The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns have been playing these Blue Collar Bowls for almost 30 years now, but there had never been one that went into overtime, and there certainly had never been one where somebody diagrammed the winning play with a stick on artificial turf. Obviously, that must have been what happened, because the Steelers beat the Browns 15-9 last Sunday before 50,000 hard hats in Three Rivers Stadium when Terry Bradshaw handed the football off to Rocky Bleier, who handed it off to Lynn Swann, who pitched it back to Bradshaw, who then hurled it some 40,000 yards in the air to Bennie Cunningham for a touchdown. Elapsed time on the vacant-lot play: about a day and a half, breaking the record set by Amos Alonzo Stagg.
In truth, nobody deserved to win the game by 15-9, or any other score, except possibly the officials. They had a wonderful afternoon throwing their flags and making their "judgment calls" on all of the midair collisions which mark this rivalry. Early in the day, the predictable holding call erased a Cleveland touchdown. And very late in the day, like on the overtime kickoff, a bad call likely cost the nervy and gutsy Browns a victory.
Moving right along past all of the field goals—three apiece by Pittsburgh's Roy Gerela and Cleveland's Don Cockroft—that brought about the 9-9 tie at the end of regulation play, we take you now to that overtime kickoff going into the arms of the Steelers' Larry Anderson at the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. Along about his own 21-yard line, Anderson slips down all by himself, and then he gets up and continues running for three more yards. Whereupon Anderson is tackled and fumbles the ball into the grateful arms of Cleveland's Ricky Feacher on about the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. Cleveland's ball, right? For, as the rules say, a man is not down if he stumbles or slips on his own, as Anderson clearly did, until he is touched by an opponent. He can get up and run, as Anderson did.
Well, the officials ruled that Anderson was down at the 21-yard line, even though he had not been touched by a Cleveland player. So the Steelers retained possession, and nine plays and 3:43 later, Bradshaw threw his 37-yard touchdown bomb to Cunningham, which meant that once again the Steelers had prevented the Browns from winning their first game ever in Three Rivers. Thus, the Steelers are 4-0 in the AFC Central, and, with a schedule that is not altogether fierce, they already have the look of a playoff team even if they don't strike you as being as efficient as those Pittsburgh outfits that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1975 and 1976.
One of the reasons the Steelers did not appear particularly magnificent probably was Cleveland, which lost for the first time after beating San Francisco, Cincinnati and Atlanta the first three weeks of the season. The Browns are mainly a no-name bunch, but they have verve and they are physical. They might easily have won the game against the Steelers, too, because they led by 9-3 with only a quarter to go. By then Quarterback Brian Sipe had been denied not one, but two touchdown passes on penalties, and a couple of other sure sixes had been dropped. There was not much to say for Cleveland's running game, but Greg Pruitt was injured and did not play, and Cleveland without Greg Pruitt is a little bit like Mother Nature without lightning.
It is tempting to say that even in defeat Cleveland was more surprising—and perhaps more impressive—than the Steelers, for the simple reason that the Browns were expected to be swept out of the stadium and onto a water taxi cruising the Allegheny. This did not come close to happening. If anything, it was Pittsburgh that was close to prayers as the game wore on. The fact is, Cleveland is off to a fine start under new Coach Sam Rutigliano, a capable and likable chap who has the wit, charm and apparent know-how to become a star in the X-and-O fraternity after waiting half a lifetime for the opportunity.
Rutigliano and Sipe are hardly what you would call marketable names in the NFL. But Rutigliano gives Sipe confidence, and his blockers give him time to throw, and the Cleveland play selection—from wherever it comes—has many elements of surprise.
In appearance, Rutigliano is sort of a road company Ara Parseghian. He is a fellow of such taste that he has dressed up his coaching staff in chocolate slacks, beige sweaters and white shoes, ensembles that made them look as if they were headed for the first tee at Oakmont Sunday instead of the stadium. This says nothing of Rutigliano's humor, but it does speak of the relaxed atmosphere he has brought to the Browns, which Sipe maintains is partly responsible for their success so far.
Rutigliano humor goes like this:
"I don't have bed checks. Why get caught up in the color of doorknobs?"