The Cleveland Browns have had their share of heartbreak in their long and storied history.
No fan will forget “The Fumble,” “The Drive,” or the 22 point, fourth-quarter comeback win by the Steelers in the 2002 Wild Card playoff round.
Even more heartbreaking, the team has not returned to the postseason since 2002.
There is one other game that left Browns fans dejected, forlorn, and downright crushed.
This game in particular occurred a few years before any of the previously mentioned games.
I am, of course, referring to the January 4, 1981 Divisional Playoff game against the Oakland Raiders.
The “Red Right 88” contest between the Browns and Raiders (which is nearing its 40th anniversary) was soul crushing because of how close the Kardiac Kids were to advancing to the Super Bowl.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 17, 2017
It sticks in the craw of many a Browns fan due to the way Cleveland lost the game.
Too many mistakes and missed opportunities were the downfall of this entertaining bunch of misfits and castoffs.
This is the story of Red Right 88.
The 1980 Season
The impetus of the Kardiac Kids (and thus Red Right 88) began during the 1979 season.
Fresh off an 8-8 1978 season, the Browns hoped to improve the following year.
What transpired was unexpected.
At least a dozen games were decided by a touchdown or less.
After their first unexpected win, the name “Kardiac Kids” was born when a patient died in a Cleveland hospital watching the Browns come back to beat the Jets.
Cleveland won a majority of these games and the team improved to 9-7.
However, it wasn’t enough to get into the postseason.
Now emboldened by their magic in 1979, the Browns were anticipating an even better year.
— David Maier (@Dutchmaier17) August 8, 2018
And then the season began.
Two losses to begin 1980 did not portend great things ahead.
The team quickly got their act together and reeled off an 11-3 record the rest of the way.
No less than nine of their victories were, again, decided by seven points or less.
With their 11-5 record and a first-place finish in the division, the Kardiac Kids were finally back in the postseason after an eight-year absence.
As they sat home during Wild Card weekend, the Browns watched to see who they would play first.
Many miles away in California, the Oakland Raiders were dismantling the Houston Oilers 27-7.
Although the Raiders also finished the season 11-5, they were second in their division and would be traveling to Cleveland.
As game time loomed on January 4, 1981, the temperature was a less-than-balmy 4 degrees.
This made it the coldest playoff game in the NFL since the infamous “Ice Bowl” between Green Bay and Dallas in 1967.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 4, 2020
The field conditions were terrible, with many players commenting that the turf was like a sheet of ice.
“Those were probably the most difficult conditions I ever played in,” running back Mike Pruitt recalled. “It was super cold. Everybody knew that. You couldn’t wear cleats because the ground was frozen solid. We had to wear shoes with a rubber spongy bottom. You couldn’t stop and cut because you couldn’t get any traction. You couldn’t stop and turn because you’d slip and fall. The field couldn’t have been worse. Trying to throw the ball, trying to catch the ball — as soon as you took your gloves off your hands would freeze. Your hands were just about numb. I remember coming off the field to get some water and the water was ice.”
As the players tried to get used to the terrible footing (as well as attempting not to freeze to death), the first quarter ended with the score 0-0.
Early in the second quarter, Cockroft attempted a 47-yard field goal but missed.
He then missed a 30 yarder a few minutes later after an Oakland turnover.
The Browns finally got on the board with about six minutes left when defensive back Ron Bolton picked off Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett.
Bolton corralled the wayward pass and carefully ran 42 years for a pick-six.
Cockroft’s PAT attempt was blocked by Oakland’s Ted Hendricks and the Browns had a 6-0 lead.
Just before halftime, the Raiders Mark van Eeghen crashed in from the one-yard line and the extra point was good.
Oakland led at the half 7-6.
Cockroft redeemed himself not long after the second half began.
After taking the opening kickoff, the Browns drove down the field until the drive stalled.
Cockroft lined up for a 30-yard field goal and this time it was true.
— AFL GODFATHER (@NFLMAVERICK) January 4, 2017
On their next possession, Cleveland marched downfield again and once again had to settle for a field goal.
Unfortunately, the ball slipped through holder Paul McDonald’s hands and the drive ended with no points.
“That was one of the problems,” said left tackle Doug Dieken years later. “McDonald was wearing gloves. I don’t think he ever practiced with gloves on. For the amount of time he was on the field, you’d think he’d be able to just take them off and stuff them in his pants and try to catch the ball bare-handed where you’d have the natural feel, but he didn’t.”
Thankfully, near the end of the third quarter Cockroft made another 30 yarder and the Cleveland lead was 12-7.
The Raiders answered a short time later when van Eeghan picked up his second touchdown of the game on a one yard run.
The extra point was good and Oakland now led 14-12.
A few series later, Oakland had a chance to ice (pun intended) the game when they found themselves on the Cleveland one yard line.
However, van Eeghen was stuffed on consecutive downs and the Browns took over.
Red Right 88
It turns out Oakland coach Tom Flores planned for what would happen next.
Before the game began, he observed the cold and the wind at the stadium and made a mental note.
If given the chance, he would choose to have the Browns offense march toward the open end of Cleveland Stadium in the fourth quarter.
That way, they would have to contend with the bitter winds blowing in off Lake Eerie.
“I thought,” Flores said nearly four decades later, “it might be a factor.”
