Mike Phipps never achieved the stardom predicted for him on Draft Day in 1970, but he won't complain about his time as the Cleveland Browns' quarterback.
"In no way am I disappointed with my time in Cleveland," Phipps said. "My seven years there were an outstanding experience. I gave it all I had and don't wish that I had done anything different. I accept whatever happened. If I had not done all I could, then that would have been a regret."
Phipps' standing in the eyes of the fans was doomed from the start. Art Modell had traded fan favorite and future Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield to Miami for the Dolphins' first-round pick in the 1970 draft. Cleveland used that pick to select Phipps, who had an outstanding career at Purdue University.
His first two years in the NFL were spent behind starter Bill Nelsen. Given the starting job in 1972, Phipps played well despite a less-than formidable supporting cast. His primary receivers were Frank Pitts (36 receptions) and Fair Hooker (32), but Phipps helped Cleveland to a 10-4 record that included winning eight of the last nine games.
That put the Browns into the playoffs against the mighty Miami Dolphins, where Cleveland nearly pulled a Herculean upset. "For that playoff game against Miami, we were all very excited," Phipps recalled. "It was a very memorable game. We played very well and took the lead 14-13. Then they had an 80-yard drive to go ahead. We just couldn't quite pull it off."
Miami scored on a blocked punt return and then got a field goal by Garo Yepremian to lead, 10-0. Phipps, who totaled 47 yards rushing on eight carries, then ran for a 5-yard TD to make it 10-7. After Yepremian kicked another field goal, Phipps threw a 27-yard scoring pass to Fair Hooker with 8:11 to play to put Cleveland ahead. It was the first time the Dolphins had trailed in the fourth quarter in 12 games. Miami then drove 80 yards in six plays with Jim Kiick running eight yards for the winning touchdown. Phipps tried to mount a comeback and drove the Browns deep into Dolphins territory, but was intercepted by Doug Swift with 1:15 to play. Miami, of course, went on to complete an astounding unbeaten season.
"I guess there is always a silver lining to everything," said Phipps, 54. "I would not be a very popular person here in South Florida if we had prevailed in that game."
For the past 10 years, Phipps has been with Northwestern Mutual Life in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "We also have offices in Indianapolis, but South Florida is home and we love it," he said. "I don't miss playing, but I absolutely follow the game all the time. I was lucky enough to have volunteered my services to a local high school for several years and have a lot of fun. I did it more when my kids were part of the program there."
All five of his children have played many sports. Ryan, 29, and Russell, 27, both played football at Purdue. "My daughter (Natalie, 22) is a fine athlete and so are the twins (Andy and Casey, 18)," Phipps said. "Being with them and enjoying whatever sports they participate in has been the real thrill of my life. Raising them has been the real joy."
Phipps never experienced much joy in a Browns uniform, however. Try as he might, he never could overcome the stigma of being the guy taken with the draft pick Cleveland received when it dealt the great Warfield. "I don't know if it would have been different," Phipps said when asked if the fans' angst and expectations would have been less if it had been any player other than Warfield.
Phipps essentially said that there are no "what ifs" in life, just what is. And what is in the record book is that during his four years as a starter, the team deteriorated from that 10-4 season to records of 7-5-2, 4-10 and 3-11.
By 1975, Phipps threw 19 inteceptions and only four TD passes. Stars like Hall of Fame runner Leroy Kelly, tight end Milt Morin and guard Gene Hickerson were all in rapid decline and retired. There was a coaching change, from Nick Skorich to Forrest Gregg. The once-fabled Browns running game featured such luminaries as Ken Brown, Hugh McKinnis and Billy Pritchett. And most importantly, Phipps' receivers were Hooker, Jubilee Dunbar, Steve Holden and Gloster Richardson. Nary a Warfield in the bunch.
A revamped offensive line didn't help, either. Phipps was sacked 105 times for 803 yards over those three years. By 1975, there was some hope. Newcomer Reggie Rucker gave Phipps his first legitimate target and caught a team-high 60 passes (leading the previous year was McKinnis' 32). Second-year running back Greg Pruitt rushed for 1,067 yards. That was just 10 yards short of the TWO previous leaders (Brown with 537 in 1973 and Pruitt with 540 in 1974) combined.
Warfield was brought back to help in 1976 and just when it appeared the team around Phipps had improved and that he himself had indeed evolved into the type of quarterback he had long been expected to be -- disaster struck. He suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first game and lost his job to Brian Sipe.
"The only real disappointment I did have at the time (of the injury) was that a lot of people never understood the extent that I had worked my way to improve," he said. "It took three or four years of growth to overcome the discontent of the fans.
"Remember, we went into that season with Paul in the lineup. I had worked with him all the time in training camp and the preseason. I was really looking forward to having a talent like that in the lineup. We got off to a good start against the Jets (a 38-17 win) and then I got hurt in the third quarter.
"I don't look back as to whether I had good breaks or bad breaks. I certainly do not have regrets. That's football."
Much of the success of that 9-5 team in 1976 was due to the defense, which yielded a total of 17 points in three straight wins (21-7 at Houston, 24-3 against Philadelphia and 24-7 at Tampa Bay).
Phipps sees similar progress now. "The best thing to say is the Browns are back," he said. "I was at the new stadium for the first game and really enjoyed it because the enthusiasm of the fans in Cleveland is special. It was smart to keep the colors and the historical records.
"From watching what Butch Davis did here in college at Miami, I can say that he is the perfect coach for a team that wants to build. His enthusiasm and attention to detail are fantastic."
And for those fans who still insist that Phipps never helped the Browns, focus on the detail of what his final value brought to the club. On May 3, 1977, Phipps was dealt to Chicago for the Bears' fourth-round pick in the 1977 draft and first-round pick in 1978. That first-rounder was in turn dealt to the Los Angeles Rams for first and fourth-round picks -- and THAT first-round pick was used to select Ozzie Newsome.
The Browns dealt a Hall of Fame receiver to get the chance to pick Phipps -- then dealt him for the chance to draft another Hall of Fame receiver.