April 24, 2014

Browns/Steelers 2003 AFC Wild Card – The 10 Year Anniversary – A TD Retrospective

Ten years.

Think about how different you were ten years ago.  I was in my mid-twenties, living in the city of Chicago, married with no kids. I was working at my first job out of college, still going out all the time and I didn’t have a care in the world. My late father, who shaped me as the man and the sports fan I am today, was still alive and cancer was not even on our radar screen.

The Indians were just starting the long road of rebuilding and the window on the “era of champions” was officially slammed shut and sealed closed. LeBron James had yet to become a Cavalier, and the Ohio State Buckeyes Football team was ready to play for the National Title. However, the biggest local sports story was that the Cleveland Browns made it back to the playoffs for the first time since their return in 1999.

The Butch Davis coached team finished 9-7 and snuck into a Wild Card spot on the last Sunday of the regular season in what was probably the most exciting game played in Cleveland Browns Stadium at the time. The Browns defeated Michael Vick and the Falcons on a goal line stand that ended the game and vaulted them into the playoffs. Most fans remember this  as the “Run William Run” game where tailback William Green busted a 64 yard TD to give the Browns a fourth quarter lead.

The win sent the Browns to Pittsburgh to face their bitter rival in a playoff game. The division champion Steelers were led by QB Tommy Maddox, who won NFL Comeback Player of the year in 2002. This was right smack dab in the middle of the Bill Cowher era in Pittsburgh, where every single year, no matter who was on the field, the Steelers were a tough out with a ferocious defense.  But they were banged up and vulnerable.

On the other side was the upstart Browns with QB Kelly Holcomb, who had taken over for the injured Tim Couch and was the pet project of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who brought Holcomb over from Indianapolis with him when he came to Cleveland. Green, their first round pick, was the feature back, Jamel White was the third down back, and Holcomb would spray the ball to the dependable Kevin Johnson, deep threat second round picks Andre Davis and Quincy Morgan, and the speedy Dennis Northcutt.

Defensively, Foge Fazio’s group featured Orpheus Roye, Kenard Lang, and Gerard “Big Money” Warren up front. The soft linebacking core was headed by Earl Holmes and the helmet tosser, Dwayne Rudd. In the secondary, veteran Corey Fuller was on one side with Daylon McCutheon on the other. Safeties Earl Little and Robert Griffith were in between. Translation – there were no stars on the defense. No Pro Bowl caliber guys. Just a veteran group that Fazio schemed with.

The hype for this game in Cleveland was enormous. “The Rivalry was back” everyone said and this was the game that was going to really bring it to new heights. At the time, I thought Butch vs. The Chin could become a Woody vs. Bo long-term type of battle. (Man was I way off on that). That was a long one week wait for a game.

The game was played exactly ten years ago today.

———–

Around early September of 2002, I decided to plan a surprise trip to Las Vegas for my wife’s birthday, which is January 5th. She had never been to Vegas and had always wanted to go. That was the first and last time we would go to Vegas together for a pleasure trip. We have two completely different agendas in that city and it’s a bad mix. I have about as much desire to walk the strip and shop all day as she does to sit in the sports book and bet games all day. I spring the surprise on her about two weeks in advance, with plane tickets, dinner reservations and tickets to the Cirque du Soliel water show “O” for Friday night. Again, I booked these things three months in advance.

For some odd reason, it never occurred to me that the National Title Game was the Friday night I had purchased tickets to the show. Playing in the game was the Miami Hurricanes and your Ohio State Buckeyes. Now I’m not a Buckeye fan, but this was a game I really wanted to see. When you are in a relationship, it’s all about give and take. You pick and choose your spots.  I was not about to tell my wife “oh, I know I just spent $150 on tickets to this show, but we are going to eat the money so we can watch the National Title game, that’s cool with you on your birthday trip right?”

I remember watching the first half while getting ready in my hotel room. Now this was pre-smart phone days and before I was getting texts from the free world, so when we went to dinner and the show, I had zero idea of what was going on. The show was at the Bellagio and the O Theatre was right next to the sports book. As we exited the show, there was a massive amount of chaos going on outside the sports book. I had no idea what had happened. As we approach the crowd, a guy walks by me and yells “it was the greatest college football game of all time!”

I missed the entire thing. But hey, these things happen.

Of all the screw-ups on this trip, perhaps my biggest was booking a flight back mid-afternoon Sunday. You can’t forget I booked this in September, so the thought of the Browns playing a 12:30 Sunday playoff game just didn’t occur to me. Nevertheless, my worst fears were confirmed and I would be flying right in the middle of the first Browns playoff game of the new era. Worst of all, it was against the Steelers.

