1976 vs. Pittsburgh
Browns 18, Steelers 16
October 10, 1976
He planted the quarterback on his head, nearly drilling him into the ground. One move earned him a lifetime pass into the heart of Browns fans. And a lifetime of scorn in Pittsburgh. In Cleveland, they called him Turkey. In Pittsburgh, they called him all sorts of things--none of them nice.
With 10:46 remaining in the game, Cleveland defensive end Joe ''Turkey'' Jones burst through from the left side, wrapped his arms around quarterback Terry Bradshaw, hoisted him, and dumped him on his noggin as if he were tossing a sack of garbage into a dumpster. Flags flew, tempers flared and Bradshaw squirmed. Jones owned the moment. But a teammate owned the day. And the city. Ironically, Dave Mays got his chance when starting Browns quarterback Brian Sipe departed with a concussion in the second quarter. Sipe's backup, Mike Phipps, was sidelined with a shoulder separation. Enter Mays, better known as Dr. Dave Mays, dentist and third-string quarterback wrapped in one. To this point, he was best known for drilling teeth, not passes. Soon that would change.
Mays' statistics weren't eye-popping in this win: he completed five of nine passes for seventy yards and ran three times for fourteen more. But in Cleveland, beating Pittsburgh meant conquering the world. That's what Mays did.
''Dave Mays had a career in one Sunday afternoon,'' said Browns offensive tackle Doug Dieken. ''For the people of Cleveland, when you beat Pittsburgh, it was almost like, 'Screw the rest of the season.' You can make or break your season just by beating them.''
You can also etch your name forever into the minds of Cleveland
fans. That's what Mays and Jones accomplished on the same day.
Once upon a time, a win over Pittsburgh was greeted with a yawn. It was almost a guaranteed occurence, like snow in January. From 1950-1973, the Browns won thirty-five of the forty-eight meetings. Pittsburgh swept Cleveland only once.
But the reversal started, in 1969, when the Steelers drafted defensive tackle Joe Greene. The next year they plucked Bradshaw with the first pick in the draft and defensive back Mel Blount in the third round. They followed that with linebacker Jack Ham, in 1971 and running back Franco Harris a year later. Here were their first three picks in '74: receiver Lynn Swann, linebacker Jack Lambert, and receiver John Stallworth. Center Mike Webster was the fifth choice.
All but Swann and Stallworth are in the Hall of Fame. They still might make it.
That's why the Steelers were a feared team in 1974. The Browns weren't. So the rivalry turned, with Pittsburgh winning five straight, including a 31-14 triumph in the first meeting in 1976. Each victory stoked the rivalry's fire in Cleveland and heightened the fans' hatred.
Then the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls starting in 1974. The Browns hadn't even reached the postseason since '72 and had lost twenty-one games in the Steelers two championship seasons. Suddenly, Browns fans loathed the Steelers, and their black-and-gold-dressed faitfhul who flocked to the stadium, sometimes numbering more than ten thousand. More than a few would leave with bloodied, but smiling, lips after a Steeler win.
''All of a sudden, they were the king of the mountain, and they stuffed it down the Cleveland fans' throats,'' Dieken recalled. ''And that regurgitated to us, and we got tired of hearing it. When we'd go [to Pittsburgh], we'd take the bus, and beer cans would be bouncing off the bus, and you'd be saluted that you were number one.
''It was like a playoff game. You don't want to think you cranked it up to a higher level, but you did. There was a lot of pride and honor on the line. And it was always physical. We got Lambert thrown out of two or three games, which was probably the best part of our game plan. One time he hit someone in front of our sidelines, and [offensive lineman] Henry Sheppard, who wasn't in the game, walked a foot onto the field and said, 'Nice hit, Jackie.' Jack turned around, took a swing, and got a personal foul.
''In the last game of the 1983 season, Jack hit Brian in front of our bench, and I went over to get Jack. Jack went down, and a couple guys came off our bench, [tight end Harry] Holt and [nose tackle Dave] Puzzuoli, and decided to do a tap dance on Jack. It was not uncommon to end up with a minor rhubarb.''
A rivalry had always existed between these similar Rust Belt cities, produced by a shared mindset. Both cities were filled with hard-working, blue-collar citizens, many of whom punched a clock in steel mills. Football provided their release. So they filled the stadiums and unleashed their emotion, saving it most for their turnpike rivals, who were only two and a half hours away.
''Pittsburgh was way beyond the Cincinnati game,'' said Cleveland defensive tackle Jerry Sherk. ''The townspeople identified with it more than any other game, so when we played Pittsburgh, it was an unbelievable week. You could sense the mood of the town before and after the game. If we won the game, the town would be on fire and people would go to work for a couple weeks in a positive mood. And if we lost the game, it would be the exact opposite.''
Beating the Steelers, or at least the notion of it, unified Browns fans.
''You'd have some blue-collar guy talking in a bar downtown with a high-powered attorney,'' Sherk said, ''and they'd both have the same point of view: 'We have to kill those guys.' ''
Both teams wanted to kill anyone in this game. Each side was 1-3,
with their seasons slipping away.
