What if Red Right 88 had gone right instead of wrong – so terribly wrong – for the Browns?
What if, instead of the Browns losing 14-12 to the Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC divisional playoffs at Cleveland Stadium, Brian Sipe's pass into the end zone for tight end Ozzie Newsome had been caught for a touchdown instead of being intercepted by Mike Davis, and they would have won 19-14?
What, then, would the Browns, by advancing, have done in the conference championship game at San Diego against the Chargers, who moved on with a 20-14 win over the Buffalo Bills in their divisional game?
No one will ever know for sure, obviously, but with Sunday's game at Cleveland Browns Stadium marking the 16th time the teams have met since that season, it is at least an interesting question to ponder. For the answer of what would – or might – have happened in a Browns-Chargers AFC title game 29 years ago, we sought out Sam Rutigliano. Now 77, he still lives in the same Waite Hill home in Cleveland's eastern suburbs that he did in 1980 when he was the third-year head coach of the Browns.
"To be honest, I don't think we would have matched up very well against the Chargers, not offensively but defensively," Rutigliano said. "They were better defensively than we were."
With Sipe, Newsome, wide receivers Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan, and running backs Mike and Greg Pruitt and Calvin Hill, the Browns could score points.
Sipe broke most of the team's single-season passing records in 1980, including yards with 4,132 and touchdowns with 30.
The Browns had five players catch 50 or more passes, and one who didn't, Hill, had a team-leading six TD grabs among his 27 receptions.
Mike Pruitt rushed for 1,034 yards, the second of what would turn out to be three straight 1,000-yard seasons, and also led the club in catches with 63.
The Browns scored consistently all season, finishing with 357 points.
The Chargers, of course, had three Hall of Famers in quarterback Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow, the father of the former Browns tight end by the same name, and wide receiver Charlie Joiner. Wide receiver John Jefferson and running back Chuck Muncie were also significant contributors.
Like Sipe, Fouts threw for 30 TDs, but he had 500 more yards, with 4,715, and 10 more interceptions, 24. Winslow had a team-leading 89 receptions for nine TDs, Jefferson 82 catches for 13 scores and Joiner 71 grabs for four TDs. Muncie rushed for 659 yards and averaged almost five yards – 4.9 – per carry.
The result was that the Chargers amassed 418 points, fourth-most in a season when there was a lot of scoring in the league.
Safe to say, then, there would have been a lot of points put on the board if the Chargers and Browns had played.
But as he said, Rutigliano believes the Chargers, who actually gave up 17 more points than the Browns (327 to 310), were better defensively. San Diego twice allowed 40 or more points, and 38 another time. The season high against the Browns was 34 points in the opener by the New England Patriots, who finished second in the league for the season with 441 points.
Rutigliano also believes the Raiders were better defensively than the Browns, which may have been one reason why Oakland, a wild card out of the West, stunned the division champion Chargers 34-27 in the AFC Championship Game and then went on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 27-10 in the Super Bowl.
"We should have been the ones playing San Diego because we should have beaten the Raiders," Rutigliano said. "Yet they beat San Diego, which was the best team of the four conference finalists, and then beat Philadelphia as well.
"It bothered me for a while that we didn't win that game, but I've always been one to be able to put things behind me pretty quickly. The other people, though, in the organization – (owner) Art Modell, (general manager) Peter Hadhazy and all of the clowns from downtown, as I called them -- were bothered a lot, and for a long time, by Red Right 88. They didn't harp on it, but you could tell it bothered them.
"When I left to coach the AFC in the Pro Bowl that year, I was glad to get away from it."
Because a lot of people at the time were wondering, too, what would have happened had the Browns and Chargers met in the 1980 AFC title game, ABC paired them at Cleveland in the first Monday Night Football game of '81, and San Diego won easily 44-14.
"It was a track meet," Rutigliano recalled. "We fell behind early and couldn't catch up. They beat us pretty good."
The Browns returned the favor with a 30-24 overtime win at San Diego in 1983 on Sipe's 48-yard TD pass to back-up tight end Harry Holt.
"We outgunned them that day," Rutigliano said. "We made as many big plays as they did in regulation, and then in overtime, we made one more play than they did."
Rutigliano said that on the Saturday night before the game against the Raiders, after the team had finished its preparation for the contest, he took some time to think about how the Browns might do if they could just make it to the AFC title game against the Chargers. San Diego had edged Buffalo a few hours earlier.
He – and countless Browns fans and players from that time -- might even think about it now, all these years later.
It's an issue that will linger for the ages, just like Red Wrong – er, Right – 88.