They struggle. They make dull games exciting. Why? Well, no one has quite figured out the Cleveland Browns, but whatever else they may be, the Browns are also 10 and 4 and sitting alone at the top of the AFC Central following their squeaky 17-14 victory over the New York Jets last Sunday. Not a bad record for a team picked to finish third at best in a division that has been the property of Pittsburgh and Houston the last few years. Now the Oilers trail the Browns by a game, with only two to play in the regular season, and the Steelers are practically dead as a result of their 6-0 loss to Houston Thursday night in the Astrodome.
The Jets, the 3-11 Jets, are the kind of tasty morsel to fatten up on if you've got the old Super Bowl Fever. And with the third quarter more than half gone, Cleveland was up 10-0 and winging. But these are the Browns, folks, and they kept 78,454 people in their Municipal Stadium seats until the very end. As usual.
Eight minutes were all it took for Cleveland to blow the lead, the Jets going ahead 14-10. New York Quarterback Richard Todd was doing a number on a three-man defensive line whose salaries total $94,000. The left end, Marshall Harris, was a commercial artist in 1979 after walking out of the Jets' camp. The middle guard, Henry Bradley, drove a truck in Cleveland last year after the Browns cut him. The right end, Elvis Franks, is a rookie, a fifth-round draft. Their salaries, from left to right: $30,000, $32,000 and $32,000. The Blue Plate Special.
"I stood on the sidelines watching Todd eating us up, and I was dying," said Lyle Alzado, Cleveland's regular right defensive end, who had pulled a hamstring late in the first half.
But the Browns are actually two teams. There's the defense, which battles and scrambles and plays with great emotional intensity—but gives up yards, enough yards to make even the put-away games close. And there's the offense. Ah, now you've got something. Brian Sipe at quarterback, the two Pruitts, Mike and Greg, at running back and as sophisticated a passing game as there is in the NFL, with Ozzie Newsome, Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan among the receivers.
When the Browns took the field in the fourth quarter Sunday, they were staring at that 14-10 deficit and knew they had a chance to blow everything—division title, wild card, the works. Sipe needed only six plays to take them 68 yards into the end zone. And when the defense came back out, Alzado limped off the bench to join it. Actually, Alzado had put himself into the game on the last play of Cleveland's previous defensive series, when a five-yard Todd-to-Mickey Shuler touchdown pass lifted New York into the lead. Now it was time to button up for the final push, and there was no way Alzado was going to miss it.
"Lyle snuck out there when we weren't looking," said Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano. "The doctor told me not to use him. There was a chance he could've torn the muscle and been lost for six weeks, but he went in on his own. It goes to show you how much respect I've got around here."
"The first time I tried to go in, Marty Schottenheimer, our defensive coordinator, grabbed me and said, 'I'll tell you when,' " said Alzado. "So I went down to the other end of the bench and waited till Marty's head was turned, till he was talking to Dave Adolph, the defensive line coach, and I slipped on in."
"Are you going to fine him?" Rutigliano was asked.
"Yeah, I'll fine him one chin strap," he said. "You punish felonies, not misdemeanors."
Wait a minute, now. Let's get a grip on this thing. Rutigliano did learn his football on the sandlots of Brooklyn, but this isn't P.S. 187. It's the NFL, the big banana. Discipline, pride and poise, defense, computers. Coaches don't talk that way. Quarterbacks don't kill the clock by throwing passes, as Sipe did against the Jets. And the team with the AFC's second-worst defense, statistically, shouldn't be tied for its best record.
What are these Browns, anyway? For one thing, they're a breath of fresh air—a refutation of all the clichès. And they're still capable of blowing it all. This Sunday they go to Bloomington to play the Vikings, a team that has murdered Cleveland four of the five times they've met, a team Cleveland has never beaten on the road. The following week the Browns are in Cincinnati. The Bengals have won six of the last seven against Cleveland in Riverfront, including last year's 16-12 game that knocked the Browns out of the playoffs. One thing is certain: whatever happens, it will happen the hard way. Cleveland never makes things comfortable.
Last year 12 of the Browns' 16 games were in doubt up until the final moments. This year: 10 of 14. A terrific come-from-behind quarterback, coupled with a not-so-terrific defense, will do that for you. Tampa Bay had them on the ropes, but the clock ran out before the Bucs could catch up. Another time Cleveland had Baltimore put away—when the Colts got 14 points at the end and lost by a point. Cleveland scored two touchdowns in the last quarter to beat Pittsburgh by a point and then lost to the Steelers on a touchdown with 11 seconds to play. Two weeks ago the Oilers shoved the Browns all over the field in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland made its three-point lead stand up when the last three Houston drives ended in a missed field goal, a fumble and an interception. The Browns blew a 10-point lead to Green Bay and needed a 46-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left to bail themselves out. That was the game in which Cleveland could've gone up 17-0, or at least 13-0, at the end of the first half, but when the Browns got down to the four-yard line they threw three straight passes and ultimately came away with nothing. When a Cleveland writer took Rutigliano to task for eschewing the ground game so close to the goal line, Rutigliano said, "Fasten your seat belt. I like to throw from there, and I'll go for it on fourth down, too—from anywhere on the field."
So it was that Cleveland went for it on fourth-and-18 on the Jets' 37 in the third quarter Sunday while holding a 10-7 lead. Johnny Evans, the punter, came up to the line to take the snap and handed off to Wide Receiver Willis Adams on a reverse. Damn near made it, too. The play gained 15.
