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.
“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)