Five Near Misses for a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar talks with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown before the start of the game against the Miami Dolphins on September 25, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar talks with Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown before the start of the game against the Miami Dolphins on September 25, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images) /
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No. V:  Red Right 88, January 4, 1981

The 1980 Kardiac Kids of coach Sam Rutigliano generated tremendous excitement by coming back to win close games week after week. Just to provide a personal anecdote, I was at Ohio State University that year, and there was a group of about a dozen that would gather by the community TV in the Jones Tower lounge to watch the Browns.

One of my football cronies was a guy from a Youngstown steel community named Mark. One Sunday after the game, I saw him in obviously a lousy mood.

“Mark, what’s the matter?”

“I’m just sick of the way the Browns played today.  They couldn’t do anything right.  I was so disgusted I walked out in the fourth quarter because I just could not take any more of their ****.  God, I hate the Steelers!”

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“Dude, the Browns won the game!”

Mark did not believe me. He had to ask several of our friends before he could convince himself that it was not one of my practical jokes and that indeed Brian Sipe and the Browns had come from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Steelers.

Mark’s motto from then one was,  “The game is never over with the Browns, no matter what the score is, how much time is remaining or who is ahead!”

And so it was, game after game Sipe and the Browns would come from behind, or else the defense would almost blow the game. This might have been the most exciting team ever. Not the greatest team, but most exciting, especially after years of losing seasons prior to Rutigliano.

That 1980 season was weird because five teams finished 11-5 in the AFC and there was no clear-cut dominant team. The AFC Central Division champion Browns wound up hosting Al Davis’ Raidahs for the AFC semifinal game in sub-zero snowy conditions in old Cleveland Stadium. It was one of the coldest games in NFL history, with 20 mph winds, and a wind chill of -20 degrees at game time, and it got worse as the game went on.

The field was frozen and literally slick with ice in many spots. Of course, Cleveland fans love that kind of weather. Yes, it was cold, but we like it. The Raiders, however, were freezing their butts off.

Brian Sipe had proven to be an incredibly resourceful passer with a deadly accurate arm, plus the Pruitts in the backfield (Greg and Mike), and outstanding wide receivers in Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan. They had four outstanding blockers in Henry Sheppard, Tom DeLeone, Joe DeLamielleure, and Cody Risien plus Doug Dieken to hold the opposition (just kidding, DD).

They also had Calvin Hill as their secret weapon, who seemed like he could always get open for a pass reception on third down. On defense, they had equally outstanding stars.  They had four outstanding linebackers in Charlie Hall, Robert L. Jackson, Dick Ambrose and Clay Matthews (hello —  Matthews needs to be in the Hall of Fame).  Veterans Clarence Scott and Thom Darden anchored the secondary, while Lyle Alzado was the focal point of the defensive line.  Incidentally, that team also had rookie linebacker Bill Cowher on the roster.

The Raiders were also a powerful team, led a quarterback who had started the year at second string. That would be Jim Plunkett, who had been run out of Boston but seemed to find himself with the Raiders. But mainly this was a defensive team that led the NFL in interceptions (35), total turnovers (52) and which had held opponents to only 3.4  rushing yards per carry. Fans remember Lester Hayes covering himself in sticky adhesives every week and led the NFL with 13 interceptions.

On that bitterly cold day, the Browns played stifling defense all game long, aided and abetted by the cruel wintry conditions. The Raiders finally got their act together in the fourth quarter with an 80-yard drive capped by a one-yard TD run by Mark van Eeghen, putting the Raiders up by two points, 14-12.

The Raiders had a chance to put the game away after driving to the Browns’ 15-yard line, but elected to not give Chris Bahr a chance to kick a field goal on 4th and 1, figuring that a five-point lead might not be enough, and moreover the field was too slick and the wind too strong to be sure of the points.

They felt more confident in their ability to make the first down. But the Browns stuffed Van Eeghen, so Sipe and the Browns had one more chance.  Cleveland put a drive together, with three big plays — a 29-yard pass to future Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, a 23-yard pass to Greg Pruitt and a 14-yard run by Mike Pruitt took them to the 13-yard line with 49 seconds left and Rutigliano called a timeout.

Now if you were Sam Rutigliano, who do you trust in negative-20 wind chill on a solid ice field? The NFL Most Valuable Player? Or the 35-year-old kicker with torn cartilage in one knee, a herniated disk in his back, and two missed field goals and a blocked extra point on the day?

Truly, famed kicker Don Cockroft was literally on his last legs, for this would be the last game of his career. Recall also that the Raiders elected to not attempt a game-clinching field goal from the 15-yard line with perfectly healthy Chris Bahr minutes earlier.

Well, Cleveland fans are unanimous. In that situation, never ever trust the NFL MVP, always trust the 35-year-old with the torn cartilage, herniated disk, blocked extra point and two missed field goals on a frozen field in an Arctic hurricane!

I found that out early in my Dawg Pound Daily career when I dared to suggest that Rutigliano might have made the right call, but the Twitter-based Dawg Pound police informed me of the error of my ways. Rutigliano, then, goes down in history as having made one of the worst coaching decisions of all time for letting Sipe take a shot at a touchdown. Okay? Okay!

Well, you know how it ended. Sipe threw a pass to a future Hall of Famer in Ozzie Newsome, but safety Mike Davis had position on him and came away with the interception.

This might have been the most painful loss because expectations had become so high after all those thrilling victories.

The team really did not get as close to the Super Bowl as it may have seemed. But they would have had to then beat Air Coryell with Dan Fouts as quarterback and Joe Gibbs as offensive coordinator to get to the Super Bowl. They had a puncher’s chance, of course, but a win against Oakland would not have resulted in an automatic Super Bowl.

That was a first-round playoff loss, but it hurt more because we fans were so much in love with that team.  Sam Rutigliano who seemed to be like everyone’s dad instead of a coach.