The decade of the 1970s was not a pleasant one for the Cleveland Browns.
The team that had once dominated the NFL made its last playoff appearance following the 1972 season. To make matters worse, the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls while the Browns struggled to win more games than they lost.
The tide started to turn when the Browns hired head coach Sam Rutigliano in 1978. Rutigliano led the Browns to respectability and the brink of the playoffs in his first two seasons, but the team couldn’t get over the hump.
Then came the 1980 season.
Led by league MVP Brian Sipe, who would throw for a franchise record 4,132 yards (still the only Browns quarterback to eclipse 4,000 yards in a season) and a franchise record 30 touchdowns (still the team’s single-season record), the Browns captured the Central Division title with an 11-5 record.
But it wasn’t just that the Browns were winning that captured the fancy of fans, it was how they were winning.
The team that would become to be known as the Kardiac Kids (and be immortalized in Jonathan Knight’s 2003 book, The Kardiac Kids), won nine of their games by seven points or less, leaving many of their fans wondering if they could take it for another week.
The excitement began in Week 7, when Sipe hit Dave Logan with a 46-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining in the game to pull out a 26-21 win over Green Bay. The fun continued the following week when Sipe’s touchdown pass to Ozzie Newsome late in the fourth quarter downed the Steelers.
Cleveland pulled out a one-point win over the Baltimore colts in Week 10, a three-point victory over the Houston Oilers in Week 13, and a three-point win over the New York Jets in Week 14.
But they saved their best for the final Sunday of the season.
Needing a win to claim their first division title in eight years, the Browns once again pulled out a late win as Don Cockroft’s 22-yard field goal with a little more than a minute left clinched the division in a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
While the season would end in disappointment in a playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders, the 1980 season helped the Browns recapture the hearts of their fans. – TM
Next: No. 8: The AAFC Years