Sipe, who was in his first season as the full-time starter and had yet to capture the city, was having a bad day, thanks to the Pittsburgh pass rush. The Steelers repeatedly knocked him woozy, causing Sipe at one point to forget the formations. Finally, in the second quarter, he left the game with the Browns trailing, 10-6.
Enter Mays, the unlikely hero. He was a twenty-seven-year-old rookie making his NFL debut, one year after completing dental school at the University of Southern California.
Mays's only professional experience came, in 1974, when he played for Houston and Shreveport in the World Football League. But the former Texas Southern quarterback had showed enough in training camp to beat out Will Cureton for the third-string job.
''I was surprised I made the team,'' said Mays, who answered to ''Doc,'' and who later became known as ''Dr. Bomb.'' His lack of confidence was evident to some.
''He was the most insecure guy I've ever known,'' said Dan Coughlin, then a backup Browns writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. ''All the time he'd come up to me and say, 'What are the coaches saying about me? What are the coaches saying?' He had a rifle arm and could throw it far, but the team did not have any great confidence in him. He was a nice guy and I liked him, but he didn't have the emotional makeup to be a quarterback. It was also tough being a black quarterback [the Browns' first and only]. I'm not sure the Browns players were ready for that.''
Black quarterbacks were a rarity. Add to it Mays's small-school background, and he had twice as much to prove and overcome.
''It had to weigh on him,'' safety Thom Darden said. ''There's no doubt in my mind that you can't place a guy in that position, which is The Position, and with the turmoil of the times, and in Cleveland where there's a significant black population, and not have him feel pressure to succeed. He really never had a chance to command the team, and that's why he wasn't as confident as he could have been, because the team was never his. But he always came in and made something happen because of his strong arm.''
Whether or not some of his teammates, or the city, were ready for a black quarterback is debatable. But both were ready to win. Mays helped them do that. When he entered the game, quarterbacks coach Blanton Collier delivered a simple message: Block out the crowd, block out everything. The Browns eased Mays's mind by calling the plays in the second quarter, but the offense didn't move and Pittsburgh maintained its 10-6 lead at halftime.
Two Don Cockroft field goals, from forty-one and twenty-eight yards, respectively, sandwiched Harris's one-yard run. Cleveland's second kick was set up by a forty-five-yard Sipe to Reggie Rucker completion. Pittsburgh's Roy Gerela booted a thirty-yard field in the second quarter. Mays gained control in the second half, in part because the coaches allowed him to call his own plays.
''He was on his own in the second half and did better,'' Browns
coach Forrest Gregg said.
One of the biggest calls came after cornerback Clarence Scott blocked a forty-four-yard field- goal attempt by Gerela. Mays soon called for an option pass, giving the ball to running back Greg Pruitt who floated a twenty-nine-yard pass to receiver Paul Warfield, in his first year back in Cleveland since he was traded after the 1969 season. Dieken also contributed on this drive. Cockroft's fifty-one-yard field goal was blocked by Steve Furness and Pittsburgh's L.C. Greenwood recovered--then fumbled. Dieken picked up the ball, ran for a first down, and was smothered by angry Steelers.
Fullback Cleo Miller, who played the entire game with hip, thigh, and foot injuries, punctuated this series with a one-yard touchdown run, plunging through a path created by guard Robert Jackson. Cockroft missed the extra point, but the Browns led, 12-10. ''When we got the lead, it pepped everything up,'' Mays said. ''The offensive line gave me all the time in the world.''
Mays bought himself time, too. That was needed against the Steelers, whose line included Greenwood and Greene, who had combined for ten Pro Bowls. ''I don't know if Doc had a real grasp of football, compared to Brian,'' Dieken said. ''He was just a guy who probably would be better off in a street game, but when you play Pittsburgh, that's what it turns out to be. That worked to Doc's favor. He made a lot of good plays. But by the same token, I remember him calling his own plays and calling the same play two or three times in a row, and the running back is looking at him like, 'Hey, they've figured this one out.' ''
Still, Cleveland marched downfield, getting itself in position for
another Cockroft field goal. He booted a fifty-one-yarder for a 15-10 lead after three
quarters. Meanwhile, Turkey Jones and the defense had shut down the Steelers, harassing
Bradshaw all day. They limited Harris to thirty-nine yards rushing, which was more than
any other Steeler managed. Pittsburgh gained 196 total yards. Jones was the
catalyst--Plain Dealer columnist Hal Lebovitz wrote afterward that it was his best game.
But it wasn't memorable. Until just under eleven minutes remained.
Jones was big (six-foot-six, 250 pounds) and athletic, which is why the Browns picked him in the second round of the '72 draft out of Tennessee State. His half-brother was Washington's Hall of Fame receiver Charley Taylor. At Dalworth High School in Grand Prairie, Texas, Jones was a star basketball player. In track, Jones ran the high and low hurdles, threw the shotput and discus, and high jumped.