I thought about how I could make this all work and I came up with my plan. I would TiVo the game, avoid all TVs at the Las Vegas airport and answer every phone call that would come to me this way “I am TiVoing the game, don’t say a word. My Voicemail was also changed to “if you are calling about the game, don’t leave a message.” I wanted to come home in a cab, watch the game start to finish on TiVo, and deal with the consequences later.

As we arrived at the airport super-early (you never know what the security at McCarron Airport can look like on a Sunday morning), we breezed right through security, and the game was on everywhere, including at my gate. It was unavoidable. So I punted and I decided to watch.

——–

Nobody gave the Browns a chance in this one. But they came out smoking behind the arm of Holcomb, who played the game of his life in just his fourth NFL start. You knew it was his day when on the third play of the game, he hit Johnson for an 83 yard completion. They took a 14-0 early second quarter lead on a beautiful TD pass to Northcutt which stunned the Heinz Field faithful. The place was silent. Momentum would swing on a special teams gaff by the Browns. Antwaan Randle-El took a Chris Gardocki punt to the house to bring the Steelers to within a touchdown. It was a real killer because the Pittsburgh offense could get nothing going. Meanwhile, Holcomb was on fire.

A 17-7 Browns halftime lead stretched to 24-7 when another Holcomb hit Northcutt on another gem TD pass. Maddox rallied the Steelers offense on a third quarter drive capping off with a Plaxico Burress touchdown reception. It was all two-minute offense for Pittsburgh in the second half. Early in the fourth quarter, another Phil Dawson field goal stretched the Browns lead to 13. Unfortunately, Maddox was just warming up.

He led a Steeler TD drive (a 3 yard TD pass to Jeremy Tuman) that inched the Steelers closer at 27-21. The Cleveland nerves and expectations of doom and gloom had fully arrived not just with me, but with the entire gate full of people who were watching the game with me and Browns fans all over the world. But this was all going to be different, because Holcomb could not and would not be stopped.

With the Heinz Field crowd in full throat, Holcomb calmly dissected the Steelers defense with surgical precision. When he hit Andre Davis on the run for 22 yard TD pass, the Browns were up two scores again and the excitement in me could not be held in. Up 33-21, Butch smartly went for two, but the Browns didn’t convert.

There was just over seven minutes remaining, and my plane was boarding last call.

——-

You have to imagine what is going through my head. I have been watching this entire game between an airport bar and the TV at my gate. I am pacing back and forth. People watching me think I am insane. My wife had seen this from me so many times over the years and knew it was par for the course. This was before my father’s untimely passing, so I had the “sports are life and death” mentality still inside me. Though I am a die-hard fan still, I’ve since changed.

I was fist pumping and high-fiving strangers as my wife waited in the Southwest Airlines cattle call line when Davis scored the TD that put the Browns ahead 33-21. I was confident as I boarded the plane. My father notoriously used to have us leave games late with a lead because, as his old adage was, “you don’t want to be there when we blow it.” So I boarded the plane happy, thinking about how I couldn’t wait to land and watch my TiVo’d replay of the game and highlights on Sports Center.

I’d say a half hour into a three-hour flight, the pilot came on the loud speaker to tell us that we are flying at 32,000 feet and expected smooth sailing the rest of the way. Then out of nowhere, and this has never happened to me on a flight before and hasn’t happened since, the pilot says “oh and by the way, for those of you who were watching the football game, the Steelers made an incredible comeback and won the game 36-33.”

I was stunned. I was shocked. I was pissed. I was nauseous.  And now I had to sit on a plane for the next two and a half hours stewing, not knowing how it happened and having to come to grips with the fact that the Steelers did it to us again, the season was over, and the Cleveland Curse was alive and well.

The second we got into a cab, I called my father. I will never forget how the conversation started as long as I live. He answered the phone and I said “what happened?” His response: “Son, you don’t want to know. Trust me. You just don’t want to know.”

——-

Furious with how the defense was playing against the Maddox no-huddle hurry up offense, the story goes that Butch Davis essentially took away Fazio’s play-calling abilities. According to Arians, who was interviewed about the game in 2011 when he was the Steelers offensive coordinator:

“He (Davis) called off the dogs on defense,” Arians said. “You just don’t let Tommy Maddox sit there and play against a prevent defense. And he basically fired Foge at halftime.

