I had just turned 11 years old that November of 1980. The Cleveland Browns that season were an offensive juggernaut under quarterback Brian Sipe who was the NFL’s MVP that season, throwing for over 4000 yards and 30 touchdowns. The Browns had several offensive weapons including WR Dave Logan, TE Ozzie Newsome and RB Greg Pruitt. They also had a solid defense with players like DE Lyle Alzado, DB Ron Bolton and DB Clinton Burrell. The Browns were known that season as The Kardiac Kids because the team had numerous games in which they won in heroic late-game fashion. They finished the regular season at 11-5 and were primed to go to the Super Bowl after a decade’s drought of not even getting to the playoffs.
The Oakland Raiders were coming to Cleveland now in the dead of winter to play a ballgame against the Browns in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game. The day was January 4, 1981. It was zero degrees outside with a brisk wind coming off frozen Lake Erie. The old Municipal Stadium field was also a solid sheet of ice! The game didn’t end the way all Browns fans had hoped with a crushing loss to the Raiders, 14-12. But the game is remembered today, nearly 40 years later, for the specific name of the final offensive snap for the Browns on that bone-chilling afternoon. Red Right 88 was the play call and for Browns fans of my generation and beyond it was the most memorable and heartbreaking Browns loss to date.
Red Right 88 was the first in the series of plays that have occurred in years since that still live in Clevelanders’ minds and souls that bleed brown and orange. The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot all have their place in this unique and heart-wrenching club. But the club started with Red Right 88.
Leading into the playoff game against the Raiders, the city of Cleveland and Northeastern Ohio fans of the Browns were electrified and ready go crazy with a trip to the Super Bowl in sight. That year, the Browns even had an immensely popular song created pre-holidays called, “The 12 Days of a Cleveland Browns Christmas” and it was played on all the local radio stations all the time. So, from Thanksgiving to the actual game played in January, Browns fans listened to this catchy tune.
How could the Browns not go to the Super Bowl?
This was the age before Twitter, Facebook and the dozens of social media platforms we are absorbed with today. If the current Browns ever got close to a Super Bowl, I can’t even comprehend how crazy this area would be.
Back then, for an 11-year-old kid, it was the most exciting moment in time! And Browns were going to the Super Bowl. How could they be stopped? The Oakland Raiders were traveling all the way from California. They were a warm-weather team and Cleveland was not. But on this historic day, the weather did even out the teams. The field at The Stadium was a solid block of ice. Wearing cleats for the players was useless with no ability to get traction. Many players from both teams wore the shoes they’d wear on the old AstroTurf that was popular back then.
Both the Browns and Raiders struggled mightily. When Cleveland scored first on Browns defensive back Ron Bolton’s Pick 6 in the 2nd quarter, the frozen fans at the stadium had their thoughts set on San Diego. If the Browns had won the game, they would have traveled to sunny California for the AFC Championship game to play San Diego. That sunny forecast though turned cloudy pretty quickly. Browns kicker Don Cockroft, who had a good career in Cleveland, was on his last leg closing in on retirement. So, when Cockroft missed the extra point after the Browns’ lone touchdown on the day, it raised a few frozen eyebrows in worry. Soon after, the Raiders would come back right before halftime and score a touchdown taking a 7-6 lead.
The Browns offense was able to move the ball in the 3rd quarter but were settling for field goals as Cockroft did connect on two of them, but he also missed two more. The Browns got the lead back at 12-7 with the made field goals.
The Raiders were able to capture the lead back again midway through the 4th quarter with a touchdown, 14-12. When the Browns took over with six minutes left in the game it looked like Sipe and his supporting cast were going to start driving toward the endzone again. They started to move the ball again, but then Sipe fumbled trying to extend a play and the Raiders recovered with four minutes to go at midfield. the Browns hopes seamed slim and this 11-year-old kid was starting to get pretty anxious!
But the Browns defense stepped up big time with just over two minutes left, stopping the Raiders dead in their frozen tracks on a 4th and inches play from the Browns 14 yard line. The Raiders could have also attempted a field goal, but then Raiders coach Tom Flores wanted to secure the win with a solid run for the 1st down. That didn’t happen and The Stadium went crazy!! The Browns were famous that year for comeback wins. They had 14 of them between 1979 and 1980.
Why not one more?
Sipe and the Browns started the comeback. There was a big completion to Hall of Famer TE Ozzie Newsome to the Browns 43 yard line. Newsome nearly broke the desperate ankle tackle by the Raiders for a touchdown. But the Browns endzone celebration would have to wait for a few more plays. When Sipe threw his 39th pass that afternoon, a completion to running back Greg Pruitt down to the 28-yard line with just over a minute and running back Mike Pruitt scampered 14 yards on a draw play down to the 14-yard line. Browns fans across the world were all preparing to celebrate a victory being one step closer to that elusive Super Bowl.
Browns coach Sam Rutigliano called another run play for a gain of a yard. Another time out was called with 49 seconds. At this point, most watching the game thought the Browns would bring out the aging Don Cockroft to kick the winning field goal. But the Browns and Rutigliano were concerned about Cockroft’s kicking miscues that day, the frozen field conditions and the wind off Lake Erie. So Rutigliano recounted saying to Sipe in the huddle along the sidelines during the timeout, “ …Throw it into Lake Erie…” if it weren’t there.
Red Right 88 was designed to be a throw to Browns receiver Dave Logan. Logan had a history of late game-winners, especially against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome was the next option, or the third option on the play was to throw it away and bring Cockroft out to kick the game-winning 30-yard kick. As Sipe started the play Logan broke open but Sipe was seeing what the defense was giving him and because of that, saw Newsome break open for a split second, not seeing Logan clearing to the endzone too. Sipe threw it down toward Newsome breaking toward the back of the endzone. Unfortunately, Raiders safety Mike Davis stepped in front of Newsome at the last second and intercepted the potential game-winner for the Browns.
The fans at Municipal Stadium were stunned. This 11-year-old boy was devastated! It was for so many too much to comprehend! All we needed was a field goal! Why throw the ball one last time? Why didn’t Sipe see Logan open on the shallow crossing route? And how did Raiders player Mike Davis hold onto that interception when the ball stung like a bee when it hit the players’ hands because it was so cold? Anytime I watch that game on replay I still think Mike Davis is going to drop the pick! It will forever be a memory in my mind.
When the Raiders line up against the Browns this Sunday, almost 40 years later, let’s remember where this series really got its start – on a very frigid January day off Lake Erie on the frozen tundra of Municipal Stadium. And if Baker Mayfield has a chance to throw a touchdown at the Dawg Pound end of the stadium this Sunday let’s hope he throws it into Lake Erie if Jarvis Landry is covered up.