By David Carducci
CLEVELAND - The Cleveland Browns watched their playoff hopes continue to fade away in a blizzard of beer bottles and the heartbreak of a 15-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
A potential game-winning drive came to a screeching halt late in the fourth quarter when referee Terry McAulay ruled after watching instant replay that Browns receiver Quincy Morgan had dropped a fourth-down pass at the Jaguars' 9-yard line.
Enraged by the overturned call, Browns fans bombarded the playing field with 20-ounce, plastic beer bottles in a scene that conjured disturbing memories of Indians' fans storming the field at 10-cent beer night in 1974 and Browns' fans ripping out their seats and throwing them on the field during the final game at old Municipal Stadium in 1995.
"I've never seen a game, heard of a game or been involved in a game like this," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "I understand (the fans') frustration. I want this team, the city and everything to be first class. It's disappointing."
The Browns and their fans appeared to have a reason to be frustrated when McAulay overturned a ruling on the field that Morgan had caught a 3-yard pass, giving the Browns a first down with 48 seconds left in the game.
After Morgan was tackled by safety James Boyd at the 9-yard line, the Browns quickly rushed to the line of scrimmage where Tim Couch spiked the ball to stop the clock.
According to McAulay, just before the Browns ran the play he was buzzed by a replay official in the press box, calling for Morgan's catch to be reviewed. NFL rules state that a play can not be reviewed after another play has been run. While McAulay did not raise his hands to stop the play until after Couch had spiked the ball to the ground, he still decided to review Morgan's catch.
"We are playing football and I realize the buzzer has gone off," said McAulay, who then asked umpire Carl Pagnelli if he had felt the buzzer before the Browns snapped the ball on the next play.
"My first question is `did (the buzzer) absolutely (go off) before the snap," said McAulay. "I then went to the replay (booth) to confirm it. I asked (replay official) Bill Reynolds, `did you press the buzzer prior to the snap?' He said, absolutely, 100-percent. At that point we had a legal review. We go in and review the play."
Once he watched the replay, McAulay said the evidence was "absolutely" irrefutable that Morgan had dropped the ball.
"On contact the ball is coming loose, it hits the ground, incomplete pass," said McAulay. "(Morgan) has it on his hip, it's coming loose and it hits the ground."
As soon as McAulay announced the ruling, turning possession of the football over to the Jaguars on a turnover on downs, the fans flew into a frenzy.
"As we lined up, a bottle zipped past my head and by all the Jacksonville players' heads," said McAulay. "At that point I decided that it was just too dangerous to finish the game."
McAulay pulled both teams off the field with 48 seconds still remaining on the clock, declaring the game over. According to NFL rules, only commissioner Paul Tagliabue has the power to call an end to a game.
"The commissioner called (NFL observer) Dick McKenzie and said we had to go back out there and finish the game," said McAulay.
After a delay of more than 25 minutes, 11 Browns and 11 Jaguars returned to a near empty stadium to run off the final 48 seconds.
Most of the Browns were in the shower when the call was made to return to the field.
"We just grabbed whoever was in the locker room at the time and came back out," said tight end O.J. Santiago, who was one of the players on the field at the end. Marquis Smith was also on the field, but he wore teammate Wali Rainer's jersey. Cornerback Dyshod Carter was wearing Dwayne Rudd's No. 57. Earl Little threw his cleats back on over his bare feet.
Jaguars' coach Tom Coughlin was already addressing the media when he was told to lead his team back to the field.
"The whole thing was just very strange," said Santiago. "To go out there just so they could take a knee two times."
The fans weren't the only ones upset with McAulay's instant-replay decision. Morgan insisted he did not drop the pass and defended the fans' actions.
"I caught the ball," said Morgan. "I know I caught the ball. I hit the ground, got up and spit the ball up on the ground ... Fans are going to be fans. They were upset. That's going to happen. After a call like that, they have to defend their Browns."
While the Browns and their fans may have a reason to be upset, their own poor performance on offense put themselves in position to lose.
"Offensively, we put ourselves in a bad situation," said Couch, who completed 21-of-30 passes for 184 yards and one interception. "We definitely lost the game offensively. Our defense gave us every chance to go ahead and win it. We made it close and left it up to the officials to win or lose it for us. Unfortunately, that's the way the offense played today."
The Browns best offense was its defense. For the second week in a row, a Browns cornerback returned an interception for the team's only touchdown. This time it was rookie phenom Anthony Henry who stepped in front of Jim Smith to pick off a Mark Brunell pass, then race 97 yards for the score. The return cut the Jaguars' lead to 9-7 with 2:28 left in the third quarter.
Henry intercepted two passes, giving him nine for the season and breaking the team record for interceptions by a rookie set by Bobby Franklin in 1960. The 97-yard return tied a record for longest in team history, matching a return by Najee Mustafaa on Oct. 10, 1993 against Miami.
"If there is a rookie in this league having a better season than Anthony, I don't know who it might be," said Davis. "This kid is playing phenomenal. His interception turned the entire ballgame around. It gave us a chance to get back into the ballgame."
