November 3, 2011

1980: Sipe & Pruitt Propel Browns Past Bears

There was a big crowd of 83,224 present at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on November 3, 1980 for a Monday night game between the host Browns and Chicago Bears. Hopes were high for the Browns, coached by pass-oriented Sam Rutigliano, who were riding a three-game winning streak coming into the contest, overcoming a slow 2-3 start and giving them an overall record of 5-3. The key to the offense was 31-year-old QB Brian Sipe (pictured at right), who had slowly developed into a daring and exciting passer capable of pulling games out in the final minutes. FB Mike Pruitt provided power and pass receiving ability out of the backfield, and the receiving corps of TE Ozzie Newsome and wide receivers Dave Logan and Reggie Rucker was reliable.

Meanwhile the Bears, coached by Neill Armstrong, were 3-5 after losing at Philadelphia the week before. The offense was heavily dependent on RB Walter Payton, who had led the NFC in rushing in each of the past four seasons (and the entire NFL once, in 1977) and came into the game against the Browns ranked third. QB Vince Evans, who had taken over for ineffective veteran Mike Phipps, was mobile and could throw long. The defense was typically rugged and had given up a total of just 37 points over the previous four games.

A steady rain was falling throughout the contest. Following a three-and-out possession by the Bears to start the game, the Browns scored the first time they had the ball, moving from their 41 yard line to the Chicago 14, but a penalty wiped out an apparent scoring pass to Rucker and they settled for a 23-yard field goal by Don Cockroft.

The Browns again drove into Chicago territory, but LB Jerry Muckensturm intercepted a Sipe pass at the 17. However, the Cleveland defense stifled the Bears in the first half - Chicago didn’t get its initial first down of the game until six minutes into the second quarter.

Sipe, who wasn’t sharp in the first half, was intercepted a second time in Bears territory. It snuffed out a promising drive, as CB Len Walterscheid picked off the pass at the 14. The Bears were unable to capitalize when Bob Thomas missed a 35-yard field goal attempt. The Browns took over with 3:22 on the clock and put together a nine-play, 80-yard drive in which Sipe completed four passes and HB Greg Pruitt had a 15-yard run. Sipe finished it off by throwing to Rucker, who made a shoestring catch for a four-yard touchdown with 57 seconds remaining in the half.

Cleveland had only a 10-0 lead at halftime despite dominating the Bears in the first half, with 241 yards and 18 first downs to Chicago’s 62 yards and two first downs.

The Browns took the second half kickoff and drove 56 yards in 14 plays. However, after getting a first-and-goal on the nine, on third-and-seven Sipe was sacked by DE Mike Hartenstine for a 16-yard loss and Cockroft ended up kicking a second field goal from 42 yards through the rain and swirling wind.

Still in the third quarter, the Bears finally got on the board. Evans threw to TE Robin Earl for a 24-yard gain, ran for 12 yards, and then finished off the seven-play, 54-yard drive with a seven-yard scoring run with 1:10 left in the period. The Bears were also helped along the way by a late hit call on Browns SS Clarence Scott.

The Browns were forced to punt on their next series, but it was a good one by Johnny Evans that traveled 56 yards and gave the Bears the ball on their own 18. The Bears again moved down the field, but Vince Evans was intercepted by CB Ron Bolton at the Cleveland 16. The Browns then drove 84 yards in 13 plays, capped by Mike Pruitt scoring from a yard out midway through the fourth quarter.

Chicago fought back, however, as Evans threw to WR Brian Baschnagel for a 17-yard TD three minutes later, again making it a six-point game. Following a 24-yard kickoff return by HB Dino Hall, the Browns took over at their own 35. Mike Pruitt ran for five yards and then Sipe threw to Rucker for four.

With the Bears defense massed at the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Pruitt took a pitchout and swept around the right side on a third-and-one play from his own 44, broke a tackle, received an outstanding block from WR Willis Adams, and then had nothing but open field as he ran 56 yards for a touchdown with 3:35 left on the clock.

Pruitt’s long scoring run effectively put the Browns out of reach. The Bears went 70 yards in 10 plays on their next drive and Evans threw a touchdown pass of six yards to Earl with 37 seconds to play, but the ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Browns to extinguish any remaining threat. Cleveland came away with a 27-21 win.

The Browns significantly outgained Chicago (432 yards to 275) and had more first downs (31 to 20). The defense did a good job of keeping the Bears in the game, in particular sacking Sipe – who had been sacked only six times in the previous games – a total of three times for 36 yards in losses. The Browns were hindered by the loss of OT Doug Dieken to a knee injury early in the contest.

Brian Sipe spread the ball around to eight different receivers as he completed 23 of 39 passes for 298 yards with a TD and two interceptions. Ozzie Newsome led the receivers with 5 catches for 97 yards. Mike Pruitt ran the ball 27 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

For the Bears, Vince Evans was successful on 18 of 33 throws for 201 yards with two touchdowns and one intercepted. The Cleveland defense held Walter Payton to 30 yards on 11 carries, and he carried only twice in the second half, although he co-led the club with 5 pass receptions, for 31 yards. Robin Earl also caught 5 passes and gained 63 yards with a TD.

The Browns continued to play well the rest of the way and won the AFC Central title with an 11-5 record. They lost a heartbreaker in the Divisional playoff round against the Raiders. Chicago continued to play inconsistently and finished at 7-9 and in third place in the NFC Central.

Brian Sipe had a career year as he led the league in passing (91.4 rating) and lowest percentage of interceptions (2.5) while ranking second in pass attempts (554), completions (337), yards (4132), and TD passes (30, tied with San Diego’s Dan Fouts and Vince Ferragamo of the Rams). He was named MVP by the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers of America, and The Sporting News, was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection, and was named to the Pro Bowl.

Mike Pruitt ranked eighth in the NFL with 1034 yards on 249 carries (4.2 avg.) and scored six touchdowns; he also led Cleveland with 63 pass receptions. Despite being stymied by the Browns, Walter Payton led the NFC in rushing for a fifth straight year with 1460 yards on 317 attempts (4.6 avg.) and six TDs, although the mobile Vince Evans led the club with 8 rushing touchdowns. Like Pruitt, Payton also led his team in pass receiving with 46 catches for 367 yards.