Super chances in '80s slip through club's hands Kardiac Kids fall a few beats short of taking AFC title

Heartbreak

November 10, 1995|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble.

That's part of the frustrating legacy the Cleveland Browns will bring to Baltimore next year.

The Browns never have played in a Super Bowl, a failure that owner Art Modell says has become an obsession with them.

But they came agonizingly close to doing it during the 1980s, when they lost seven times in the playoffs, four times to an AFC team that went to the Super Bowl, three times in the AFC title game to the Denver Broncos.

"I don't think any team has ever come so close [to the Super Bowl] without going," said Ernie Accorsi, who ran the team's front office in the latter part of that decade.

It was a decade when the Browns could only think of what might have been. It was a decade of "ifs" that started with the Kardiac Kids in 1980.

It was a time of new beginnings in the NFL and in the AFC Central Division.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and beat the Browns 11 of their last 12 meetings in that decade, finally had grown old.

The Browns stepped into the void with an exciting team featuring Brian Sipe at quarterback, Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan at wide receivers, Ozzie Newsome at tight end and Mike Pruitt and Greg Pruitt in the backfield.

They weren't a great team, but they found a way to win the close ones. They won five games by three points or less en route to an 11-5 finish and the division title.

In their first-round playoff game, they were host to the Oakland Raiders on a freezing day. The fans' signs read: "Siper Bowl."

It was a typical day for the Kardiac Kids. They marched from their 15 to the Raiders' 13 in the final minute, trailing, 14-12.

Coach Sam Rutigliano then called the most famous play in recent Browns history -- "Red Slot Right Halfback Stay 88," now known as Red Right 88.

It was a crossing pattern to Newsome in the end zone. Sipe was supposed to throw the second-down pass away if Newsome was covered.

Instead, he threw it, and Mike Davis intercepted to clinch the Raiders victory.

The sound was just sucked out of the stadium. As Sipe came to the sidelines, Rutigliano told him, "I love you."

If Sipe had thrown it away, the Browns were going to run Mike Pruitt on third down and have Don Cockroft try what would have been the game-winning field goal on fourth down.

The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl. The Browns thought of what might have been.

That play was an omen of a decade of frustration.

The Kardiac Kids couldn't keep winning the close ones. By 1984, they collapsed.

Rutigliano, who took control of the football operations when Peter Hadhazy -- who says he annoyed Modell by getting two much credit for the team's success -- was fired as general manager after the 1981 season, decided Paul McDonald could handle the starting quarterback job after Sipe left for the USFL.

Rutigliano had so much confidence in McDonald that he bypassed Boomer Esiason in the 1984 draft.

But McDonald proved he wasn't up to the job and the team started out 1-7 in 1984.

The seventh loss was an embarrassing, 12-9 setback in Cincinnati, a place where Modell hates to lose. The Bengals were founded by Paul Brown, the legendary coach Modell fired in 1962. Modell fired Rutigliano the next day.

Modell then promoted defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer to the top job on an interim basis. A disciplined, no-nonsense type who's now at Kansas City, Schottenheimer made an immediate impact. The team went 4-4 the second half of the season, and Schottenheimer became the permanent coach.

At the same time, Modell promoted Accorsi. He didn't give him the general manager's title -- Hadhazy was the last man to have that title with the Browns -- but he was given those duties.

Accorsi's first task was to find a quarterback. He had his eye on Bernie Kosar of the University of Miami.

A native of the Cleveland area, he was a hero there and had led Miami to the national title as a freshman. He was a junior, and juniors weren't then allowed in the draft unless they had graduated.

Kosar was on course to graduate and had the option of going in the regular draft or the supplemental draft. Accorsi made a deal to get the top pick in the supplemental draft.

Kosar passed on the regular draft, declared for the supplemental draft and the Browns picked him. The NFL later changed the rules to prevent another team from pulling that move, but the Browns had their quarterback.

With Gary Danielson and Kosar sharing the job, the Browns went 8-8 in 1985, which was good enough to win the division title and went to Miami, a team coming off a Super Bowl season, for their first-round game.

The Browns took a 21-3 lead, but were hurt by a controversial pass-interference call and Earnest Byner's running the wrong way on a critical third-down play. Dan Marino brought the Dolphins back for a 24-21 victory.

But the Browns were rising.

With Kosar at quarterback, Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter at wide receivers and Kevin Mack and Byner in the backfield, they had one of the best offenses in the league.

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