He was also gullible. The Browns' veterans played an annual joke on the rookies at Thanksgiving, handing them directions to a nonexistent, out-of-the-way farm where they would receive free turkeys. Cleveland tackle Dick Schafrath remembered getting two or three calls from a lost Jones. Each time Schafrath told him to keep driving. Finally, Jones abandoned his efforts. But he never caught on to the joke. Jones fell for it again the next year, prompting Schafrath to nickname him ''Turkey.''
Jones performed better on the field, working his way into the starting lineup his first season. But Jones missed the 1972 season, with a knee injury, and two years later was dealt to Philadelphia, which cut him during the '75 season. The Browns quickly claimed him.
By 1976, Jones again was starting and making an impact. So when he dug in against right tackle Larry Brown, a converted tight end, Jones felt confident. Then Bradshaw dropped back to pass.
''No tackle could back up faster than I could run forward,'' Jones said. ''I took Brown upfield and turned his shoulders and came on the inside and grabbed Bradshaw and did my thing.''
A whistle blew when Jones wrapped his arms around Bradshaw. But Jones said after the game he never heard it. Then he spiked Bradshaw.
''It wasn't like it was totally innocent,'' Sherk remembered. ''But it was probably a bad decision by Joe and not preordained. Joe didn't have a malicious bone in his body. He never cheap-shotted anybody. It was more that Joe did not know his own strength. He was such a powerful man, especially from the hips down. It was almost like he used his legs and leverage to do a wild flip. They both landed on their heads.''
''Terry was a big strong guy, and he would keep struggling,'' Darden said. ''The next thing I know, Joe picked him up and dumped him on his head. He looked like a chicken with his head cut off, and his body flinched two or three times. It was something.''
Harris ran over to Jones and bumped him. The officials flagged Jones for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, marching off fifteen yards. Bradshaw was carried off on a stretcher, headed to the Browns' locker room for X-rays, and replaced by rookie Mike Kruczek.
He didn't have Mays's success. When Cockroft kicked a forty-one-yarder with less than two minutes remaining, the Browns led 18-10. Then Kruczek finally connected with Lynn Swann for a big play, completing a forty-five-yard pass. Kruczek then scored on a twenty-two- yard run late in the game. Mack Mitchell blocked the extra point and Cockroft eventually punted the ball on the game's final play.
Afterward, Jones approached Bradshaw, still lying on the trainer's table in the Browns' locker room. First, though, he had to get past Bradshaw's wife, Jo Jo Starbuck , who was flanked by two bodyguards.
''She wasn't too happy,'' Jones recalled. ''I can't say the words she used. But she swore at me, very much so. I talked to Bradshaw, told him I was sorry and that it was just in the heat of play. He said, 'I understand, Joe.' ''
Lambert didn't understand. While his teammates defended the play, Lambert snapped: ''You take somebody and smash them upside down on the ground as hard as you can--that's not trying to hurt anybody?''
The league didn't understand, and Jones said he was fined approximately $3,000, which the commissioner's office returned to him after the season. Pittsburgh fans didn't understand, either.
They shipped angry letters by the dozen, which he sent to the NFL. On the Browns next trip to Pittsburgh, in 1977, Jones said the league placed him in a separate hotel from the team for security reasons. ''I kept my mouth shut and my helmet on when I went to Pittsburgh,'' Jones said.
The 1976 game spurred a turnaround for both teams. Cleveland won
seven of its next eight games, but missed the playoffs when lowly Kansas City whipped the
Browns, 39-14, on the final day. Pittsburgh won its next ten games and lost in the AFC
Championship Game to Oakland.
Mays didn't have many more heroic moments in a Browns uniform, though in 1977, his last year with Cleveland, he rallied the team with three fourth-quarter touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. Too bad the Browns trailed, 35-10, at the time and lost, 35-31. With Sipe hurt again, Mays led Cleveland to a win the next week but then lost three straight and played poorly. It was his last season with the Browns.
In 1994, he was sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison after being found guilty of welfare fraud. Two years earlier, he had been acquitted of trying to kill a fellow dentist. His is a sad story.
But Jones still relishes his role in Browns history. Even now, Jones, a free-service clerk for American Airlines in Florida, is asked about the play, particularly in Cleveland. Coworkers will hear Bradshaw talk about the dunking once in a while on pregame shows and they'll say to Jones, in wonderment, ''You're the guy that did that.'' Jones just chuckles, secure that he's remembered for something.
''That,'' Jones said, ''is the play that everyone talks about.''
C - Cockroft 43 FG. Browns, 3-0
P - Harris 1 run (Gerela kick). Steelers, 7-3
C - Cockroft 28 FG. Steelers, 7-6
P - Gerela 30 FG. Steelers, 10-6
C - Miller 1 run (kick failed). Browns, 12-10
C - Cockroft 50 FG. Browns, 15-10
C - Cockroft 40 FG. Browns, 18-10
P - Kruczek 22 run (kick blocked). Browns, 18-16