The football-crazed city of Cleveland was hungry in 1980—maybe not starving, as is the case today—but the Browns were on a bit of a dry spell. After making the playoffs in 1971-72, Cleveland had been out of the money, while the rival Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in that same timeframe. The 1980 Cleveland Browns returned to the playoffs and in memorable fashion, with a series of exciting wins that gave them the nickname “The Kardiac Kids”.
Sam Rutigliano had taken over as head coach in 1978, and first two seasons ended with records of 8-8 and 9-7, so Cleveland was on the brink of a breakthrough. No player broke through with more force than quarterback Brian Sipe—he threw for over 4,100 yards, tossed 30 touchdown passes and won the MVP award, spreading the ball around to Dave Logan, Reggie Rucker, future Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome and versatile running back Mike Pruitt.
The Browns also had offensive balance. Three Pro Bowlers were on the offensive line, Doug Dieken, Tom DeLeone and new right guard Joe DeLamielleure, a future Hall of Famer. This front five cleared the way for Pruitt to gain over 1,000 yards. The running back also led the team with 63 catches and punched a ticket to the Pro Bowl.
It added up to a team that finished eighth in the NFL in scoring in spite of playing in a division—the old AFC Central—that included the Steelers and the Houston Oilers, the runner-up in the AFC each of the past two years.
The defense was more about a team effort, with only 31-year-old defensive end Lyle Alzado making the Pro Bowl, but they were still pretty good and finished 12th in the NFL. The Browns would be tested quickly, with a road game at New England, where the Patriots had been a consistent winner in the late 1970s and then a Monday Night home date with the Oilers.
Nothing happened in Foxboro on September 7 to suggest a special season. In fact the opposite was suggested—Cleveland only rushed for 48 yards and fell behind 34-3 in the fourth quarter before scoring a couple meaningless touchdowns.
The Browns played better at home for the national audience but again could not run the ball in a 16-7 loss. They were in a quick 0-2 hole in what was the NFL’s toughest division.
Rookie running back Charles White, fresh off a Heisman Trophy season at USC in 1979, stepped up at home against the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs. With the scored tied 13-13, White ran for one touchdown, caught another and came out of the backfield for seven catches in all in a 27-13 win.
Sipe had his first big game of the year at Tampa Bay, throwing for 318 yards in a 34-27 win that got the Browns off the mat as September ended.
If we peek ahead six years, the Denver Broncos would become the ultimate nemesis of Cleveland. This Broncos team was average and John Elway was just a sophomore in college, but it didn’t stop Denver from coming to the shores of Lake Erie and stealing a win. Cleveland led 10-6 in the first half and was driving for a touchdown to put them in control when Sipe threw an interception that ended up in the opposing end zone. The Browns lost 19-16 and slipped back under. 500.
The quarterback cleaned up the mistakes the following week in Seattle and Pruitt was able to run over a poor Seahawks team for 116 yards, leading a decisive 27-3 win.
Cleveland was hanging in contention, and now was when The Kardiac Kids started to show. They trailed 21-13 at home against a subpar Green Bay Packers team. There was no two-point conversion in effect, so this was a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter. Sipe threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Newsome and then found Logan on a 46-yard strike. Sipe finished with 391 yards on the day.
The hated Steelers were in town next, struggling to find their footing. Terry Bradshaw was out for this game and backup Cliff Stout appeared ready to break Cleveland’s heart. The Steelers led the Browns 26-14 in the fourth quarter. Sipe flipped a short TD pass to Pruitt and then found Newsome over the top on an 18-yard touchdown pass to steal another victory.
A Monday Night home date with the Bears wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it was still close. Pruitt ran for 129 yards, while the defense held the great Walter Payton to 30 yards in a 27-21 win. Cleveland won its fifth straight game in Baltimore (where the Colts were in the AFC East, and not a division rival).
Pruitt and White combined for 180 yards on the ground and Sipe was calmly efficient, 22/29 for 212 yards and no interceptions. The final was 28-27, but Cleveland led by 15 points in the fourth quarter.
The Browns were now 7-3 and tied with the Oilers for first place in what was then a four-team division where only the Bengals were a non-contender. The Steelers were 6-4, and it served to heighten the drama for Cleveland’s visit to Pittsburgh on November 16. The Browns had a chance to put a stake in the heart of their rival and with the Steelers hoping to win a third straight Super Bowl, this game had the attention of the nation, even if was an early afternoon kickoff.
For three quarters and change it looked like Cleveland would do just that. They intercepted Bradshaw times and led much of the way. But the Browns weren’t running the ball and Sipe only went 15/34 for 178 yards. The lead was still 13-9 late in the game when a touchdown pass by Bradshaw with 11 seconds left cost Cleveland the game. They slipped into a second-place tie with Pittsburgh.
