Evans profiles the first moment that the Browns broke my heart.
By John Evans, The X & Ys Podcast (Twitter: @JohnF_Evans)
The date is January 4, 1981. Jim Plunkett and the Oakland Raiders are clinging to a 14-12 lead, but the Cleveland Browns have a second and 9 at Oakland’s 13-yard line. Bruising big back Mike Pruitt was just held to a short gain, forcing Cleveland to stop the clock with 49 seconds to go in the 4th quarter. They have one timeout remaining.
This Divisional Playoff has not been a display of offensive pyrotechnics for the 77,000 fans in attendance. The offenses have struggled to move the ball on the slippery, rock-hard field at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Together, the teams have combined for a meager 462 total yards and 26 points. Receivers have trouble keeping their feet and hanging onto the pigskin-shaped ice block that must pass for a football today.
The mercury has plummeted to levels not seen in an NFL game since the Ice Bowl, in 1967. One degree at kickoff, the temperature continued to plunge from there. The wind chill is 36 degrees below zero.
Here on the open side of the stadium, a field goal try is dismissed due to the ferocious gusts off Lake Erie. Browns kicker Don Cockcroft booted two field goals in the third quarter, but missed both attempts taken on this side of the field. He’s aborted one extra-point try due to a mishandled snap and had another blocked. Weather like this causes the miscues of numb fingers and sliding feet.
With that in mind, the Browns put their hopes in the hands of their quarterback, league MVP Brian Sipe.
In the regular season Sipe tossed 30 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. These Browns beat you through the air. Today, though, Sipe has been charged with four fumbles and two interceptions on 19 of 39 passing. But after a 38-yard first half, he’s thrown for 145 in the second.
Over the 1979 and ’80 seasons the Browns came from behind to win 14 times in the last two minutes, earning the nickname “Kardiac Kids.” It was no wonder they’d come roaring back again.
Tight end Ozzie Newsome lines up about three-and-a-half yards outside the tackle. Strong safety Mike “Mad Dog” Davis positions himself a yard and a half outside the future Hall of Famer. He is determined to stop Newsome from running his third 12-yard out from this formation, catching a pass at the goal-line and scoring what would surely be the game-winning touchdown.
The ball is snapped. Sipe drops back to pass but Newsome does not run the out; instead, his pattern is a skinny post. Surprised, Davis goes into his backpedal. There is something special about this tight end and, as he gets behind Davis, the defender feels a flare of anxiety.
In his third NFL campaign, Ozzie Newsome is already a force to be reckoned with. He totaled 781 yards and scored 9 touchdowns in 1979, most among tight ends, and posted another solid season in 1980. Today he has accounted for more than 20 percent of Sipe’s completions. In fact, three plays ago Sipe hit Newsome for a 29-yarder.
Pressured by defensive end Ted Hendricks, the Browns’ passer decides to forgo the play’s primary receiver, wideout Dave Logan. With the pocket collapsing, he seeks out his most trusted target in critical situations: Newsome.
As Davis shadows this slippery pass-catcher, he knows he has a difficult assignment but won’t let his nerves get the best of him. He recalls the motto of the 1980 Raiders secondary led by cornerback Lester Hayes: “When the game is on the line, you want the ball to come your way.” Hayes has both of Sipe’s interceptions in this game.
Newsome breaks to the middle. Davis thinks, Shoes, don’t fail me now as he tries to follow the tight end. On such a treacherous field, this is nothing less than a prayer. But Davis doesn’t slip.
“I made that cut and my trusty Nikes were with me,” he would tell the San Francisco Chronicle years later.
Giving Davis a bit more confidence as they streak downfield, a Sipe strike looping in their direction, is the presence of his secondary mate closing ground quickly. Free safety Burgess Owens alters Newsome’s route but isn’t in position to make a play on the ball. Davis is. He gets a step on Newsome and if anyone is going to get this ball, it’s him!
There’s only one problem. Though a superb tackler, team player and one tough son of a gun, Mike Davis has one knock on his game. His hands. The Raiders’ starting strong safety has a reputation for dropping certain interceptions. Now, as he steps into position to snare Sipe’s pass, he wonders, Will my hands fail me? The list of botched plays by both teams loom large as the football pierces the frigid air in a loose spiral.
And yet however devoid of feeling his stone hands are, in this bitter cold, Davis steps in front of Newsome and makes the pick. It feels like a medicine ball hitting his chest, he will say later. Thrown slightly behind its target, the ball doesn’t have enough on it. Hendricks’ pressure prevented the quarterback from setting his feet.
As Davis goes down, his head hits the ground — two players have left the game after suffering concussions this way — but he maintains control of the ball. Thanks to him, the Kardiac Kids have flat-lined.
The silent shock in the stadium shifts to wild jubilation for the visitors. Still dazed, Davis is swarmed by his gleeful teammates and experiences a swirl of emotions. Pride, joy and most of all, overwhelming relief that he made the play to deny Cleveland another two chances to score. With this turnover, Davis and the Raiders have sealed the game.
After defeating Dan Fouts’ San Diego Chargers the following week, the Raiders would face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl and win 27-10.
It would not have been possible without Mike Davis and his hands.
“Could not catch a cold in Alaska, bare-footed,” former Raiders guard Gene Upshaw said of Davis’ reputation as a pass-catcher.
“If you were going to throw the ball to Mike playing catch,” recalled Tom Flores, then the Raiders’ head coach, “He might not get it. Mike had the worst hands of the guys in our secondary.”
Not on January 4, 1981.
Now that Cleveland sports fans are sleeping a little better these days, I don’t feel as guilty choosing the infamous “Red Right 88” for this project. As a Raiders fan, my first impulse was to delve into our lore. I didn’t have to delve long because this play leapt out at me almost instantly. Compelling enough is the drama of a DB overcoming his greatest weakness as a player, with the stakes so incredibly high, to make a game-winning interception. But this game took place in weather conditions that rendered both offenses inept for the most part. If extra points and snaps were blown by sure-handed players, was Mike Davis really going to get that ball, or would it understandably clank off his Popsicle fingers?
So yeah, I had to go there, Cleveland. Your drought is over and while the 2016 Raiders have a much better shot at the Super Bowl than the Browns, we silver-and-black backers are still thinking about the Tuck Rule and Tampa Bay knowing our plays. I’m hoping that the team will soon shove those low lights farther down the Raiders’ list of notable moments in the 21st Century.
[Editor’s Note: I was watching this game as an 11-year-old from my new home in Atlanta. I didn’t like Atlanta and this play involving two of my favorite Browns convinced me that I had somehow cursed the team because I left the city.]