“Foge was blitzing, and we had them beat.”

The Browns were in a soft prevent and couldn’t get to Maddox as he played pitch and catch down the field quickly and threw a pea to Hines Ward for a touchdown bringing the Steelers to within five at 33-28 with 3:06 to play. However, the Browns had a chance to run the clock out with a couple of first downs, causing the Steelers to use all of their timeouts.

In so many of the infamous Cleveland Curse sports moments, there is one play that we can point to and look at in horror (I don’t have it in me to list them and I won’t force you to read the words. It’s not fair to any of you). This game would be no different. On third down and 12, with just over two minutes left, Holcomb scrambled from pressure and threw a perfect pass to Northcutt who was cutting across the field yards past the first down marker.

And he dropped it.

“I just dropped it, plain and simple,” a dejected Northcutt would say after the game.

“Hines (Ward)brings that up all the time,” Arians said in 2011. “’If Northcutt catches that ball, you might be a head coach now.’

After a Gardocki punt, Maddox had one last chance to torch the Browns and he did it with relative ease. The final drive saw the Steelers QB go 4-4 hitting Burress and Ward twice each for 48 yards. The comeback was complete on a shotgun draw TD run by Chris Fuamatu- Ma’afala with 50 seconds left.

The game ended with Holcomb hitting Andre King at the Steelers 29 yard line, but  the clock hit all zeroes as he dove out of bounds.

It was a collapse for the ages. It was so Cleveland. And the Browns haven’t been in the playoffs since.

Said then Browns safety Earl Little “I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe this happened to us.”

Earl obviously hadn’t spent more than a few years in Cleveland.

——-

It won’t be looked back on fondly in Cleveland for obvious reasons, but it was truly a classic football game. Holcomb was may have been the most inexperienced playoff starter in NFL history, playing a game on the road in the snow against his team’s most hated rival. All he did was put on a performance that Browns fans will never forget. He threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns and would have been a lifetime hero in Cleveland if Northcutt had held onto that third and 12 pass.

Instead, he is an afterthought. He beat out Couch in 2003 for the starting job thanks to a “gut feeling” from Davis. But his fragile nature didn’t allow to make it through more than nine games of a 5-11 2003 season.

The playoff loss was also the beginning of the end of the Butch Davis era in Cleveland. The way he handled Fazio during the fourth quarter made for big headlines and also put his arrogance out in front for all to see. It was only a matter of time before he would implode and eventually quit on the Browns a year and a half later, with a 3-7 record. He hasn’t been heard from in the NFL since and was fired in disgrace thanks to a cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina.

Maddox’s 367 yard, two TD game was also the peak for him. He went 6-10 in 2003 in his one and only year as an NFL starter and in 2004 was replaced by a rookie named Ben Roethlisberger in third game of the season.

As for the game, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Silver had this to say the day after:

I don’t know how the Steelers won this game. … Even when they got it to 27-21, they were atrocious — couldn’t run the ball, inconsistent quarterback, defense couldn’t stop Cleveland.

And even when the Steelers were giving their fans hope, I was thinking that this team couldn’t win a big playoff game.

Give an incredible amount of credit to this team; I’m still shaking my head trying to figure it out.

I’ve seen some amazing games — Music City Miracle included — but this one certainly ranks right up there. There was such an outpouring of emotions after Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala’s touchdown. … And I can’t remember when the last time I heard Renegade by Styx blaring through a stadium. It was a resounding moment.

Then I was thinking:  50 seconds to Kelly Holcomb is hot, the Browns have taken most of their games down to the last second ….

It was a greatly entertaining game — two very flawed teams, but very gutty and with explosive offenses. But the cynic in me wants to take the Browns to task for going into the prevent defense.

——-

The saddest thing part of this story is not my weekend travails missing out on two classic football games.  It is not even that the Browns lost a playoff game. By far and away the saddest part is the fact our football team hasn’t played in a playoff game in 10 years and the one that I just wrote about was the only one the franchise has seen in 18 years. High school Juniors weren’t even born the last time the Browns won a playoff game, New Years Day 1995. Vinny Testaverde was their quarterback that day.  Who did the Browns lose to in the next game? The Steelers, naturally.

Where has the time gone?

(photos via canton repository)

  • mgbode

    anniversary? i prefer to use that term for things that i want to remember

  • nobody

    Hmm…a decade already? I was a senior in high school when this happened, thought it was the beginning of a good era too…Davis was a great coach (look at that roster).

