The guy standing in the corner of the Cleveland Browns' locker room Sunday looked like Sam Rutigliano all right. He even had the coach's voice. He was giving the little postgame press conference that winning coaches usually give, but I know it wasn't Sam because the words weren't right. This is what he was saying, in the afterglow of the Browns' 30-0 win over the New England Patriots: "Our offense was doing what it could to help the defense. What we needed to do was bring our quarterback, Brian Sipe, back into focus—no interceptions, no mistakes. Let the defense win it for us."
I told you it wasn't Sam; his offense was always run and gun. This was a ventriloquist's dummy, and George Allen was doing the talking. He'd just changed the name from Billy Kilmer to Brian Sipe.
"Our quarterback doesn't have to play an extraordinary game," the fake Sam was saying. "He has to do the ordinary extraordinarily well. In other words, don't create interceptions."
I went and found Sipe. He was in the trainer's room, icing down his right arm, which was in danger of atrophying from disuse. He had completed nine passes, only one of them longer than nine yards, out of the 20 he had thrown. Net passing yardage: 51. He hadn't messed anything up. During one four-game stretch this year, Sipe had thrown 13 interceptions. But Sunday the only interception he threw came late in the fourth quarter, long afer the issue was decided.
November 28, 1983
"That isn't Sam out there," I said.
"Yeah, it's Sam," he said. "Why?"
"The words aren't right. It's George Allen stuff—don't let your offense mess it up for the defense, don't make mistakes. Straight Woody Hayes."
"Well," Sipe said, "I don't want to say we went into our Ohio State offense. But we weren't San Diego State out there, either. The day belonged to our defense. We...make that I...didn't want to do anything to screw it up."
Ah, well, so it was Sam after all. You remember Sam Rutigliano, the way he came charging into Cleveland six years ago, dark eyes flashing, shaking 'em up with statements like: "Fasten your seat belts, men. We're gonna attack—and keep attacking." It was fun time in those early years, the Sam and Brian show, the old Kardiac Kids, everybody's favorite Sunday afternoon Chiller Theatre.
"Yeah, sure, I know, it's boring now, boring as hell," Sam says. "Maybe I ought to get into hockey. But we've had plenty of days when Brian threw for 345 yards and we didn't get the pizza."
Based on their last two games, the Patriot victory and the 20-0 win over Tampa Bay a week earlier (their first back-to-back shutouts since 1951), the Browns have made a 180-degree turn. They're 7-5 and challenging for a playoff spot, and for the first time since 1976 their defense is rated in the top half of the NFL. They're No. 7 after allowing the Patriots just 190 yards Sunday. They've got a new set of heroes: linebackers Tom Cousin-eau and Chip Banks, rookie Defensive End Reggie Camp and Middle Guard Bob Golic, a castoff converted linebacker from New England.
Cousineau, at $500,000 per year the highest-paid defensive performer in football, plays inside on the weak side. A year ago he used to get the hook on passing downs, but now he's an integral part of the coverage scheme. He had two interceptions Sunday. And he was the focal figure in the game's most important play, crashing into Pats Quarterback Steve Grogan on a blitz and forcing a pass that Banks picked off and returned 65 yards for a TD—and a 10-0 Cleveland lead—in the second quarter.
"Yeah, Cousineau played great," Rutigliano said, "but you realize he'll never play as well as his salary. Nobody'll ever play that good."
In addition to his TD, Banks, last year's No. 1 Cleveland draft pick out of USC, collected a pair of sacks and batted away a fourth-down pass on the goal line to end the Patriots' only significant threat when the game was still a game. Camp applied steady pressure from his left-end spot, got one sack and forced another. And Golic, working against backup Center Wimpy Wheeler, got deep penetration all day and helped disrupt the Patriots' offensive scheme.
"It's a fun kind of game to go into," Rutigliano had said on Saturday night, "because we have a pretty good idea what they're going to do. In their last three games they've run left 54 times, so I know they're gonna run left, behind John Hannah and Brian Holloway. And when they get to around the 50, Grogan will let one go to Stanley Morgan."
