Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened over the past two seasons. Long the Browns' partner in crime in the lower reaches of the AFC North standings, Cincinnati has reached the playoffs in the three of the last four seasons. While that may be a pedestrian four-year span for the Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers, the AFC North's two perennial powers, it's a remarkable feat for a Bengals franchise that has been to the playoffs just 11 times in 45 years in the NFL.
The Bengals' recent success has been achieved in spite of having one of the lowest payrolls in the NFL, nothing new for a franchise owned by the eternally thrifty Mike Brown. Brown, who acts as the general manager as well for the Bengals, has managed to put together a solid core of young talent on both sides of the ball. Throw in an experienced coaching staff led by longtime head coach Marvin Lewis, and the current Bengals squad is a far cry from the Cincinnati teams that were the laughingstock of the NFL for nearly two decades.
That role, sadly, has been inherited by the Browns.
In 14 seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999, all the Browns have to show for their efforts is a horrifying 73-151 record and a lone playoff appearance in 2002. By contrast, in the 14 years between Cincinnati's playoff appearances in 1990 and 2005, the Bengals' went 71-153, nearly mirroring the Browns' futility during that span.
While it could be said that Brown micromanaged the Bengals into the ground with his questionable personnel decisions, former Browns owner Randy Lerner was anything but hands-on. Having inherited the team in 2002 after the passing of his father Al, Lerner went from being a low-key owner to a nearly nonexistent one after he purchased the Aston Villa Football Club of the English Premier League in 2006. Though the Browns did manage a winning season in 2007, the five years following that season have been a comedy of errors. Let's just say that the tenures former Browns head coaches Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur will never be remembered fondly in Cleveland.
New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has a gung ho attitude and seems to be committed to bringing back some of the shine to a franchise whose reputation has been somewhat tarnished by years of losing football. Whether Haslam's potential legal problems will allow him to see his plan through remains to be seen, but the coaching staff the front office has put together for 2013 is a group that instills far more confidence in Browns fans than any in recent memory. If new head coach Rob Chudzinski is afforded some of the patience that Brown showed to Lewis in Cincinnati, he will turn the Browns into a winner.
Never a team to make a huge splash in free agency, the Browns have relied heavily on their first-round draft picks over the years. After a string of busts in the early years of the franchise's reurn to the NFL, Cleveland has fared much better in the draft recently. Of Cleveland's seven first-round picks dating back to 2007, six of them are currently starting for the Browns -- the lone exception being quarterback Brady Quinn.
While Cleveland's young offensive core of quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson, and wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little may not be quite at the level of a Cincinnati unit led by quarterback Andy Dalton and wideout A.J. Green, they are certainly close. Cleveland's defense still has some work ahead of them to get to Cincinnati's level, but the reviews have been good so far for new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's group.
If Cleveland can show some patience in the current roster and coaching staff, the Browns may become Cincinnati's partner in crime once again, only this time they'll be fighting for the AFC North crown.
Shaun Heidrick is a Yahoo! Contributor who has followed the Cleveland Browns for 25 years.
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