  • BuckeyeDawg

    Ha. My similar story involves being in San Francisco the day of the National Championship game, and having a plane to catch back home that evening. We figured we would have plenty of time to get to the airport after the game…well, as we all know, it went to OT, so we watched the end of the game in our hotel room, bags packed, coats on, ready to run out the door as soon as it ended. Within 10 seconds of Dorsey’s ball hitting the turf the TV was off and we were speeding to SFO.

    We had connections in Dallas and Atlanta coming home, so I grabbed copies of the local newspapers in both cities as souveniers. I still have the sports sections of those papers in a box in my basement, with plans on getting them framed someday for my “man room”…if I ever actually have one.

    I actually forgot that both of these games happened so close to one another. For some reason, I chose to listen to the Browns game instead of watching it. Not sure why, but maybe it’s better that way. I don’t have any visual images of that choke job seared into my brain.

  • Robbie

    I still think if Dwayne Rudd doesn’t toss his helmet like a jack ass in the first game, this game is played in Cleveland and the game is won. What happens after that? I don’t really care. It just makes me sick to remember them losing that game.

  • Robbie

    Derp… sorry about that. Doesn’t appear that I’m correct. However, I know I’m correct that if the Browns had somehow beaten the Steelers ONCE (out of three shots) that season, then we all remember this differently.

  • Steve Lortie

    I was there that day. 22 yo. a friend of mine said he was gonna get tix. I remember calling bs and told him if he did I was going too no matter the cost. $250 later I had my ticket. We sat in the freezing cold for 3+ hrs and harassed all the steeler fans we could. It was great. Until 3 mins left in the 4th that is. That friend is no longer here and even with the loss I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Great work, TD. Perfect marriage of the game and your chaotic roller coaster of its viewing.

  • MrCleaveland

    This is what makes the Cleveland sports fan’s experience so . . . something. In any other city, a game like this would live on in local lore and be mentioned continually and maybe have its own nickname (The Drop; The Choke; The Incredibly Dispiriting Collapse). But here it barely registers. Does it even make our Top Ten?

    Sort of like the Tribe’s monumental meltdown against the Red Sox in the best-of-five divisional series in ’99. No biggie.

  • ScottS

    For other cities, this would be considered a monumental, iconic collapse. for us, it is a mere footnote game because of all the other monumental, iconic collapses we have had across all our teams. Man is it going to be sweet when we finally win it…

  • WFNY_DP

    I hate to be the turd in the punchbowl, but the goal-line stand against ATL didn’t get the Browns into the playoffs. They needed help (in the form of the Jets getting DESTROYED in a late game) to get in.

    I do remember being at that Falcons game, and the PA announcer repeatedly announcing that the Saints had lost and that the Falcons had clinched a playoff spot, I guess in the hopes that the Birds would call off their starters and ease up or something. Also, right before the Run, William, Run! run, I turned to a buddy and said, “Time for Green to earn his paycheck.” How prophetic!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Great reminder of another blown opportunity on the eve of the start of the playoffs – thanks TD! Why is it most of your recollections always seem to bring up bad memories around here? ;-)

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I can with pride say I was at this game, lol!

  • WFNY_DP

    Me too. Still remember turning to my celebrating friend and pointing at the flag and saying, “Rudd threw his helmet. We’re getting a penalty.” Sigh.

  • c3j1v62

    as a 27 year old, this game was my wonderful baptism into the futility of being a Browns fan!

  • humboldt

    TD, beautifully rendered, and brings back lots of memories. You do Cleveland sports pathos as well as anyone.

  • bridgecrosser

    9/11 had happened a few months earlier. My wife and I set a winter date so we could be married before some of her service member family members would be sent to the Middle East. My mom throws some bridal shower for my wife this very day. I was scurrying from room to room, trying to help my future wife, and watch the balance of this game.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I was watching the play saw Rudd tear off his helmet near midfield and all I could think was “please tell me the play was over before he did that.” Nope. The thing about that whole debacle was I think that was when the NFL made a big thing about players keeping their helmets on which is why when I saw him react like he did I just laughed.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Speaking of that epic National Championship SI.com had a great article about it with remarks from alot of the players involved as they thought back to 10 years ago. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/college-football/news/20130104/2003-fiesta-bowl-oral-history/?sct=hp_wr_a1&eref=sihp

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Agreed on all accounts.

  • porckchopexpress

    Perhaps Painniversary then?
    No wait that would still be too confusing with my anniversary. Heeeyyyyoooooo!!!! I’ll be here all week.