The good news was, that was the last high point for the Steelers and the Browns were able to respond well at home against Cincinnati. Sipe threw four touchdown passes and for 310 yards on the day in a 31-7 win. Both of their division rivals lost, so Cleveland was back in a first-place tie when they went to Houston for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff.
Houston’s running game, with Earl Campbell, was the most feared in the NFL, but it was Cleveland who won the battle of the trenches. Little-known Cleo Miller ran for two early touchdowns and the Browns outgained the Oilers on the ground 121-114. Even though Sipe only threw for 93 yards, he took care of the football and Cleveland’s 5-1 edge in turnovers led to a 17-14 win.
There was a bit of a letdown against the lowly Jets the following week at home, where Cleveland trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter, a game they were a (-9) favorite. The running game was non-existent. But Sipe stepped it up, threw for 340 yards on the day and a short TD pass to Pruitt pulled out a 17-14 win. Cleveland was now 10-4, one game up on Houston and two games up on Pittsburgh.
The Browns owned the tiebreaker on the Steelers, so that race was over, and also on the Oilers. Therefore a win in Minnesota would clinch the division. But now the comeback script turned on Cleveland. They led 23-9 in the fourth quarter, but gave up two consecutive touchdown passes. A missed extra point looked ready to bail out the Browns, but the Vikings had time for one more play with the score 23-22.
Minnesota had the ball on the Cleveland 46-yard line and wide receiver Ahmad Rashad ran down the sideline. The defenders were with him, but the ball kept getting batted around, never knocked to the ground. Rashad finally grabbed it and stepped into the end zone. The Browns had lost a 28-23 stunner. The Oilers won in Green Bay, so the AFC Central remained up for grabs.
What’s more, a playoff berth was not yet secure. In this era of three divisions with two wild-cards, the AFC West already had one wild-card secured, with the Raiders and Chargers both in. The Oilers had also clinched at least a wild-card. The reason the Browns had not was that the Patriots were in hot pursuit at 9-6. If Cleveland lost in Cincinnati, Houston could win and take the AFC Central outright, while New England could win and steal the last playoff spot on the head-to-head tiebreaker at 10-6.
The Bengals were 6-9, but this was a team just a year away from going to the Super Bowl. They also wanted badly to wreck the Browns’ season and they nearly pulled it off. Cleveland trailed 17-10 before scoring two consecutive touchdowns to get the lead. Cincinnati tied it back up 24-24.
But Sipe solidified his MVP case, throwing for 308 yards, spreading the ball to nine different receivers and ultimately setting up a field goal with 1:25 to play. Cincinnati’s last desperate drive got them to the Cleveland 31-yard line, but out of timeouts, the Bengals were unable to set up a field goal try. The Browns were AFC Central champs.
All five playoff teams in the AFC finished 11-5, and Cleveland ended up as the #2 seed behind San Diego. Oakland won the wild-card game, but the rules prior to 1990 prevented teams from the same division playing each other in the second round. The Browns would host the Raiders in the early Sunday afternoon game of divisional round weekend.
Temperatures were brutally cold and a 21 mph wind created conditions that were (-20) degrees with the wind chill. The field itself was frozen, and Browns’ kicker Don Cockroft missed two field goals, and another was messed up with a bad snap. All that factored into Rutigliano’s thinking on the fateful final drive.
Cleveland trailed 14-12 and reached the Oakland 14-yard line with 14 seconds left. Rutigliano decided to have Sipe throw the ball in the end zone, not trusting Cockroft enough to simply set up a field goal. Sipe thought he had Newsome in the back of the end zone. But the quarterback didn’t see defensive back Mike Davis in front and the interception ended Cleveland’s season in heartbreaking fashion.
I think Rutigliano overreacted to the field conditions. Yes, Cockroft had missed the two field goals, along with an extra point. But he had also made two field goals of 30 yards, about the same distance he would have been lining up for here. Throwing the ball in these conditions—particularly against a Raider secondary that had a deserved reputation for ballhawking—carried its own set of risks.
In fairness, the coach did clearly instruct Sipe that if no one was wide open, to just throw it away. Sipe also took a risk not really necessary. The unfortunate result was a playoff heartbreak for a city that’s had too many.
But the tough ending in the bitter cold can’t obscure how much fun the 1980 Cleveland Browns were. The dethroned a Super Bowl champ in their division, produced an MVP and rattled off a series of exciting wins on their way to the playoffs. That’s the more important legacy of this team.