Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The Browns have not made the playoffs in nearly two decades.
In fact, it’s been over 17 years since Cleveland played beyond the last week of the regular season.
17 years. 6,305 days since The Cleveland Browns were in a playoff game. But whose counting?🤷♂️ pic.twitter.com/0dc5taf2dz
— Erik Stenger (@abitbig) April 7, 2020
Since that day on January 5, 2003, the Browns have experienced a difficult time just assembling a winning team, let alone gunning for the postseason.
However, the current crop of Browns appears to be the start of something special.
In the past two years, the franchise drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield and brought in receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.
This past offseason, Cleveland signed high profile free agents and drafted players that can contribute right away.
All these transactions could mean that the Browns are on the precipice of playoff contention.
If just a few things go their way, such as-having a season despite the Covid pandemic, few or non-serious injuries, using their heads and not swinging helmets at people, playing up to potential- Cleveland should be playing again in January.
To get us ready for what could be, here is a look back at the team’s last postseason game.
Of course, we remember that it did not end well that day for the Browns.
But, it’s fun to see how good the team was and how close they were to advancing to the 2003 Super Bowl.
At the very least, reading this may spark some Browns nostalgia, revisiting former players and coaches.
Without further ado, let’s take a little trip back in time…
How the Browns Made the 2003 Playoffs
After former owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996, the team returned to Cleveland with much fanfare in 1999.
By 2002, that fanfare had died.
Essentially re-building from scratch, the Browns were basically an expansion franchise in 1999.
During the draft that year, the team selected Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch and spent the next few years attempting to build around him.
21 years ago today the Browns selected QB Tim Couch with the first pick in the draft. Couch only lasted five up and down seasons in Cleveland before being out of the NFL after 2003. So there you have it, the official beginning of the Browns’ infamous QB jersey. #Browns #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/JyR2qEMj0E
— Johnstone (@JStoneTrivia86) April 17, 2020
The result was a 2-14 record in ‘99, 3-13 in 2000, and 7-9 in 2001.
Couch spent a lot of time during those years on his back or on the sidelines with injuries.
He had the misfortune of playing with a patchwork offensive line and not a lot of weapons to throw or handoff to.
Heading into the 2002 season, it looked like it was going to be more of the same.
However, something amazing happened that year.
The team finally gelled and came together to post a respectable 9-7 record, good for 2nd in the AFC Central.
Couch was able to stay on his feet long enough to complete 61.6% of his passes for 2,842 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 18 picks.
Unfortunately, his professional breakthrough came crashing down during the last game of the year.
Playing at home against the Atlanta Falcons, Couch broke his leg and was done for the season.
His backup, Kelly Holcomb came into the game and the Browns pulled out a 24-16 victory for their ninth win of the season.
To All Browns fans whom have been with them for the many years. Congrats to you and best wishes. To the wagon jumpers who cant name a handful of players or who dont know who Kelly Holcomb is shame on you. And as usual from me #WhoDey pic.twitter.com/M6NGKoVfxx
— ⚡️Mcsober’s Saloon⚡️ (@McsobersSaloon) March 13, 2019
Up next was a first-round playoff game versus division rival Pittsburgh.
January 5, 2003, Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
During the 2002 season, the Browns lost the series against their intra-division rival.
Both games were decided by three points, a 16-13 overtime defeat in Week 4 at Pittsburgh and a 23-20 loss at home in Week 9.
The Steelers ended the year with a better record (10-5-1) and first place in the division.
Therefore, traveling to Pittsburgh for their first playoff game since the 1990s was not exactly a heartening prospect for Cleveland fans.
However, that year the Browns had a pretty good team.
Even without Couch, Cleveland had a decent offensive line, serviceable receivers in Kevin Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, and Andre Davis, a nearly thousand-yard rusher in William Green, and a hearty defense.
In other words, the Browns were no push-overs.
The Steelers would have their work cut out for them.
That was evident soon after the game got underway.
Just before kickoff, Browns coach Butch Davis and Steelers coach (and former Cleveland linebacker) Bill Cowher shook hands.
Let’s run it back with Butch Davis #browns #SuperBowl pic.twitter.com/OWXTfYIiH0
— Frank Finotti (@Frank_Finotti) December 30, 2019
On the opposite side of the field, Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter and Cleveland’s Brant Boyer went jaw-to-jaw, talking some serious smack in anticipation of a dog fight.
After cooler heads prevailed, they all trudged back across the muddy field to their respective sidelines.
Snow had fallen earlier in the day and would continue to fall during the game, accumulating on the field.
The weather made for slick conditions and some players struggled to find their footing.
After the Browns took the opening kickoff, Holcomb ran onto the field, ready to partake in his fourth career start.
Just a few plays into the drive, Holcomb hit Johnson for a sweet 20-yard completion just as he went out-of-bounds.
