Column: Cleveland Browns’ road playoff victory takes USD coach back to ’69

If you were stunned to see the Cleveland Browns go up 28 points on the Pittsburgh Steelers last week in an NFL playoff game, it didn’t mark you as a football rube.

In Rancho Bernardo, football lifer Dale Lindsey stared in disbelief.

“I was shocked to see what was going on,” said the University of San Diego’s head coach, who played in eight NFL playoff games as a Browns linebacker and coached on San Diego’s only Super Bowl team.

It wasn’t that Lindsey, 77, regarded the Browns as chumps.

He knew that seven days earlier, they’d knocked off the Steelers to claim their first playoff berth in 18 years.

It boiled down to this: He’d been conditioned to expect the Steelers to win. For one, the Browns had lost their previous 17 games in Pittsburgh. Also, the Steelers had rested several frontline players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, during the season finale at Cleveland.

“I really wasn’t too keen on watching that game,” said Lindsey. “I thought, ‘Well, this’ll be a typical Cleveland-Pittsburgh game.’ ”

The first quarter of the game was so strange, a painting of it should be commissioned and displayed at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “Football Surrealism” would be the title.

The Steelers blundered up 14 quick points for Cleveland. “That was so not typical of a Pittsburgh team,” said Lindsey. “You might beat them. But they don’t beat themselves.”

The Browns, looking sharp, hungry and all too grateful to take the longtime bullies to the woodshed, drove the score to 28-0 by quarter’s end. “I was completely floored,” said Lindsey.

The surprise for Lindsey didn’t end with Cleveland’s 48-37 victory.

He found out this week the Wild Card round upset was his former team’s first playoff win on the road … in a football eternity.

Not since Lindsey started as a 223-pound middle linebacker 51 years ago in a 38-14 victory against the Dallas Cowboys had the Browns brought a playoff victory back to Cleveland.

Back then, the Browns were playoff regulars. Five years earlier, they won the NFL title game, 27-0, behind the great Jim Brown.

The ’69 team had three other Hall of Famers on offense: running back Leroy Kelly; split end Paul Warfield and right guard Gene Hickerson.

Kelly, said Lindsey, had “great quickness and change of direction.”

Lindsey said no receiver he has seen could match Warfield save perhaps Lance Alworth, the San Diego Hall of Famer.

“He never looked like his cleats were totally in the ground,” he said. “It looked like he ran on top of the blade of grass. He was a beautiful sight to behold when he was running. He really was a piece of poetry in motion.” In addition, Warfield was “an exceptionally tough, physical guy” and good blocker.

Lindsey described the team’s defenders “as ragtag” players who knew how to play and maintained group discipline.

The playoff game against Dallas was a rematch of a November contest the Browns won at Cleveland. Though he suggested dreary weather at the Cotton Bowl aided the Browns by slowing Cowboys speedsters headed by Bob Hayes, he said the Browns earned a victory long on substance.

“Our coaches just convinced us they were more of a finesse team than a hard-nosed team,” said Lindsey, who relayed calls to teammates after reading line coach Dick Modzelewski’s signals from the sideline, “and we were encouraged to play as physical as we could, and everybody responded.”

What took so long?

As the Browns left the Cotton Bowl, the football world didn’t like their chances of winning the next week at Minnesota. After all, the Vikings had blasted them, 51-3, that season and gone on to lead the 16-team NFL on offense and defense. They were known as “Purple People Eaters,” largely because of a defensive line that sent all four starters to the Pro Bowl.

So it wasn’t an upset when the Browns lost 27-7.

But not winning another road game in the playoffs for the next 50 years?

That would’ve been unthinkable of the Browns, as they prepared for the 1970 season. By 1971 and 1972, they made it back to the playoffs. (Imperiling what is, to this day, the only perfect season through Super Bowl’s end, the ’72 team took a fourth-quarter lead as 12.5-point underdogs at Miami, only to lose 20-14.)

The Browns went to the playoffs seven times in 10 seasons between 1980-89 and again in 1994 and 2002 but lost all six postseason contests on the road — two apiece at Denver and Pittsburgh to go with one in Los Angeles to the Raiders and another in Miami.

The six losses came under four different head coaches: Marty Schottenheimer (0-3), Bud Carson (0-1), Bill Belichick (0-1) and Butch Davis (0-1).

What next?

Lindsey said he has no sentimental attachment to the Browns, although the Browns helmet he wore was the most treasured of his possessions in storage, until it was lost to a fire that destroyed his house in 2008.

He will watch the AFC Divisional matchup Sunday between the Browns (12-5) and No. 1-seeded Chiefs (14-2), but said it’s the fans of each team that will tug at his emotions.

“I’m happy for the fans in Cleveland because those are some of the best fans that you’ll find anywhere in the NFL,” he said. “I really miss seeing the stadiums full and the crowds getting into it. Kansas City has some of the most rabid fans you will find anywhere. They are great football people there. They get into the game and they know football, they know what’s going on.”

As was true in 1969, the Browns lean more on their offense. The ’69 offense was third of 16 teams in points scored. This year’s offense finished 14th of 32. Each offense drew upon reliable blocking and an effective blend between run and pass.

The Chiefs loomed as a big challenge for both Browns teams.

Beating the ’69 Vikings would’ve matched coach Blanton Collier’s Browns against Hank Stram’s fast, powerful Chiefs in Super Bowl IV. The Vikings scooped up standard NFL vanilla on offense: Their offense was so basic they never shifted nor put a man in motion even once that day, per Super Bowl historian Bob McGinn. The Chiefs rolled to a 23-7 victory, while showing offensive creativity fostered in the upstart American Football League.

Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs will again turn to a creative, fast offense. A victory would send Cleveland to its first AFC title game since the 1989 team fell at Denver — the third time in four seasons the Browns lost to John Elway and the Broncos one step shy of the Super Bowl.




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