It was supposed to be different for the Cleveland Browns in 1980.
With Brian Sipe at the helm of a talented offense, and a defense that did just enough to get by, the Browns won the AFC Central Division and had Cleveland dreaming of the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl.
It was also the first taste of success for a generation of fans who were too young to remember the dynasty years of the 1950s and 1960s.
Instead, it turned into a defining moment for that generation, one that truly made them realize what it meant to be a Browns fan.
When the Browns and Raiders kicked off their divisional playoff game on Jan. 4, 1981, the thermometer read zero and the winds coming off Lake Erie left the windchill at -36.
The Browns opened the scoring when cornerback Ron Bolton returned a Jim Plunkett interception 42 yards for a touchdown just six minutes before halftime. But in an omen of things to come, Don Cockroft missed the extra point – one of four kicks he would miss on the day.
After the Raiders took a 7-6 lead at halftime, Cockroft converted a pair of third-quarter field goals to give the Browns a 12-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Raiders regained the lead on Mark van Eeghen’s second touchdown run of the game, and after a Sipe fumble gave the ball back to Oakland with a little more than four minutes remaining, it looked like the season was over.
But fate was not finished with the Browns and their fans.
The defense held thanks to a stop on fourth-and-inches, giving the ball back to Sipe with 85 yards to cover in just a little more over two minutes.
A 29-yard pass to Ozzie Newsome, a 23-yard pass to Greg Pruitt and a 14-yard run by Mike Pruitt helped the Browns move into field goal range.
What came next has haunted Browns fans ever since.
Remembering the struggles of the kicking game, and with the Browns facing the open end of Municipal Stadium, head coach Sam Rutigliano decided to go for one more play – Red Right 88 – in an attempt to avoid having to kick a field goal.
The play called for Sipe to look for wide receiver Dave Logan over the middle, but Logan was covered on the play, forcing Sipe to look at Newsome in the end zone. But as soon as Sipe looked away, Oakland’s Dwayne O’Steen left Logan to give Mike Davis help on Newsome.
“When the blitzed, I did what we did all year, go to the tight end” Sipe said in the 2003 book, Kardiac Kids. “We’ve run that play for two years and have scored a lot of TDs on it. I’m a victim of my own programming. I’m going for it.”
Rather than the ball following into the arms of a wide-open Logan for a game-winning touchdown, it found its way to Davis for a season-ending interception.
“He thought he saw Ozzie open,” Rutigliano said in the 2008 book, Classic Browns. “The next time we looked at the film, Dave Logan is wide open in the end zone. The rest is history.”
The loss extended the Browns’ playoff losing streak to five games, and ushered in a decade that would see the team suffer three more painful post-season defeats. – TM
Next: No. 11: The Fumble