The Patriots, who came into the game as the NFL's leading rushing team, averaging 178.4 yards per game, did, in fact, run to their left on the first three plays, falling a yard short of a first down and punting. Before the game Golic, the ex-Patriot, had cautioned Elvis Franks, the right defensive end, to "watch out for Hannah's turtle block."
"His what?" Franks had said.
"Turtle block. He'll pull his head down into his shoulder pads like a turtle, so only his eyes are showing, and then when he fires out he'll pop his head into you. It's effective."
Maybe so, but not Sunday as the Patriots' top rusher, Tony Collins, gained only 48 yards. Grogan and Morgan were never able to hook up on anything longer than four yards. The only deep pass they tried ended up intercepted by Cornerback Hanford Dixon.
The Patriots' problems started a week earlier when their fine center, Pete Brock, went down with a knee injury. Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns' defensive coordinator, gave his linemen and linebackers a stunting-blitzing scheme designed to take advantage of Wheeler's inexperience. By the end of the first half, the Browns were up 20-0, seven of the points going directly to the defense (Banks's TD), three indirectly (Cousin-eau's first interception set up a chippie field goal for Matt Bahr) and seven coming from a surprise onside kick in the second quarter, which was Rutigliano's way of showing the world that a little of the old Sam still exists.
"I saw that their middle man on the kick-return team was turning his back, so I called it," Sam said. "I had to get my courage up. You don't get help on decisions like that; you get this," and he held his hands over his eyes.
By now the Patriots were out of their game plan and they had to play catch-up, which isn't their style. Even worse, though, Grogan was hurting. When Cousineau blitzed him in the second quarter, Grogan had suffered a hairline fracture of the fibula in his left leg. Grogan is one of the NFL's more courageous quarterbacks; he kept playing, but as the game wore on, he was hobbling noticeably. Finally, midway in the third quarter, Coach Ron Meyer brought in Tony Eason, the rookie No. 1 pick from Illinois, but by then the score was 23-0.
"They had the best coverage scheme we've seen this year," said Eason, who threw two interceptions, giving the Browns a total of five on the day. "We had a few gimmick plays, but they were right on top of them all."
It was a prideful day for the Browns' defense, all right, and it served to hide a quarterback situation that had grown nasty in the past few weeks. Both Sipe and his backup man, Paul McDonald, are unsigned. Both are in the final year of their contracts. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, a day off for the Browns, Sipe flew to New York to meet with Donald Trump, the real-estate man who owns the New Jersey Generals of the USFL. The Generals, who have been milking such names as Don Shula and Raider Quarterback Marc Wilson for all the publicity value they can, quickly had the news of Sipe's visit on the national wires.
For the first time ever, Rutigliano ripped Sipe in print. "You can't expect to be successful on the field when your mind is elsewhere," he said. Rutigliano had already benched Sipe—"to rest a tired arm," he said—in Cleveland's 25-19 victory over Houston on Oct. 30. The following week McDonald started again, against Green Bay. The Packers opened up a 21-7 halftime lead on their way to a 35-21 win, and when McDonald threw three straight incompletes to open the second half, Sipe took over.
McDonald wasn't exactly a popular figure with the Browns' management, either. In October his agent, Leigh Steinberg, and the Browns had reached a verbal agreement on a new contract, converting this season's $70,000 salary to a two-year, $600,000 package. But then Wilson signed a reported five-year, $4 million package with the Raiders, and Steinberg put the McDonald deal on hold. It was a question of whom the Browns were madder at, Sipe or McDonald, and they decided it was McDonald.
"I sat down with Brian last Thursday," Rutigliano said before the Patriot game, "and told him, 'Look, we need to talk. Whether you like me or dislike me doesn't matter. What matters is that you focus on football right now, on the playoffs, on where we're going. The Jersey Generals or the Kentucky Colonels don't matter as far as 1983 is concerned.'
"He asked, 'What about Paul McDonald?' I told him, 'You're 34 and he's 25, but right now you've got a lot of good pitches in you. You're my quarterback.' He thanked me and that's how we left it."
"Whatever the future may be," Sipe says, "I realize how important it is to play well right now, and that's all I want to say about it."
O.K., right now the defense is talking, and the Browns are eyeing the playoffs. Things could be a whole lot worse.