September 26, 2015

1977: Browns Rally in Second Half, Defeat Patriots in Overtime

The Monday night game on September 26, 1977 featured the Cleveland Browns hosting the New England Patriots. The Browns were coming off of a 9-5 record in ’76 under Head Coach Forrest Gregg. QB Brian Sipe had emerged from an obscure backup role to replace the disappointing Mike Phipps and there was a fine all-purpose runner in HB Greg Pruitt (pictured at right). Cleveland pulled off an upset the previous week in defeating the Bengals and were 1-0 as they faced another significant test.

The Patriots were coached by Chuck Fairbanks and reached the playoffs the previous year with an 11-3 tally. QB Steve Grogan, like Sipe, had been unheralded coming into the league and was effective both passing and running with the ball. While the holdouts of G John Hannah and OT Leon Gray caused disruption, there was a good corps of running backs, starting with FB Sam “Bam” Cunningham and TE Russ Francis was one of the best at his position. The defense was tough, with CB Mike Haynes and FS Tim Fox coming off of outstanding rookie seasons. New England had also won its opener against Kansas City.

There were 76,413 fans in attendance at Municipal Stadium. The Browns had the first possession and advanced 85 yards in 12 plays. Brian Sipe completed a third-and-five throw to Greg Pruitt that picked up 35 yards to the New England 11 and Pruitt tossed an option pass to FB Brian Duncan for a five-yard touchdown. Don Cockroft added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

The Patriots punted following a short series but got the ball back when SS Prentice McCray intercepted a Sipe pass at the New England 29. They again had to punt and, helped by a 23-yard return by DB Roland Woolsey, the Browns again advanced into New England territory in the final minutes of the opening period. The drive stalled at the 26 early in the second quarter and Cockroft missed to the right on a 44-yard field goal attempt.

The Patriots made the most of the reprieve, moving methodically down the field. Steve Grogan completed a pass to HB Don Calhoun that gained 21 yards and had additional yards tacked on due to a facemask penalty on the Browns. Following two carries by HB Ike Forte, Grogan finished the 10-play, 74-yard series with a throw to Sam Cunningham (pictured below) in the end zone for an eight-yard TD. John Smith tied the score with his successful conversion.

On the first play following the ensuing kickoff, Tim Fox intercepted a Sipe pass and returned it to the Cleveland 22. The Patriots couldn’t reach the end zone but they did put more points on the board with Smith’s 35-yard field goal to go ahead by a 10-7 tally.

That was it for the scoring until a 46-yard punt return by Mike Haynes gave the Patriots the ball at the Cleveland 29 with 1:33 remaining in the first half. Cunningham and Grogan ran the ball down to the two, from where Calhoun scored a touchdown. Smith’s extra point made the halftime score 17-7 in favor of the visitors.

The Patriots had the ball first in the third quarter and punted. Cleveland advanced 54 yards in six plays as Pruitt ran for 11 yards on two carries and caught a pass for another six, and Sipe threw to TE Gary Parris for a 26-yard TD. Cockroft’s PAT made it a three-point game at 17-14.

The Browns immediately regained possession when CB Raymond Clayborn fumbled on the kickoff return and WR Ricky Feacher recovered for Cleveland at the New England 25. While the offense went three-and-out, Cockroft tied the score at 17-17 with a 37-yard field goal.

The Patriots got just past midfield on the next series but again had to punt. Starting from their 12, the Browns got a boost when Pruitt took off for a 37-yard run with a facemask penalty added on and they were into New England territory heading into the fourth quarter. However, they came up empty when Cockroft tried for a 39-yard field goal that was blocked by LB Rod Shoate.

New England responded with a 61-yard drive that took 13 plays. Grogan completed a pass to WR Steve Burks for 22 yards in a third-and-12 situation and Calhoun and Cunningham ran effectively. Grogan converted another third down play with a throw to Forte for 10 yards to the Cleveland two, and while the Patriots lost yards on the next two plays, Grogan connected with Russ Francis in the middle of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. Smith converted and the visitors were back on top by 24-17 with 7:28 to play in regulation.

The Browns came back with a seven-play, 73-yard possession. Pruitt had a 17-yard run and Sipe completed passes to Parris for ten yards, WR Reggie Rucker for nine, and WR Dave Logan for 19 yards to the New England 13. It was Sipe to Pruitt for an eight-yard TD and, with Cockroft’s kick, the score was again knotted at 24-24.

Cleveland scored again after a Grogan pass was picked off by LB Charlie Hall. That gave the Browns the ball at the New England 27 and led to a 37-yard Cockroft field goal and a lead of 27-24 with the clock now down to 55 seconds.

That was still enough time for the Patriots to mount a drive. Grogan completed four passes to move New England down the field, the biggest to Francis for 28 yards to the Cleveland 17 with one second remaining. Smith kicked a 24-yard field goal to send the contest into overtime.

The Browns won the toss for the extra period, received the kickoff, and never gave up the ball. Sipe scrambled for four yards in a third-and-one situation and completed a pass to Parris for 12 yards while facing third-and-eight. A throw to Logan that picked up 22 yards got the ball into scoring territory at the New England 19, and two plays later Cockroft kicked a 35-yard field goal at 4:45 into overtime. Cleveland won by a final score of 30-27.    

The Browns led in total yards (393 to 263) and first downs (25 to 21). They also turned the ball over three times, to two by New England, but the Patriots drew 12 penalties at a cost of 80 yards to five flags thrown on Cleveland.

Greg Pruitt had an outstanding night for the Browns as he rushed for 151 yards on 26 carries, caught four passes for another 51 yards and a touchdown, and threw a scoring pass. Brian Sipe (pictured at right) completed 18 of 25 throws for 199 yards and two TDs while giving up two interceptions. FB Cleo Miller, who gained 31 yards on 11 rushing attempts, also had four pass receptions, for 19 yards.

For the Patriots, Steve Grogan completed 15 of 23 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns while being picked off once. Sam Cunningham gained 70 yards on 18 carries and also topped the club with 7 pass receptions for 52 yards and another TD. Don Calhoun contributed 49 yards on 13 rushes that included a TD.

“Greg’s a great player,” said Coach Fairbanks of the Patriots about Cleveland’s Pruitt, who had played for him in college at Oklahoma. “He helped me to win a lot and now he helped take one away from me.”

The Browns had pulled off two upsets to start the season, and while they lost the next two games, they reeled off three straight victories to be in first place with a 5-2 record at the midway point. They faltered from there and the loss of Brian Sipe for the last five games proved fatal as Cleveland won only one of its last seven contests to end up at 6-8 and at the bottom of the AFC Central Division, costing Coach Gregg his job. New England lost the next week, and while the Patriots then won four straight games, a midseason slump caused them to finish at 9-5 and third in the AFC East, just missing out on a Wild Card playoff slot.

In his fifth year with the Browns, Greg Pruitt was chosen to his fourth Pro Bowl as he rushed for 1086 yards on 236 carries, both career highs, for a 4.6-yard average and caught 37 passes for 471 yards (12.7 avg.). His 1557 yards from scrimmage ranked third in the NFL. In addition to the Pro Bowl selection, he received second-team All-NFL honors from the Newspaper Enterprise Association and second-team All-AFC recognition from UPI.