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They struggle. They make dull games exciting. Why? Well, no one has quite figured out the Cleveland Browns, but whatever else they may be, the Browns are also 10 and 4 and sitting alone at the top of the AFC Central following their squeaky 17-14 victory over the New York Jets last Sunday. Not a bad record for a team picked to finish third at best in a division that has been the property of Pittsburgh and Houston the last few years. Now the Oilers trail the Browns by a game, with only two to play in the regular season, and the Steelers are practically dead as a result of their 6-0 loss to Houston Thursday night in the Astrodome.
The Jets, the 3-11 Jets, are the kind of tasty morsel to fatten up on if you've got the old Super Bowl Fever. And with the third quarter more than half gone, Cleveland was up 10-0 and winging. But these are the Browns, folks, and they kept 78,454 people in their Municipal Stadium seats until the very end. As usual.
Eight minutes were all it took for Cleveland to blow the lead, the Jets going ahead 14-10. New York Quarterback Richard Todd was doing a number on a three-man defensive line whose salaries total $94,000. The left end, Marshall Harris, was a commercial artist in 1979 after walking out of the Jets' camp. The middle guard, Henry Bradley, drove a truck in Cleveland last year after the Browns cut him. The right end, Elvis Franks, is a rookie, a fifth-round draft. Their salaries, from left to right: $30,000, $32,000 and $32,000. The Blue Plate Special.
"I stood on the sidelines watching Todd eating us up, and I was dying," said Lyle Alzado, Cleveland's regular right defensive end, who had pulled a hamstring late in the first half.
But the Browns are actually two teams. There's the defense, which battles and scrambles and plays with great emotional intensity—but gives up yards, enough yards to make even the put-away games close. And there's the offense. Ah, now you've got something. Brian Sipe at quarterback, the two Pruitts, Mike and Greg, at running back and as sophisticated a passing game as there is in the NFL, with Ozzie Newsome, Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan among the receivers.
When the Browns took the field in the fourth quarter Sunday, they were staring at that 14-10 deficit and knew they had a chance to blow everything—division title, wild card, the works. Sipe needed only six plays to take them 68 yards into the end zone. And when the defense came back out, Alzado limped off the bench to join it. Actually, Alzado had put himself into the game on the last play of Cleveland's previous defensive series, when a five-yard Todd-to-Mickey Shuler touchdown pass lifted New York into the lead. Now it was time to button up for the final push, and there was no way Alzado was going to miss it.
"Lyle snuck out there when we weren't looking," said Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano. "The doctor told me not to use him. There was a chance he could've torn the muscle and been lost for six weeks, but he went in on his own. It goes to show you how much respect I've got around here."
"The first time I tried to go in, Marty Schottenheimer, our defensive coordinator, grabbed me and said, 'I'll tell you when,' " said Alzado. "So I went down to the other end of the bench and waited till Marty's head was turned, till he was talking to Dave Adolph, the defensive line coach, and I slipped on in."
"Are you going to fine him?" Rutigliano was asked.
"Yeah, I'll fine him one chin strap," he said. "You punish felonies, not misdemeanors."