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It's almost as if destiny has brought together the elements that have turned the Browns into one of the NFL's best teams. First Sipe, then Rutigliano, then the rule changes that allowed the passing game to open up. In 1972 Cleveland drafted Sipe, a pass-happy product of Don Coryell's air circuses at San Diego State, on the 13th round. He languished on the taxi squad for two years, watching Mike Phipps play quarterback.
"In my early years here, I played under five offensive coordinators," Sipe says. "I felt like an Indianapolis driver stuck on a dirt track. I always felt there was a different way to play football than the way we played it."
Then, on Christmas Eve 1977, Cleveland owner Art Modell hired himself a new coach—Rutigliano. "He called me, person-to-person, in Louisiana," Rutigliano says. "I was an assistant under Hank Stram with the Saints then. My wife answered the phone, and the operator said, 'I have a person-to-person call for the coach of the Cleveland Browns.' When my wife handed me the phone she was crying."
"I'd known Sam when I was in New England and he was an assistant there," says Ron Bolton, the Browns' left cornerback. "He had a reputation as a players' coach, a guy you could talk to. His first year with the Browns, after he'd picked his final 45, Sam said, 'This is my team. I believe in each and everyone of you.' "
"Sam called me in and told me I was going to be his quarterback," Sipe says. "He said we were going to throw the ball and throw it on first down and from anywhere on the field. He said I'd call all the plays, unless I showed I couldn't handle it. He told me what I wanted to hear, but there's a bit of an actor in Sam, and I got the feeling he told everybody what they wanted to hear. I didn't really believe him until I got on the practice field and started running that offense of his. He was for real."
A few of Rutigliano's concepts are unorthodox. He doesn't believe in a three-wide-receiver offense on obvious passing downs. He drafted Newsome in 1978 because he wanted a tight end who wouldn't have to come out for a third wide man; he wanted someone who could play inside or out on the flank "so we don't have to make a substitution, so we can run a no-huddle series and keep the defense from getting its nickel-back on the field."
When the Browns draft offensive linemen now, they measure arm length. Rutigliano wants the apple pickers, guys who can keep the rushers at bay with full arm extension, so convenient under the new rules. Pittsburgh Defensive End L.C. Greenwood said that Cody Risien, Cleveland's 6'7" tackle, spent one whole afternoon with his fists in Greenwood's face. Against the Jets, Risien got flagged for a rare "Fists in the face" penalty.
The Browns haven't been built in the ideal way. Too many of their recent high draft picks haven't paid off, but three vets they've brought in—Alzado, Calvin Hill and Joe DeLamielleure—have done well. Three no-nonsense guys, show-me types. They're all believers now.
Hill says that in all his years in the NFL, in Dallas and Washington, he never really understood the concepts of the passing game. Then he got to Cleveland. Alzado, the old pro from Denver, says, "If you can't get along with Sam, then you'd better look in the mirror, because it's you, not him." DeLamielleure, the right guard acquired from Buffalo in September, says that "playing for Sam will extend my career three or four years. I've never felt so good, physically, at this stage of the season."
In a way, Cleveland is a paradox: modern philosophy in an old-world setting. The Browns aren't a high-paying club—witness the $94,000 defensive line—but that will probably change as their level of success continues to rise. And Cleveland is hardly one of the NFL's garden spots, as Sipe noted when he first arrived from his native San Diego.