Cowher didn’t like the call, however, and threw his challenge flag.
As it turns out, he was correct.
Johnson did not have control of the ball before going out-of-bounds.
The play was called back and the Browns were faced with third and 14 at their own 11-yard line.
Not to be deterred, on the very next play, Holcomb reared back and hit Johnson in stride.
#Browns WR Kevin Johnson
2001: 84 Rec 1097 yds 9tds https://t.co/DsCu94TJH0 pic.twitter.com/qUIcbckl7j
— Boycott Madden 21 (@madden21boycott) July 13, 2020
This time, the receiver caught the ball cleanly and raced down the sideline 83 yards before being tackled at the Pittsburgh two-yard line.
Green then punched in the ball on the next play for the touchdown. (Although, the zebras missed Green’s knee touching the ground before he stretched the ball across the goal line).
No matter, the Browns were up 7-0 only a few minutes into the game.
For the rest of the quarter, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox was flummoxed by the Browns defense.
Late in the quarter, the Steelers offense finally looked like they were getting on track.
At one point, Pittsburgh running back Amos Zeroue ripped off a huge run to put the Steelers in Cleveland territory.
On the very next play, Maddox threw a pass toward receiver Hines Ward, only to be picked off by Cleveland defensive back Daylon McCutcheon.
Daylon McCutcheon was clutch pic.twitter.com/hMqU08XIMh
— Bring Brownie back (@Cleveland_elf) January 21, 2018
With that scoring threat averted, the quarter ended with the Browns up 7-0.
Things immediately got worse for Pittsburgh.
Cleveland’s Chris Gardocki punted the ball to begin the quarter.
As Steelers returner Antwaan Randle El was about to corral the punt, Cleveland defensive back Lewis Sanders arrived at the same time the ball did (although, he may have arrived a tad early).
The ball popped loose and the Browns pounced on it.
One play later, Holcomb found Steelers defensive back Hank Poteat napping and hit Northcutt for a 32 yard touchdown and took a 14-0 lead.
mannnnn Kelly Holcomb was throwing some DOTS in that 2002 playoff game pic.twitter.com/yHbkxvw8IM
— Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm) June 9, 2020
Once again, the Browns got into Maddox’s head as the quarter progressed.
Every time the Steelers took a step forward, the Cleveland defense knocked them many more steps back.
About halfway through the quarter, a Maddox pass was tipped and intercepted by McCutcheon (his second of the day).
With just under 10 minutes left in the quarter, Gardocki punted again and this time Randle El caught the ball cleanly.
He then juked and jived through the Browns punt coverage team and ran 66 yards unfettered for a touchdown.
Cleveland’s lead was now cut in half, 14-7.
About five minutes later, Holcomb made another big completion to Johnson.
Shortly after that completion, Holcomb found running back Jamel White on a pass play for a big gain.
White snagged the throw and fell out-of-bounds at the Pittsburgh two-yard line for a first down.
The Browns couldn’t cross the goal line and had to settle for a Phil Dawson 31 yard field goal.
With under 50 seconds remaining in the half, the Steelers drove quickly into Cleveland territory.
Just before time expired, Steelers kicker Jeff Reed attempted a 46-yard field goal.
The kick drifted wide left and the teams went into their locker rooms with the Browns up 17-7.
Cleveland didn’t waste any time getting back on the scoreboard in the second half.
With just over 13 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, the Steelers punted the ball.
Northcutt took the kick and traveled 59 yards before being tackled deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Only two plays later, Holcomb found Northcutt for a nifty 15-yard completion in the end zone.
The Cleveland lead was now 24-7.
At this point, the Browns must have been feeling it.
They were clearly putting the wood to their rivals and were looking to lock the game away.
Late in the quarter, Cleveland was driving again and on the doorstep for another score.
Holcomb dropped back to pass and threw into the end zone toward Johnson, only to see the pass knocked away by Pittsburgh’s Dewayne Washington.
Not long after, another Holcomb pass is picked off by Steelers DB Mike Logan.
Pittsburgh used this opportunity to drive to the Browns six-yard line.
With 3:50 left in the quarter, Maddox found athletic receiver Plaxico Burress for a six-yard touchdown strike.
The Browns finished the quarter with yet another deep drive into Pittsburgh’s side of the field.
The quarter ends with Cleveland still comfortably in the lead 24-14.
The Browns still had the ball to begin the final quarter and faced a third and one situation at the Steelers seven-yard line.
Holcomb made a valiant throw toward White who couldn’t come down with a touchdown grab.
Still, Cleveland made the most of the opportunity when Dawson connected on a 24-yard kick, his second field goal of the day.
