonzalez’s ball hitting Watt’s left hand summed up the attitude of both the Browns and Steelers, who said the outcome felt like a loss.
"Nobody cares about draws or ties, whatever you guys call it," Browns safety Jabrill Peppers said. "We were in a position to win this game countless times. We just have to make the plays."
Asked how it felt for a team that has one victory in two years, Jarvis Landry said, "I guess we’ve still got that same thing going, haven’t won one."
Browns coach Hue Jackson was not smiling when he left his office and walked alone across the locker room on the way to his car.
A tie might have been enough to satisfy some, especially those sucked into rooting for the perfect underdog during the Browns’ just concluded appearance on HBO’s Hard Knocks.
But romanticists hoping for the ultimate worst-to-first comeback for the Browns, 0-16 last season, saw Sunday just how dogged the climb will be. That bubble was burst in just five quarters.
Thirty-one new players, a new offensive coordinator, a Herculean performance from second-year defensive end Myles Garrett and six takeaways were not enough to mask the problems on offense.
New Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the team’s 29th starter since 1999, struggled to throw downfield in the unrelenting rain from Tropical Storm Gordon. Undrafted rookie left tackle Desmond Harrison was called for two false starts, holding and an illegal formation as the post-Joe Thomas era got off to a rocky start. Taylor was sacked seven times, threw an interception and posted a 51.8 rating. Tight end David Njoku, predicted by some to have a breakout season, dropped passes on back-to-back plays in Steelers territory. The Browns totaled 177 yards rushing, but Taylor was the leader with 77 yards. New receiver Landry caught seven passes for 106 yards, but was targeted 15 times. Gordon’s only catch on three targets was his 17-yard touchdown.
The defense showed its big-play ability, its six turnovers the most since it had six at Jacksonville in 2010. But those takeaways should have provided the offense more juice as the Browns used them to produce 14 points. Since 1999, NFL teams were 132-4 when they finished plus-five in turnover margin. The Browns now have accounted for two of those losses (2000 at Tennessee, 2010 at Jacksonville) and a tie.
Add that to the "Only in Cleveland" list.
Yes, there was progress. Yes, there was excitement. Yes, oft-suspended Gordon was back on the field, displaying why multiple Browns general managers have not given up on him.
Gordon could see positives.
"It shows we’re a resilient team," Gordon said. "If we didn’t know already now, we know it now. That’s one of the best teams in the league, the best team in this division. If we can stand toe-to-toe with them, we can stand toe-to-toe with anybody."
But once again the Browns could not put away a victory that was there for the taking. Despite flashes of brilliance from players such as Gordon and Garrett, despite two interceptions from rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, they had no leader, a role Taylor should fill, to carry them. They seemed on the way to a breakthrough and tripped and fell at the doorway.
For fans waiting for beer baths that mean something, waiting for the lovable losers to become dependable winners, baby steps forward like Sunday’s might create more questions than they answer.