This is only Greg Pruitt's second season with the Cleveland Browns—and his first as a regular—but the ex-Oklahoma standout is already rating superstar treatment. It was Pruitt's presence that persuaded the Browns to let the venerable Leroy Kelly go to Oakland on waivers in June, and it is Pruitt's picture that graces much of the team's promotional material. Coach Nick Skorich likes to give the diminutive Pruitt an occasional breather, but such solicitousness is not always shared by the fans. "Why don't you play him the full 90 minutes?" someone asked. Skorich, an impeccably truthful man, was compelled to point out that football games last only 60 minutes.
Behind the adulation of Pruitt is the widely shared conviction in Cleveland that he is the current protector of Cleveland's winning tradition. The Browns have suffered but one losing season in their 28 years, and much of that success is traceable to their ability to turn up so formidable a succession of running backs as Marion Motley, Jim Brown and Kelly. Pruitt's designation as the latest in this honorable line apparently does not frighten him. A cheerfully confident fellow, he signs autographs "Greg Pruitt, the Breakaway Kid." "There's pressure on me to be the big star here," he says, "but I'd rather have all that pressure than not be noticed."
With Cleveland up against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC's Central Division, it is questionable whether a speedster standing barely 5'10"—the sort that used to be called a scatback—is enough to keep the team indefinitely above .500. The question has hung in abeyance during the strike-plagued exhibition season, nor was there a fully satisfactory answer last Saturday night when, with veterans finally back in force, the Browns dropped a 20-17 thriller to Washington. A semi-disappointing crowd of 44,000 in Cleveland's huge Municipal Stadium cheered the home team to a 17-3 lead, then watched in misery as onetime Notre Dame star Joe Theismann rallied the Redskins to the point where Mark Moseley, latest of George Allen's happy salvage jobs, delivered a game-winning 43-yard field goal with two seconds left to play. That gave both teams 1-3 preseason records but since previous games involved mostly rookies, the Redskins plainly had less to worry about: as everybody knows, Allen isn't much interested in rookies. Unless, of course, a second walkout by striking players were to leave him (and the rest of the NFL) short of seasoned veterans.
Pruitt could scarcely be blamed for the Browns' distressing fold against the Redskins. He helped set up both of Cleveland's touchdowns, the first with a long punt return that fulfilled his billing as the Breakaway Kid, the second with some nifty pass receptions. Although he gained only 31 yards in 11 carries from scrimmage, it seemed more than coincidental that Washington began its dramatic comeback after Pruitt, who had bruised his back on a running play, left the game in the third quarter.
Skorich later invoked the mishap when brooding over the team's collapse. "I would have liked to put Pruitt in there in the fourth quarter," the coach said, what-might-have-been mingling with smoke from his cigar, "but his back kept him out."
Pruitt's injury, while minor, did nothing to dispel the doubts that have dogged him all along. During his well-publicized days at Oklahoma, a number of scouts called him the best broken-field prospect since Gale Sayers but felt he might be too fragile for the NFL. He certainly is not cast in the iron-man mold of an O.J. Simpson, yet he proved his worth as a rookie, averaging 6.1 yards per rush, more than double that of the struggling Kelly, with whom he shared playing time. He also led the team in kick-off and punt returns last year and routinely made such big plays as a 19-yard touchdown dash to upset Pittsburgh and a 65-yard run that tied Kansas City.
Except for Pruitt, the Browns were almost punchless, finishing 23rd in total offense among the NFL's 26 teams. They depended more on a solid defense as one improbable win followed another. Skorich explained, "We do it with mirrors," until Cleveland lost its last two games to finish at 7-5-2. Then he said simply, "The mirrors broke."
Preparing for this season, Pruitt took to lifting weights, which helped beef him up to 191 pounds, some seven pounds heavier than he was in college. "I'm bigger and stronger," he was soon saying. "I can take whatever punishment they give me." Still, when the Browns and Redskins trotted onto the field—a WELCOME BACK VETERANS banner made one think of returning POWs rather than football players—Pruitt might have passed for a water boy next to Washington's bruising running backs, Larry Brown and Duane Thomas. Brown, slowed by injuries last season, appeared to be sound again, and Thomas was designated a starter after Charley Harraway defected to the WFL, which indicated that George Allen was satisfied that the moody ex-Dallas star had curbed his more conspicuous antisocial tendencies.
Before reaching this decision, Allen kept Thomas under wraps during what he called a "learning year." Thomas ran the ball only 32 times all last season, but he worked hard and without complaint. "Duane fit in fine," said Larry Brown. "At first he didn't talk and kind of kept to himself, but after a while he became part of the family." Brown also minimized the loss of Harraway's strong blocking. "Everybody knows about Duane's running," he said, "but he can block, too."
Yet not even in victory could Brown and Thomas upstage Pruitt. In the vain hope of breaking the Breakaway Kid loose, the Browns time and again sent him bouncing like a rubber ball off the Washington line. The Redskin backs experienced similar frustration, Brown finishing with 32 yards in 15 carries and Thomas not doing even that well. A 47-yard field goal by Cleveland's Don Cockroft was the only scoring until Pruitt, his talent at last evident, returned Mike Bragg's punt 45 yards to set up a touchdown in the second quarter.
Bragg's sky-high kick almost certainly would have resulted in a fair catch were it not for this year's rules changes, which severely limit downfield punt coverage. When Pruitt took the ball on his 27 he found only one Redskin in the immediate vicinity. He easily eluded this pursuer by darting to his right, then scampered along the sideline all the way to Washington's 28. Pruitt revels in the new punt-return rule, allowing that "it makes me even more valuable." A couple of plays later Billy Lefear, in the backfield to give Pruitt a rest, ran 15 yards for the score that made it 10-0.
The Browns built their lead to 17-3 midway through the third period when Brian Sipe completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Steve Holden. That play climaxed an 80-yard drive during which Sipe completed five of six, including two screen passes to Pruitt that were good, after some prancing, for 12 yards each. It was toward the end of this drive that Pruitt, sweeping left, tried to hurdle a couple of Washington bodies and was banged up. And it was on the very next series, momentously, that Theismann took over at quarterback for the Skins.
Theismann, a fourth-round Miami draft choice in 1971, chose instead to play in Canada. George Allen saw Theismann as a possible successor to his aging quarterbacks—Billy Kilmer is nearly 35, and Sonny Jurgensen turned 40 last week—and he gave Washington's first-round selection for 1976 to the Dolphins in exchange for NFL rights to Theismann. If one exhibition game is any measure, George has pulled off another slick one. Theismann completed nine of 14 passes for 100 yards and coolly capitalized on Cleveland's mistakes.
The most costly of these by far was a fumble by Sipe that the Redskins recovered on the Cleveland one and converted into a touchdown a play later. That closed the score to 17-10, and the Skins then proceeded to tie the game with a 98-yard scoring drive as Theismann picked apart the Cleveland secondary. The Browns went nowhere on the next series and a feeble punt enabled Theismann to move Washington into range for Moseley, who earlier had kicked a 47-yarder. Moseley dropped out of football after being released by the Houston Oilers 18 months ago but was picked up by the endlessly acquisitive Allen. He had booted five field goals the week before in a 16-15 loss to Buffalo, a performance that prepared him for the hero's role he assumed now by putting a 43-yarder squarely through the uprights.
Afterward, Pruitt wriggled his back in the locker room to show it was not badly hurt and said, "It isn't much, nothing to worry about." In a way, he and Theismann could be mutually reassured by their performances. The Redskin quarterback had also been considered too small for the NFL.