CLEVELAND (AP) — Home has been anything but sweet for the Cleveland Browns.
Since their return as an expansion team in 1999, the Browns have had a winning record at home just once in 11 seasons at their downtown stadium, where the swirling winds off Lake Erie wreak havoc with field-goal attempts and where the notorious Dawg Pound lacks its old bite.
On Sunday, the Browns (0-1) will begin what they hope will be some much-needed home improvement as they host the Kansas City Chiefs (1-0), who began their season at home in refurbished Arrowhead Stadium on Monday night with a 21-14 win over San Diego.
The Browns are just 31-57 since ‘99 in Cleveland, where the city’s die-hard sports fans are looking for something to cheer about with the Indians locked in perpetual rebuilding mode, and after a certain NBA All-Star decided to take his talents to Miami.
“You’ve got to win at home,” said Browns kicker Phil Dawson, the sole player remaining from Cleveland’s NFL rebirth. “You want to win any of them, but the home games are the ones you’ve got to win. If you can hold your home court and steal a couple wins on the road, now you got a shot (at the playoffs).
“I don’t want to make a bigger deal about it than it is, but right now, we just need a win because it’s the next one on the schedule.”
The Browns, who have dropped five straight home openers, feel they let victory slip away last week at Tampa Bay. Leading 14-3 late in the first half, Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme threw a momentum-swaying interception that set up a touchdown by the Buccaneers, who capitalized on three turnovers for a 17-14 win.
Delhomme added injury to insult by hurting his right ankle on the first-half pick. The 35-year-old missed practice this week, and his status for Sunday may not be decided until he takes the field and tests his mobility during pre-game warmups.
Delhomme wants to make a better impression this week on Cleveland fans, who have spent the past few years watching the team’s quarterback carousel spin out of control and wondering when it will finally stop.
After winning just one of their first six home games last season, the Browns beat Oakland and Jacksonville to finish 3-5 at home. Not bad. Not good, either.
While playing in New Orleans, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita saw first hand what winning at home can do for a team and a region. The Saints enjoy one of the best home-field advantages in the league because their fans come to the Superdome ready to party — or to keep one going.
“You don’t want to put too much importance on one game, but it’s really important to set the tone for the season at home,” said Fujita, who signed as a free agent in March. “Teams who traditionally make the playoffs control their games at home. The years we were successful in New Orleans, we won almost every game at home. In the years we weren’t successful, it’s because we didn’t win at home.
“It’s a huge difference maker.”
The difference for the Chiefs last week were big plays and special teams.
Kansas City set a single-game team record with 160 punt return yards, 94 coming on a TD by rookie wide receiver Dexter McCluster. Other than that, the Chiefs didn’t do much, picking up only nine first downs and 197 total yards to 389 for the Chargers.
But there were signs of improvement and hope for the future as McCluster and fellow rookies Javier Arenas and Eric Berry flashed potential in front of a national TV audience. One of coach Todd Haley’s biggest challenges this week is getting his team ready after a short work week on top of traveling to another time zone.
“All those young guys getting a taste of that tempo was real good,” Haley said, “and hopefully they can continue to improve as we transition into becoming a good team.”
Last year, the Browns and Chiefs hooked up in a back-and-forth shootout that resulted in an NFL mark falling and the Hall of Fame requesting the game ball and other keepsakes.
Browns return specialist Joshua Cribbs took back two kickoffs more than 100 yards for TDs, giving him a record eight in his career. Cribbs was perhaps upstaged by teammate Jerome Harrison, who broke free for 286 yards — third most in league history — in Cleveland’s thrilling 41-34 win.
The Browns will use the occasion of their home opener to unveil a ring of honor inside their otherwise nondescript stadium. Encircling the field will be the names of Cleveland’s football greats: Paul Brown, Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Paul Warfield and others.
New team president Mike Holmgren hatched the idea for the ring, which will be uncovered during a halftime ceremony.
Fullback Lawrence Vickers, whose blocks helped spring Harrison last year in Kansas City wasn’t aware that this year’s opener would include a tribute to Cleveland’s past football glory. He said playing in front of legendary Browns will only make and his teammates better.
“We have a little bit more to play for,” said Vickers, acknowledging that a good start at home is essential for the psyche of Cleveland’s fans. “I want to give them something to come back for. We need our fans. They do a lot for us at home.”
It’s time for the Browns to do something in return.