Flores was correct.
The Raiders won the opening coin flip and Flores chose which end Oakland would defend in the second half.
However, the Browns, with 2:22 remaining, had faith and began their march toward immortality.
“I wouldn’t feel too good if I was an Oakland Raider right now,” offered John Brodie on the NBC telecast.
“They are ready for another Cleveland Brown finish,” added his broadcast partner, Don Criqui, the noise of the crowd in the background swelling. “Fasten all seat belts. The Kardiac Kids, they call them. They will give you those heart palpitations.”
On second down, Sipe found Newsome for a 29 yard gain.
Four plays later, Sipe found Greg Pruitt for 23 yards.
Mike Pruitt added 14 yards on a run play, then added another one-yard run.
The Browns found themselves at the Oakland 13 yard line with 49 seconds left. Then, they called a timeout.
It would have made sense to have Cockroft attempt the short field goal for the win, but he had already missed two attempts and the PAT was bungled.
Also, Flores’ gamble paid off. The Browns took note of the 21 miles per hour wind blowing toward them and thought better of it.
“I was looking over at their sideline, and I saw the exchange,” Raiders safety Mike Davis said in 2014. “I told Ted Hendricks, ‘Teddy, look, they’re not going to kick the field goal; they’re going to run a play.’ He told me I was crazy, so I told him to look again, and Cockroft was still wearing his jacket.”
In 2006, Cockroft explained why he wasn’t the first choice in that situation.
“What many people don’t know about that situation is that I was a long way from being 100 percent physically in 1980,” Cockroft said in 2006. “I had two herniated discs and needed four epidurals to just get through the season. I probably should have gone on IR.”
On the sideline, head Coach Sam Rutigliano met with Sipe and made the call. “Red slot right, halfback stay, 88.”
“His last words to me were, ‘Just don’t get sacked,” Sipe said after the game.
As the Browns got into formation, Oakland safety Mike Davis saw how the Browns were lined up and recognized the formation from three other occasions during the game.
He was confident in his ability to stop what would happen next.
“I didn’t feel the cold anymore,” Davis said. “I didn’t worry about it anymore. The sounds became more focused and sharper; the colors of the uniforms, they were more vivid. Man coverage, and Ozzie was my man. I just thought, ‘Bring it to me, because I’m not going to let you have it.’ I knew I had free safety help.”
After the snap, Sipe dropped back and looked for intended receiver Dave Logan.
Seeing Logan covered, he spied Newsome breaking for the end zone.
“The play was designed to go to [Dave] Logan, but when I saw Burgess Owens pick up Logan, I went to Newsome,” Sipe said at the time. “Our passing game, remember, is based on what the defense does. So when Burgess did what he did, it changed my plan. But I’m not trying to dodge responsibility. Play selection isn’t as important as execution.”
The wild winds whipping in from outside didn’t help matters after Sipe released the ball.
What began as a spiral turned into a duck as the wind took Sipe’s throw and made the ball wobble and float slightly.
“As the play unfolded, I could hear feet hitting the ground, and I saw Ozzie’s eyes get big, so I knew the ball was in the air and I took a peak in,” Davis said. “I broke on it. When the ball first came out, it was a spiral, but then the wind hit it and it started to wobble. It still had a little sting on it when it hit me, and I grabbed it. Then, all of a sudden, I saw sparks and stars because I hit my head on the ground. It was quiet. So quiet I could hear myself breathing. I could hear my uniform sliding on the ice. I thought, I must be knocked out because it was like the world had just stopped. Nobody knew what happened because it happened so fast.”
“I remember how loud the stadium was when we were driving down there,” Dieken recalled. “I also remember how quiet it got in a short period of time. It was like somebody just turned the volume down on your TV when you were blasting it so loud the neighbors could hear it three doors down. It was like ‘What the hell just happened?’”
What happened was Davis jumped in front of the pass and broke the hearts of Browns fans everywhere with his interception.
In 1980, Mike Davis picked off a pass in the endzone with 49 sec left to preserve a playoff win against the Browns. Later the Raider's would win SBXV.🏆 @AK7682 @Angelrdz66 @KSJM_12_72 @AmyTrask @NFLMAVERICK @DinoL1313 #Destiny pic.twitter.com/YxIhY7VmEU
— TOOZ#72 (@denniss9117) June 18, 2020
The Kardiac Kids magic had ended with a 14-12 loss.
There would be no more games to play.
To make matters worse, Davis wasn’t known for having the best hands in the world, yet he came up big when it mattered most.
“Could not catch a cold in Alaska barefooted,” the late Gene Upshaw told NFL Films. “He had absolutely the worst hands in that secondary.”
“He did not have the best of hands, and that’s probably why he was playing defense,” Flores laughed. “But the sucker could run, he could hit, he was smart. That was a big play. A million-dollar catch.”
Looking back, it is easy for fans to wonder, ‘What if?’
What if the Browns gave Cockroft the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal?
What would have happened if the team had advanced in the playoffs?
How long would the Kardiac Kids magic have lasted?
What if … the Browns won the Red Right 88 game?
— Stephen Lux (@stephenjlux) May 14, 2020
For Rutigliano, he does not think about such things.
“The one good thing about coaches is they forget about it,” Rutigliano said in a November interview. “If I had to do it over again, I would have done the same thing.”