Oakland SafetyMike Davis realized something was desperately wrong the moment the Browns cameto the line of scrimmage. "They're going to pass!" he said to himself.Trailing 14-12, Cleveland had a second down on the Raiders' 13-yard line with49 seconds to play Sunday, and in those parts of his body in which he was stillable to feel anything at all, Davis had felt certain the Browns wouldn'tjeopardize their chances of winning the game with a short field goal. "Wefigured they would run the ball up the middle and then kick it," Davissaid. "What they did, though, was baffling."
What they did waspass. Cleveland couldn't resist taking one more shot at making a touchdown.Coach Sam Rutigliano had sent the word to Quarterback Brian Sipe: throw theball to Wide Receiver Dave Logan in the end zone. "If nobody's open,"Rutigliano instructed, "throw the ball into Lake Erie." Rutiglianoreckoned that if the pass was incomplete, he could use one more down to run theball, then send in Don Cockroft to kick a field goal that figured to be nolonger than 30 yards.
Cleveland TightEnd Ozzie Newsome was surprised by the call, which would have him actingprimarily as a decoy. "I was supposed to be a clear-out guy," he said.When the ball was snapped, Newsome glided straight for the end zone and hookedleft, taking Davis and Free Safety Burgess Owens with him. Sipe, meanwhile, haddecided that Logan was covered too well. Lake Erie beckoned, but Sipe had cometoo far too fast to dump it in the drink. When he saw Newsome's big, soft handsbeyond the goal line, he let fly. The ball fluttered as it left his grasp,battling the same head wind that Rutigliano had feared would cause a field-goaltry to come to grief.
"When I sawthe ball coming and I felt him [Davis] on the inside, I knew it wastrouble," Newsome said. Davis and Newsome leaped forward at the sameinstant, but the ball belonged to Davis—and the game to the Raiders, 14-12."We've lived and died with the pass all year long," Newsome said in theglum Cleveland locker room. "This time we died."
January 12, 1981
The decision notto protect the ball and go for the field goal was Rutigliano's, and the waythings turned out, it was certainly the wrong one. "It was no cinch for afield goal with the field conditions the way they were," Rutigliano said inhis own behalf. "We'd been having trouble with the snaps and holds allday." True enough. Cockroft had missed badly on attempts of 46 and 30 yardsin the second quarter and had even blown an extra point. And a third-quarterfield-goal try was muffed when holder Paul McDonald got a bad snap and couldn'tget the ball down. But Cockroft had hit field goals of 30 and 29 yards in thethird quarter, when he'd had the wind at his back. The question was: could henail one from about 30 yards into the teeth of a 16-mph wind? Rutigliano wasn'tsure, and if Rutigliano was to err, it wouldn't be on the side ofindecision.
"I don't getpaid to make the calls," Sipe said weakly. "I just do what I'mtold." But when it counted most in Cleveland Stadium, it was Sipe's failureto do precisely as he was instructed that cost the Browns a chance to win thegame. With all of Lake Erie in front of him, Sipe threw the ball to MikeDavis.
What made Sipe'serror even more unforgivable was the fact that it was one of the few all daynot caused by the intense cold. The temperature on the field at kick-off wasofficially 1°, with a wind-chill factor of something like a million below. Thatmade it the coldest NFL playoff game since the Dallas-Green Bay deep freeze in1967; you've got to hand it to the NFL for keeping statistics like that. Thecrowd of 77,835 tried a variety of methods to keep warm, including knitted nosewarmers. The players did the best they could under the circumstances. TheBrowns fumbled six times but got five of them back; Oakland fumbled twice,losing one. The interceptions, however, were another story: Sipe had threepasses picked off—the fatal one by Davis and two by Cornerback LesterHayes.
Sipe had promisedthat if Hayes blitzed and gambled, as he had so effectively against Houston theweek before, Sipe would make a monkey out of him. "We're going to testhim," Sipe said. "He's vulnerable. Let's see if he can cover the wholefield." As Hayes proved to Sipe, he can do that and more. The Raidersseldom blitzed, and though they sacked Sipe only twice, they prevented him fromthrowing long for a touchdown. He completed a lackluster 13 of 40 passes andwas able to throw more than two completions in a row just once.
The Raiders werea typical Oakland playoff team—mean and ugly and hungry. They generated only 64yards of offense during 15 of their possessions, but on two others they groundout scoring drives of 64 and 80 yards in the second and fourth quarters,respectively. Both of those drives came when Oakland had the wind at itsback—just as Cleveland had the wind for its two field goals. As RaiderQuarterback Jim Plunkett (14 of 30 for 149 yards) pointed out, "Nobodyscored against the wind today except Ron Bolton." Bolton, Cleveland's leftcorner-back, picked off a pass Plunkett had intended for Bob Chandler andreturned it 42 yards for a touchdown and an early 6-0 Browns lead.
It was the kindof game in which you expected to see a lot of Chuck Mercein going over GaleGillingham for three yards and a cloud of icicles, but both Rutigliano andOakland Coach Tom Flores stayed with the passing games that had gotten theminto the playoffs, even when the balls were ricocheting off numbed hands. TheRaiders didn't complete any of the big plays that Managing General Partner AlDavis holds so dear to his heart, but Mark van Eeghen's two one-yard scoringplunges were good enough.
Rutigliano knewof Davis long before they confronted one another in the NFL because they hadgone to the same high school in Brooklyn. "Al was ahead of me," saidRutigliano, "in a lot of ways."
Never more sothan last Sunday.