Round Two: A painful anniversary for Cleveland fans

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I’m writing this on the 43-year anniversary of one of the NFL’s most famous playoff games — and maybe the most infamous game in the long and often painful history of the Cleveland Browns.

Jan. 4, 1981. Oakland Raiders at Cleveland Browns in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. A frigid game-time temperature of 4 degrees at kickoff in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the coldest NFL game since 1967.

Of course, I’m talking about the game known since that day as “Red Right 88” — the name of the game’s decisive play. It began with great hope when Browns quarterback Brian Sipe dropped back to pass on second down from the Oakland 13-yard line with 49 seconds left in the game and the Browns trailing 14-12. But it ended in horror when Sipe’s wobbly pass into the teeth of the icy wind blowing off of Lake Erie fluttered away from tight end Ozzie Newsome in the back of the end zone and into the arms of Raiders safety Mike Davis.

And just like that, the 1980 season of dreams for the team forever known as the Kardiac Kids was over. A season that had featured one heart-pounding finish after another as the Browns, who hadn’t made the playoffs since 1972, captured the hearts and imagination of their blue-collar fan base by winning games in blue-collar fashion: with tenacity and determination. Long-suffering Cleveland fans had their sights set on a “Siper Bowl” for their beloved Browns.

So it’s fitting that I write this column on the anniversary of that storied game. Because as we sit here today, the 2023 Cleveland Browns are 11-5 — identical to the final regular season record of the 1980 Browns — and are headed to the playoffs, winning games in much the same way as that iconic Cleveland team of 43 years ago. These Browns, like those Browns, are resilient. These Browns, like those Browns, have learned how to win. These Browns, like those Browns, truly believe they can beat anyone, anywhere, and they have victories over the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers and AFC-leading Baltimore Ravens — in Baltimore — to prove it.

And most of all, these Browns have Joe Flacco, whose quarterbacking style is eerily similar to Sipe’s. Flacco is bigger and has a stronger arm, but otherwise their games mirror one another: fearless in the pocket, accurate under pressure, an innate sense of when to evade the rush, the ability to buy time while receivers work their way open downfield, a confidence bordering on cockiness to throw into coverage and trust their receiver to make the play, the mental toughness and professionalism to put mistakes behind them quickly and come back stronger the next drive. They are not slice-and-dice QBs like Joe Montana and Tom Brady; rather, instincts and ad-libbing describe Flacco and Sipe.

Sipe was the surfer kid from southern California who gradually earned the respect of blue-collar Northeast Ohioans with his mental and physical toughness and never-say-die attitude. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1980 and led the Browns to the AFC Central Division title that year, but Browns fans respected him every bit as much for his fortitude and unflappable demeanor as they did for his daring exploits on the field.

Flacco is the 38-year-old who already had his career — which includes a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP award — and certainly didn’t need to ride to the rescue in Cleveland after starting quarterback Deshaun Watson was lost for the season in November with a shoulder injury to cement his status as a future Hall of Famer. But Flacco signed with the Browns on Nov. 20 after spending the first 11 weeks of the 2023 season doing what a lot of us do on Sunday afternoons — sitting on the couch watching football — and has been getting his Brian Sipe on ever since, capturing the hearts and imagination of Browns fans with his gutsy play and iron will to win.

In an earlier Round 2, I wrote how this Browns season was shaping up like the 1988 campaign. That’s when a season-long revolving door of injured quarterbacks somehow resulted in a Wild Card berth, culminating with Don Strock — at age 38 and out of football (sound familiar?) — walking off the golf course in South Florida and into dark, dank Cleveland Stadium late in the season to help secure an unlikely playoff berth for the Browns.

So 2023 is what you get when you add 1980 and 1988: The 2023 Browns are winning in 1980 style under 1988 circumstances. Both of those teams lost their first playoff game in gut-wrenching fashion at home — that 14-12 loss to the Raiders three days after New Year’s 1981, and a 24-23 setback to the Houston Oilers on Christmas Eve 1988.

What becomes of the 2023 Browns in the playoffs remains to be seen. But regardless of what happens, what they’ve accomplished this season is nothing short of remarkable. If Kevin Stefanski isn’t voted the NFL’s Coach of the Year, something’s wrong. And I don’t know what the criteria is for Comeback Player of the Year, but Flacco should at least be under consideration. Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin will likely win that award and rightly so, considering he survived cardiac arrest on the field, but Flacco should receive votes. What he’s doing at age 38 after being out of football all season is becoming the stuff of Cleveland legend right in front of our eyes. Flacco, somehow, has turned back the clock 10 years and is playing like a quarterback still in his prime.

After the season finale at Cincinnati, the playoffs are next for these Browns. Unlike their 1980 and ’88 predecessors, will they win a postseason game? Will they finally reach their first Super Bowl? With a rejuvenated Flacco and the NFL’s best defense, can they actually win it all?

We’ll find out shortly. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. These Browns have already accomplished what their 1980 and 1988 counterparts accomplished: They have played — and won — in a fashion that mirrors the grit and work ethic of the city and the region. They have fought the good fight, injected an enthusiasm into Northeast Ohio like only an exciting, successful Browns season can, and have yet to write the final chapter on this instant classic of a 2023 campaign.

I can still remember sitting in my grandparents’ house in Brimfield on Jan. 4, 1981, watching wide-eyed as the ball left Brian Sipe’s right hand on that fateful pass against the Raiders. I was in seventh grade, 12 years old, and I was poised to leap across the living room floor in elation the moment the ball landed in the hands of a Browns receiver in the end zone. I expected it; all Browns fans did, because that’s the way it was all season: The Browns were supposed to win at the end.

I could feel my heart sink when the ball floated into the hands of Mike Davis, who was wearing white, silver and black, not orange and brown. It was palpable; my heart actually felt like it was sinking lower in my body. It took awhile for me to even muster a coherent thought. It was surreal. I cringe to this day when I see that play on highlights.

But that’s not the first thing I think of when I think back to those 1980 Browns. Over the years and decades, they’ve come to represent something larger: Hope. Those Browns gave an entire region hope at a time when it was in short supply for a whole host of reasons; we rallied around them, we learned from them, we lived with them, and, ultimately, died with them.

But we loved them.

Red Right 88 didn’t change any of that, and it never will.

And neither will whatever fate awaits these 2023 Browns. Whatever happens, they have given us hope. They have won games they shouldn’t have won. They have made the playoffs with a patchwork of players that is football’s answer to Frankenstein’s monster. And they’ve done it behind the golden arm of a formerly washed-up quarterback who has turned Cleveland Browns Stadium into the Fountain of Youth.

Yes, a Super Bowl can define a season. But it can’t define a team. That comes down to character, and the 2023 Browns don’t need to win another game to prove theirs.

+ posts

Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.