  • porckchopexpress

    I think that Al dying earlier that year was the real breaking point for the team. Who knows if he would have dragged us along on a 10 year losing bender. Even if we win that playoff game we almost assuredly lose the next and Randy still inherited a team with little real talent, cap issues as they had overspent on mediocre talent to get the team into the playoffs before Al died, and a completely disfunctional front office. Losing to the Steelers in spectacular fashion was a humilating kick in the Couch, but ultimately we’d probably be in a pretty similar situation either way.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Beautifully written and I NEVER WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT AGAIN. If we’re reading the 15-year retrospective in 2018, I might switch to Canadian Football.

    I love these type of look backs. It makes me think about where I was. But it is the Brownsiest thing in the world to mark the anniversaries of significant losses.

  • http://twitter.com/SouthSideOfThe5 Robert Paulson

    Beautifully written. I punched a hole in the drywall of my house that afternoon ten years ago. I had watched live the fumble and the drive and I could not bear another crushing playoff loss especially to the Steelers. It was a sad day that began a crappy year for me personally. On the other hand, I do think that Butch was the best coach we had from 1999-2012. He overachieved given the talent he had. And whomever made the point a bout the Phil Rudd helmet toss is spot on. Tha game could have been played in Cleveland.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    perfectly done TD.

    i wouldnt be surprised to find this game is the forgotten scarring incident for many browns fans. on par with redright, drive, and fumble.

    i surely remember that game. we had company over. they (and my wife) were dumbfounded at the effect that fourth quarter had on me. i relegated myself to watch in privacy. twitter and blog forums wouldve have been most helpful on that day.

    i actually dont remember the northcutt drop. i do remember a perfect swing/screen pass late in the quarter that wouldve wrapped it up. looking at the game log, i’m thinking it was the 2nd/7 pass to quincy morgan that ALSO wouldve been a game clinching first down. i might be misremembering but THAT’S the drop that killed me. does anyone else remember that one or am i wrong?

    and also that last pass at the 29 yd line.. man.. one second away from dawson and overtime.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    >>> Even if we win that playoff game we almost assuredly lose the next>>>
    i dunno. teams build on wins like that. steelers lost in ot to titans next week; titans than lost to raiders; raiders lost to bucs in SB. i’d guess we’d beat that titans team and probably fold to raiders but who knows?

  • bridgecrosser

    “very much on par with redright, drive, and fumble.”

    Internet hyperbole at its finest. No way. Those were Super Bowl potential teams. This was a pedestrian wild card team with some exciting variables. Nowhere close.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    understood yeah.. but. with respect. disagree.

    it was indeed a maxed out over-achieving team. but those are the teams that change the fates of franchises.

    the example the comes to mind is the 2001 pats. they were 5-5 at one point that season (hell, they started 1-3.) then ran the table beating one of the best offenses ever in the SB. i remember that year because i’m up here with pats fans and none of them believed in that team. as an impartial watcher, i saw a team playing as team and i saw unmistakable magic. i remember telling all these guys: ‘pats are playing best football in the league.’ no one would believe it because they were pats fans and carried their share of baggage. put it this way: if vinatieri misses the-greatest-FG-ever in the snow bowl vs raiders, who really knows if they become a dynasty?

    no, i do dont think doing hyperbole.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    id like quietly to start the rehabilitation of dwayne rudd.

    – ya know we want our linebackers to be warriors and its emotional and we need that out of our linebackers.
    – also there WAS no time on the clock so it’s not totally out of line for him to think it’s time to celebrate a hard fought win.
    – and not for nothing but CHRIS GARDOCKI got a taunting penalty after dawson’s FG which helped KC take possession on browns 35.

  • Harv 21

    agree. Remember my disgust, but this wasn’t the ruin your sleep/only Cleveland stuff of other losses. Maybe because no one really thought that team should have made the playoffs, never mind advance.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I remember that I was studying abroad that year, so I was watching this game at 4am at an old Cleveland family friend’s apartment, trying my hardest to avoid waking up the whole building while going absolutely insane quietly to myself. What a game.

  • Ike

    If OSU hadn’t just beaten Miami a week earlier, I would’ve broken my television. House money…

  • MuptheM

    I had the pleasure of watching this game my junior year at JCU. I also had the pleasure of having all of my roommates and long term GF from Pitt. Brutal. But this was the game I got to talk some smack! Roomates left and went to the bar. GF was so pissed at me she drove home to Pitt for the night! All was well. Until she hit the PA state line and we started loosing. She was kind enough to call me and let me know. Horrid.