Why do it, Sam? "Because I hadn't done it for three or four weeks," Rutigliano said, relishing the moment.
And what about the end of the game? The Browns, leading 17-14, took over on their eight-yard line with 5:04 left. On the first play Sipe passes for nine yards. He passes on the fourth, sixth and eighth plays, too. And they're all completions. Three quarterback fall-downs and tweet, the final whistle. Yes, sweet victory, but also time for a little head scratching.
Ah, now we're into something. Philosophy. Faith in your people.
"The biggest mistake coaches make is saying, 'We're going to establish the run' or 'establish the pass,' " Rutigliano said. "You try to establish first downs. You keep the ball moving. And the clock. You do it in the most intelligent way you can."
In Sipe, Rutigliano has the perfect man to execute that philosophy. Daring, yes, but always operating from a very high plane of intelligence; he has the lowest interception rate of any quarterback in the NFL. Sipe is not imposing-looking as NFL specimens go: a shade over 6 feet, slim build, almost frail-looking. Quiet, thoughtful, but with inner fires that have made him the league's ultimate come-from-behind quarterback.
"You know, four or five years ago I'd have been very nervous in a situation like the one at the end today," he said. "I wasn't a very good quarterback then. Oh, I thought I was at the time, but everything's so different now. It's a matter of the confidence you feel when you move away from the center on a pass play."
It's almost as if destiny has brought together the elements that have turned the Browns into one of the NFL's best teams. First Sipe, then Rutigliano, then the rule changes that allowed the passing game to open up. In 1972 Cleveland drafted Sipe, a pass-happy product of Don Coryell's air circuses at San Diego State, on the 13th round. He languished on the taxi squad for two years, watching Mike Phipps play quarterback.
"In my early years here, I played under five offensive coordinators," Sipe says. "I felt like an Indianapolis driver stuck on a dirt track. I always felt there was a different way to play football than the way we played it."
Then, on Christmas Eve 1977, Cleveland owner Art Modell hired himself a new coach—Rutigliano. "He called me, person-to-person, in Louisiana," Rutigliano says. "I was an assistant under Hank Stram with the Saints then. My wife answered the phone, and the operator said, 'I have a person-to-person call for the coach of the Cleveland Browns.' When my wife handed me the phone she was crying."
"I'd known Sam when I was in New England and he was an assistant there," says Ron Bolton, the Browns' left cornerback. "He had a reputation as a players' coach, a guy you could talk to. His first year with the Browns, after he'd picked his final 45, Sam said, 'This is my team. I believe in each and everyone of you.' "
"Sam called me in and told me I was going to be his quarterback," Sipe says. "He said we were going to throw the ball and throw it on first down and from anywhere on the field. He said I'd call all the plays, unless I showed I couldn't handle it. He told me what I wanted to hear, but there's a bit of an actor in Sam, and I got the feeling he told everybody what they wanted to hear. I didn't really believe him until I got on the practice field and started running that offense of his. He was for real."
A few of Rutigliano's concepts are unorthodox. He doesn't believe in a three-wide-receiver offense on obvious passing downs. He drafted Newsome in 1978 because he wanted a tight end who wouldn't have to come out for a third wide man; he wanted someone who could play inside or out on the flank "so we don't have to make a substitution, so we can run a no-huddle series and keep the defense from getting its nickel-back on the field."
When the Browns draft offensive linemen now, they measure arm length. Rutigliano wants the apple pickers, guys who can keep the rushers at bay with full arm extension, so convenient under the new rules. Pittsburgh Defensive End L.C. Greenwood said that Cody Risien, Cleveland's 6'7" tackle, spent one whole afternoon with his fists in Greenwood's face. Against the Jets, Risien got flagged for a rare "Fists in the face" penalty.
The Browns haven't been built in the ideal way. Too many of their recent high draft picks haven't paid off, but three vets they've brought in—Alzado, Calvin Hill and Joe DeLamielleure—have done well. Three no-nonsense guys, show-me types. They're all believers now.
Hill says that in all his years in the NFL, in Dallas and Washington, he never really understood the concepts of the passing game. Then he got to Cleveland. Alzado, the old pro from Denver, says, "If you can't get along with Sam, then you'd better look in the mirror, because it's you, not him." DeLamielleure, the right guard acquired from Buffalo in September, says that "playing for Sam will extend my career three or four years. I've never felt so good, physically, at this stage of the season."
In a way, Cleveland is a paradox: modern philosophy in an old-world setting. The Browns aren't a high-paying club—witness the $94,000 defensive line—but that will probably change as their level of success continues to rise. And Cleveland is hardly one of the NFL's garden spots, as Sipe noted when he first arrived from his native San Diego.
"It took a little getting used to," Sipe says, "but there's something very real, very pure about the football in this city. A place like Houston, the Astrodome, all that Luv Ya Blue stuff, that's like the tinsel world. The first time I played there, they had 10 bands performing on the field before the game. It's like football itself wasn't enough. I'll give Modell credit. He's kept it strictly football here. You saw what the halftime show was today—the Massillon High School band. And they weren't allowed to go on the field at halftime because it was muddy. I'd sure hate to go down to the Astrodome for the playoffs."
Two more wins and that won't be a problem. But whatever happens, it's not going to come easy. That isn't the Cleveland style.