Another big defensive play gave the Browns a prime opportunity to vault in the lead in the fourth quarter. Greg Spires hit Brunell as he cocked his arm to throw, forcing a fumble that defensive tackle Mark Smith fell on at the Jaguars' 13. The struggling Browns' offense failed to take advantage of their good fortune, picking up just two yards in four plays before settling for a 29-yard Phil Dawson field goal that cut the Jaguars' lead to 12-10 with 8:09 remaining.
Led by Jamir Miller (3 sacks), the Browns defense sacked Jaguars' quarterback Mark Brunell eight times. The only touchdown surrendered by the Browns' defense was on the game's opening drive, when the Jaguars marched 67 yards in 15 plays and took the lead on Brunell's 4-yard slant to Jim Smith in the end zone. The Jaguars added a 43-yard field goal by Mike Hollis in the first quarter and a 37-yard field goal in the fourth.
As promised, Butch Davis shook up the lineup for the home finale with the Jaguars.
Changes were expected on the offensive line, where Brad Bedell took over at right guard, Shaun O'Hara replaced Jeremy McKinney at left guard and Ross Verba moved from left guard to left tackle, replacing Roman Oben.
The day's surprise move came on the defensive side of the ball, where Davis switched the position of the Browns' most productive player. Jamir Miller, who recorded a team-high 10 sacks as an outside linebacker in the season's first 12 games, started at right defensive end. The Browns have been short-handed at defensive end with Keith McKenzie on Injured Reserve and Courtney Brown missing his second straight game with an ankle injury. Miller responded to the move with three sacks of Jaguars' quarterback Mark Brunell.
The unexpected move of Miller led to another surprise in Marquis Smith getting the start at outside linebacker.
"I've been getting ready to play linebacker," said Smith, who played safety in his first two seasons with the Browns, but has practiced as a linebacker for several weeks. "Right now, a couple people are nicked up, so they inserted me into the lineup at linebacker. We'll see what happens."
The Browns' offense opened the game in a two-running back set, featuring James Jackson and Jamel White together in the same backfield.
Although they had never played or practiced together, the tandem was effective a week earlier in New England when injuries forced the Browns' coaching staff into some impromptu experimentation.
Unfortunately, the continuation of the experiment didn't make it through the first quarter against the Jaguars. Jackson left the game with two minutes left in the opening quarter when he re-aggravated a left ankle sprain while picking up a first down on a 2-yard, third-down carry.
With Jackson sidelined, White became the focal point of the Browns offense. The second-year back led the team with nine carries for 33 yards and five catches for 39 yards. The Browns stayed with the two-back set with Ben Gay filling in at running back and H-back.
Referee Terry McAuley said he was worried about his safety. Jaguars' coach Tom Coughlin was afraid for himself and his players. Even Browns' quarterback Tim Couch was anxious as his own fans fired thousands of 20-ounce, plastic beer bottles onto the field late in the fourth quarter Sunday.
"I was definitely looking over my shoulder for bottles flying, that kind of stuff," said Couch. "I was just staying out of the way. I didn't want to get hit by anything, so it was definitely a concern."
Everyone seemed to be concerned, with the exception of the Browns' ownership. Team president Carmen Policy refused to criticize the fans for their mob behavior in the wake of a questionable ruling by McAulay that ended a potential game-winning drive for the Browns.
"You haven't heard me criticize the officials in this situation, and if I'm not going to criticize the officials, I am certainly not going to criticize the fans of Cleveland," said Browns president Carmen Policy.
According to Policy, the near riot was not a black eye to the city or its fans. He even came close to justifying the fans actions based on the officials handling of the replay situation that led to Quincy Morgan's fourth-down catch being ruled incomplete with 48 seconds left in the game.
"I think a lot has happened. The fans hearts were ripped out," said Policy. "I think this is a situation where a lot can be expected from these events that were handled the way the were handled ... I am not condoning it, nor am I criticizing it. We all saw what happened and can form our own judgment.
"I don't think Cleveland will take a black eye from this. I like the fact that our fans cared. They care about their team and they cared about this game."
While McAulay, Coughlin, Couch and most of the players and coaches who ran for the locker room while fans bombarded the field admitted to being scared, Policy and owner Al Lerner claimed there was no reason to be afraid.
"It wasn't pleasant," said Lerner. "I wouldn't suggest anything like that, but it wasn't World War III. It's a very emotional situation. It's our third year. We haven't had football in Cleveland for a while. We are theoretically, or were theoretically in a playoff equation, and something very weird happened. We didn't have the most stable people in the world sitting in the stands, and people reacted. Nobody for one second is condoning that, nor do we think they should plug in the electric chair as soon as they find those people."
Jaguars receiver Keenan McCardell remembered another day when angry Browns fans bombarded the playing field. McCardell was a member of the "old" Browns, and was in Municipal Stadium when fans ripped seats out of the stadium and tossed them on the field during the final home game of 1995 in protest of the team's impending move to Baltimore.
"This is a great football city, but to be honest it disgusts me," said McCardell. "For some great fans, this was just disgusting. I never thought I would see it again, but I saw it again. It brought back memories of 1995 ... In `95 we had chairs coming out of the stands, not just beer bottles. The Dawg Pound was `toe up.' I just never thought I would see it again."