One of the best new #Browns, Phil Dawson. #GoBrowns pic.twitter.com/HQQuaYmBI1
— Michael Killi (@MikeKilli) July 25, 2019
The score put the Browns lead at 27-14.
Sensing their time was running out, Pittsburgh’s offense found life on their next series.
Maddox connected with Randle El for a couple huge gains to put the Steelers in scoring position.
Then, with just over 13 minutes left in the quarter, Pittsburgh fans let out an audible gasp.
Randle El hauled in a pass and then fumbled the ball as he landed.
The Browns recovered and Steelers fans hung their heads in defeat.
However, the call was overturned when replays showed that Randle El’s knee was down by contact before he fumbled.
Pittsburgh kept the ball and their fans breathed again.
With new life, Maddox brought the Steelers down the field and connected with tight end Jerame Tuman for a three-yard touchdown with 12:28 left in the game.
Cleveland’s lead was cut to six, 27-21.
Three plays into their next drive, Cleveland quickly found itself in Pittsburgh territory again.
Green spotted a hole and tore off a large gain.
On third and 12 with 10:17 on the clock, Holcomb spotted a wide-open Andre Davis for a 22-yard touchdown.
The Browns decided to go for two points.
However, Holcomb’s pass attempt to Quincy Morgan failed and the Browns settled for a 33-21 lead.
With the clock under six minutes, it looks like the Browns were on their way to a ‘W.’
The team was clearly in control and only needed to continue playing their game to advance to the next round.
The Browns being the Browns, however, that did not happen.
The Steelers took over with 5:30 left in the quarter.
Cleveland’s defense got over-excited and committed no less than three penalties that allowed Pittsburgh to advance down the field.
Possibly the most exasperating penalty was a 15 yard personal foul on Browns DB Robert Griffith.
Say what? I thought they were always a Viking! Robert Griffith (#24) with the Browns in 2003. #vikings @GRIFF24SEVEN pic.twitter.com/n2piOf289w
— VikeFans (@VikeFans) August 14, 2019
Griffith was charged with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Ward, who had no chance to catch a pass from Maddox.
Even with the malfeasance, Pittsburgh’s drive nearly ended when Cleveland’s Anthony Harris was thisclose to picking a Maddox pass.
The missed opportunity allowed Maddox to find Ward for a five-yard score with 3:06 remaining. Cleveland’s lead was cut to 33-28.
On the following possession, the Browns promptly incurred a delay-of-game penalty with 2:49 left.
At first, it boggles the mind why Cleveland didn’t rush the ball to run more time off the clock.
A quick look at Pittsburgh’s 2002 defensive stats, however, shows that they were one of the best teams in the league against the run.
In fact, for the game, Cleveland’s Green rushed 25 times for only 30 yards.
So, running the ball to waste time was not a good idea.
With under three minutes left in the game, Holcomb fired a pass to Northcutt on third and 11.
Northcutt was open but inexplicably let the ball slide through his fingers for an incompletion.
That gave the ball back to the Steelers with 2:35 left.
Even though the game was in Pittsburgh, one felt the anxiety building in Cleveland.
Maddox wasted no time driving his team downfield.
With only 54 seconds left, Steelers running back Chris Fuamatu Ma’afala crashed into the end zone from three yards out.
Then, Randle El (a former college quarterback at Indiana) took a direct snap and threw a perfect strike to Tuman for a two-point conversion.
Pittsburgh had its first lead of the day 36-33.
After the kickoff, Cleveland took over with 50 seconds left in the quarter.
Holcomb did a masterful job leading the team to the Pittsburgh 46 yard line.
In order to get closer for a Dawson field goal attempt, the Browns decided to take a chance with six seconds remaining.
Holcomb threw a dart to receiver Andre King who caught the ball at the 28-yard line and scrambled to get out-of-bounds.
He doesn’t make it.
Time expires and Pittsburgh has overcome a 17 point deficit to advance with a 36-33 victory.
Only six days later, Pittsburgh was in another nailbiter against the Tennessee Titans.
Their season ended in overtime when the Titans kicked a field goal for a 34-31 victory.
The Super Bowl that year pitted the Oakland Raiders against Tampa Bay.
The Bucs would run away with the title after crushing the Raiders 48-21.
In 2003, based on Holcomb’s 429 yard passing day against Pittsburgh, Davis decided to try and split playing time between Holcomb and Couch.
The result was not positive and the Browns fell to a 5-11 record.
The 2003 season was Couch’s last in the NFL.
Injuries ended up costing him a long career in the league.
Davis is fired by Cleveland after a 3-8 start to the 2004 season.
Holcomb remained with the Browns through 2004 and then spent time with the Bills in 2005 and Minnesota in 2007.
As we now know, the 2002 season was the last time Cleveland made the postseason.
Here’s hoping that the 2020 Browns can begin a new chapter of playoff appearances and many championships to come.
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