Nothing Ever Comes Easy For Browns, Their Fans
Red Right 88.
Cleveland Browns have seen it all over the years.
On Sunday — presumably — they’ll see something they haven’t in the better part of two decades. A playoff game.
It hasn’t always been bad for the Browns and their fans.
During the 1950s, Cleveland won three National Football League championships and the franchise won another in 1964 on the back of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.
Those were the years when many longtime Browns fans became followers of the team and many share the same story.
Most either had a family member in the Cleveland area or began following the team because its games were on TV a majority of Sundays.
“The Browns were always on. Those were the days of Jim Brown and Frank Ryan,” retired Jamestown Public Schools teacher J. Paul Lombardo said Wednesday afternoon. “We’d watch the game and then go outside with a couple of buddies at a local playground. … We’d take turns being Brown or Paul Warfield. … We’ve carried it on generation after generation.”
But the franchise’s fortunes began to turn in the 1970s. From 1973-78, the Browns went just 37-47-2, missing the postseason every year.
But in 1979, behind second-year head coach Sam Rutigliano and quarterback Brian Sipe, the Browns finished 9-7. That turned out to be a precursor to the 1980 season when Cleveland went 11-5 to win its division.
Then came Red Right 88.
“Whenever I hear ‘Red Right 88’ my stomach turns,” Lombardo said.
The Oakland Raiders took a 14-12 lead early in the fourth quarter before the Browns eventually drove to the Raiders’ 14-yard line. After a 1-yard run, Rutigliano called a timeout with 49 seconds left and Cleveland sitting at the 13-yard line. On second down, Rutigliano called a pass play, “Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay 88,” and famously instructed Sipe to “throw it into Lake Erie” if the play was anything less than wide open.
Instead, Sipe forced the throw to a covered Ozzie Newsome and it was intercepted, ending the Browns’ chances.
As bad as Red Right 88 was, the depressing moments were just beginning for Cleveland and its fans.
After a double-overtime win over the New York Jets in the divisional playoffs following the 1986 season, the Browns suffered another mind-numbing loss — this time in the AFC Championship game.
This one became known as The Drive. The Browns scored a touchdown on a Brian Brennan 48-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar with under five minutes left in regulation. After a successful PAT, the Denver Broncos muffed the ensuing kickoff and took over at their own 2-yard line with 5:32 to play. That’s when John Elway took over. He completed three passes for 39 yards and ran for another 11 yards to set the Broncos up with a first-and-10 from the Browns’ 40-yard line at the two-minute warning.
“I grew up in Dunkirk and I’ve been a Browns fan my entire life,” Jerry Reilly, SUNY Fredonia’s sports information director, said Wednesday night. “I used to be a season ticket holder. I was there for Red Right 88 when Sipe should’ve thrown it in the lake and I was there for The Drive.”
On third-and-18 from the 48-yard line with 1:47 remaining, Elway completed a 20-yard pass to Mark Jackson. Five plays later, after a 9-yard Elway scramble from the 14-yard line, Elway connected with Jackson again for a 5-yard touchdown that tied the game after Rich Karlis’ successful PAT kick with 39 seconds remaining.
Denver went on to win in overtime.
“As Browns fans we’re pretty resilient,” Browns Backers of Jamestown member Frannie Carlson said Wednesday night. “No one can ever say you are a bandwagon fan. … They’ve been horrible, but you stick with them because it’s your team.”
A year later, the unthinkable happened. Denver took a fourth-quarter lead on an Elway-to-Sammy Winder touchdown pass with six minutes remaining. Cleveland then drove the ball to Denver’s 8-yard line with 1:12 remaining. On the next play, Browns running back Earnest Byner took the handoff and moved to the 1-yard line before he was stripped by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille. The Fumble was born.
Following the 1995 season came The Move. After being unable to negotiate a new stadium deal with the city of Cleveland, Browns owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore where they became the Ravens.
“The last game in 1995, I still had season tickets,” said Reilly, formerly the sports editor at the OBSERVER. “They had taken down all the ads and after the game was over, people were removing seats. … We had made some good friends from Lorain, Ohio, who we sat next to for years. … It was kind of sad knowing we wouldn’t do that again for a while.”
Three years later, a reincarnation of the Browns arrived in Cleveland and long-suffering fans returned — often with the same feeling of disappointment.
Despite a playoff loss to Pittsburgh following the 2002 season, the Browns had just one season of double-digit wins and a combined record of 112-239-1. From 2015-17, Cleveland went 4-44, including a 1-15 season in 2016 and a winless 0-16 season in 2017.
“As you get older, you get more mature about it,” Reilly said. “You see it as a common distraction. Even when the Browns were 4-44 over three years, I didn’t miss many of those games. It was three hours in an afternoon to watch the game with your buddies and your kids. … We’d sit there and make fun of the Browns for the entire game. … Every week we’d hope they’d win knowing they probably weren’t going to.”
But now fans are hoping things are turning around. Head coach Kevin Stefanski, quarterback Baker Mayfield and defensive end Myles Garrett have given Cleveland hope.
During the regular season, the Browns went 11-5. Twice they put together four-game winning streaks and following a 20-6 victory over the New York Giants on Dec. 20, they looked like a lock for the playoffs.
“The first game against Baltimore, we faked a punt at our own 20-yard line and we were thinking we had another one of these (bad) coaches,” said Lombardo, who has been the president of the local Browns Backers club for the past several years. “But all of the things we had heard about Stefanski, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. The way he worked with (general manager) Andrew Berry … you could kind of see they were on the same page. … We haven’t had that in forever.”
But nothing is ever easy for the Browns. A loss to the one-win New York Jets two weekends ago made last Sunday’s game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers a near must-win.
Despite the Steelers resting several players, even that became a difficult task for Cleveland.
One that wasn’t locked up until Jamestown High School graduate Stephen Carlson literally sat on an onsides kick with a little over a minute remaining.
“That’s pretty amazing. My brother lives down in Georgia now and he’s a big Browns fan,” said Frannie Carlson, also a retired JPS teacher. “For Christmas, I got him a Stephen Carlson jersey and he thought it was so cool. … It’s neat to have a local kid. It’s exciting when he gets out on the field.”
“When I saw it sitting there between his feet,” Lombardo said, “he went down and made sure he secured it finally. The first thing we yelled when the game was over was ‘Carlson seals victory for the Browns.'”
Now the Browns are battling COVID-19. Just this week, Stefanski, left guard Joel Bitonio and others have either tested positive for the coronavirus or spent time on the COVID-19 reserve list due to contact tracing.
The league says Sunday night’s game — a rematch with the Steelers — is still on, but offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call the plays and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will be the acting head coach.
“We have two great running backs and I think they need to be utilized a little bit more,” Frannie Carlson said. “With Stefanski out and ‘AVP’ calling plays, it’ll be interesting to see.”
Even the most hardcore Browns fans know Sunday’s test will be a difficult one. But again, nothing ever comes easy for the Browns.
“Everything they do is difficult. We’re never comfortable until the final seconds are off the clock,” Frannie Carlson said. “Stupid things happen all the time. I hope the Browns come out loose and just play.”
“Our theme song is Ringo Starr’s ‘It Don’t Come Easy,'” Lombardo said.