The 2007 Cleveland Browns entered the season having not made the playoffs in five years, but worse was the fact they’d only gone postseason twice since 1990. Worse than that was both playoff years ended with losses to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. Worse than that was those seasons were not the only playoff years, but the only years they won more than they lost. Worse than that was the fact they chased Bill Belichick out of town and watched him start a dynasty with the New England Patriots.
The organization that chased Marty Schottenheimer after the 1988 season because he only made the playoffs, but not the Super Bowl, was desperate for anything even resembling those excellent Brown teams of the late 1980s, coached by Schottenheimer and led by quarterback Bernie Kosar.
And there was zero evidence in late summer that 2007 was going to be a breakout year. Cleveland made a nice draft pick in adding offensive tackle Joe Thomas. But quarterback was up for grabs with rookie Brady Quinn and 24-year-old Derek Anderson, the running game was in the hands of veteran free-agent signing Jamal Lewis and the only receiver of note was Braylon Edwards.
The defense lacked playmakers and it would take all of head coach Romeo Crennel’s defensive knowledge to make this a competitive unit.
Defensive flaws were exposed quickly in a 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh to start the season at home and also in the following week’s home win, a 51-45 shootout. But Anderson had stepped up to claim the quarterback’s job and he was on his way to a sterling year, better than 3,700 yards passing, with Edwards as the chief beneficiary.
The team was on-again and off-again.in the early going. They lost 34-17 to the undefeated Patriots, but then Anderson put on a shoot-out display to beat the Miami Dolphins 41-34 and get their record to the aforementioned 3-3 as week off loomed.
A reasonable fan had to be pleased with the Browns’ staying at the .500 level and the best was just around the corner. They won in St. Louis to get a winning record for the first time all season. Then came three successive weeks of shootout thrillers.
A home game with Seattle saw the Browns fall behind 21-6, after a pair of Matt Hasselbeck touchdown passes and a 94-yard punt return by Nate Burleson. They still trailed 24-16 with a quarter to play, when Lewis ran in from two yards out. They missed the two-point play to tie, but after a Seahawk field goal, another Lewis TD was followed by a successful conversion.
Which proved to be necessary, because Seattle rallied with a field goal to tie it 30-30 and force overtime. Anderson, who would throw for 364 yards led the team into position and kicker Phil Dawson booted the game-winner. At 5-3, the Browns were halfway through the season and had the record of a contender.
Contender or not, Pittsburgh was still the nemesis and the following week was the reverse image of the Seattle game. This time it was Anderson throwing three first-half touchdowns and pushing his team to a 21-6 lead. But Cleveland couldn’t stop the run, nor could they contain Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns got a big special teams’ touchdown by Josh Cribbs, their dynamic return man, but not enough to hold off the Steelers by the Three Rivers as Pittsburgh won 31-28.
The following week was another AFC North road game, this one in Baltimore. 2007 was the last year of Brian Billick’s tenure, the successful run of the Ravens’ coach had dried out and this was not a good team. But they played like it on November 18 in an epic game that I can still remember watching at the home of my former in-laws in a Baltimore suburb.
Cleveland played well defensively in the first half, leading 13-7 and the only Ravens’ TD being a defensive one produced by Ray Lewis. The game opened up after intermission. The Browns led 20-14, and with the Ravens driving, Brodney Poole picked off a pass at the goal line and went 100 yards to the house the other way. At 27-14, the Browns were in command.
But the Ravens got two field goals from Matt Stover, a touchdown to tie the game, another field goal to take the lead and suddenly Cleveland was looking at a disheartening loss. Anderson drove the team to the 34-yard line to try a last field goal.
Dawson’s field goal bounced off the crossbar…and bounced off. But the officials went to instant replay. And as it happens, the ball caught the side goal post after the cross bar and had gotten far enough over to be good, even if the ball landed on the wrong side of the post. Got all that? The Baltimore crowd was furious, but Cleveland was grateful—and it was also the correct call. The Browns won in overtime 33-30.
Now they were 6-4, and three wins in their next four games, including an 8-0 win over Buffalo that I’m grateful I never watched. On December 23, the penultimate game of the season, Cleveland could clinch a playoff berth right on the turf of archrival Cincinnati.
True to their history in a big moment, the Browns did not play well. They dug themselves a 19-0 hole, and while Anderson hit Edwards on touchdown passes in the third and fourth quarters, it wasn’t enough. The 19-14 loss dropped the Browns out of control in the playoff push.
There was still plenty to play for. If Cleveland beat San Francisco, all it took was the Tennessee Titans losing at Indianapolis, the #2 seed in the conference and defending Super Bowl champ, to get the Browns in.
And if nothing else, a 10-win season would be something to hang your hat on. Cleveland took care of their business against the lowly 49ers. Cribbs ran a punt back 76 yards, Anderson hit Edwards from 45 yards out and the team coasted home to a 20-7 win.
Unfortunately, the Colts only played Peyton Manning for a half and they never put it in the end zone when he did play. The Titans trailed 10-7 in the third quarter, giving some brief hope to Cleveland, but three field goals gave them a 16-10 lead that left the Browns on the sideline for the playoffs.
Still, the 10-6 year had been a surprise and with Anderson looking like a quarterback of the future, brighter days were surely ahead. At least that’s how it seemed. The Browns haven’t had a winning season. The 2007 Cleveland Browns are what qualifies as a grand football success in their franchise’s recent history, even if they didn’t make the playoffs.