Wait a minute, now. Let's get a grip on this thing. Rutigliano did learn his football on the sandlots of Brooklyn, but this isn't P.S. 187. It's the NFL, the big banana. Discipline, pride and poise, defense, computers. Coaches don't talk that way. Quarterbacks don't kill the clock by throwing passes, as Sipe did against the Jets. And the team with the AFC's second-worst defense, statistically, shouldn't be tied for its best record.
What are these Browns, anyway? For one thing, they're a breath of fresh air—a refutation of all the clichés. And they're still capable of blowing it all. This Sunday they go to Bloomington to play the Vikings, a team that has murdered Cleveland four of the five times they've met, a team Cleveland has never beaten on the road. The following week the Browns are in Cincinnati. The Bengals have won six of the last seven against Cleveland in Riverfront, including last year's 16-12 game that knocked the Browns out of the playoffs. One thing is certain: whatever happens, it will happen the hard way. Cleveland never makes things comfortable.
Last year 12 of the Browns' 16 games were in doubt up until the final moments. This year: 10 of 14. A terrific come-from-behind quarterback, coupled with a not-so-terrific defense, will do that for you. Tampa Bay had them on the ropes, but the clock ran out before the Bucs could catch up. Another time Cleveland had Baltimore put away—when the Colts got 14 points at the end and lost by a point. Cleveland scored two touchdowns in the last quarter to beat Pittsburgh by a point and then lost to the Steelers on a touchdown with 11 seconds to play. Two weeks ago the Oilers shoved the Browns all over the field in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland made its three-point lead stand up when the last three Houston drives ended in a missed field goal, a fumble and an interception. The Browns blew a 10-point lead to Green Bay and needed a 46-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left to bail themselves out. That was the game in which Cleveland could've gone up 17-0, or at least 13-0, at the end of the first half, but when the Browns got down to the four-yard line they threw three straight passes and ultimately came away with nothing. When a Cleveland writer took Rutigliano to task for eschewing the ground game so close to the goal line, Rutigliano said, "Fasten your seat belt. I like to throw from there, and I'll go for it on fourth down, too—from anywhere on the field."
So it was that Cleveland went for it on fourth-and-18 on the Jets' 37 in the third quarter Sunday while holding a 10-7 lead. Johnny Evans, the punter, came up to the line to take the snap and handed off to Wide Receiver Willis Adams on a reverse. Damn near made it, too. The play gained 15.
Why do it, Sam? "Because I hadn't done it for three or four weeks," Rutigliano said, relishing the moment.
And what about the end of the game? The Browns, leading 17-14, took over on their eight-yard line with 5:04 left. On the first play Sipe passes for nine yards. He passes on the fourth, sixth and eighth plays, too. And they're all completions. Three quarterback fall-downs and tweet, the final whistle. Yes, sweet victory, but also time for a little head scratching.
Ah, now we're into something. Philosophy. Faith in your people.
"The biggest mistake coaches make is saying, 'We're going to establish the run' or 'establish the pass,' " Rutigliano said. "You try to establish first downs. You keep the ball moving. And the clock. You do it in the most intelligent way you can."
In Sipe, Rutigliano has the perfect man to execute that philosophy. Daring, yes, but always operating from a very high plane of intelligence; he has the lowest interception rate of any quarterback in the NFL. Sipe is not imposing-looking as NFL specimens go: a shade over 6 feet, slim build, almost frail-looking. Quiet, thoughtful, but with inner fires that have made him the league's ultimate come-from-behind quarterback.
"You know, four or five years ago I'd have been very nervous in a situation like the one at the end today," he said. "I wasn't a very good quarterback then. Oh, I thought I was at the time, but everything's so different now. It's a matter of the confidence you feel when you move away from the center on a pass play."