Sunday, September 23, 2007

It Didn't Start With Red Right 88

The Cleveland Browns travel to Oakland today to take on the 0-2 Raiders. As every Cleveland fan knows only too well, the Browns have an unpleasant history with the Raiders, but what some fans may not know is that the unpleasantness didn't start with Red Right 88. The Browns and their fans had their hearts broken by the Raiders the very first time that the two teams met.

The Cleveland Browns first played the Oakland Raiders on November 8, 1970. The game turned out to be a wild affair that the Raiders won, 23-20, on a last second field goal by 43-year old George Blanda. That game was one of an amazing series of comebacks led by Blanda that season, and helped to propel the Raiders to the AFC Championship game. At the same time, the Browns' loss helped to ensure that the team missed the postseason for the first time since 1963 (okay, I'm counting the 1967 Playoff Bowl).

The Browns led the Raiders 17-13 when they knocked Daryl Lamonica out of the game early in the 4th quarter, and they increased that lead to 20-13 on a Don Cockroft field goal with a little more than four minutes to play. It was at this point that Lamonica's replacement, kicker and backup QB George Blanda, went to work. Blanda lead the Raiders on a 70 yard drive that included a 17 yard pass to Fred Biletnikoff on 4th and 16, and culminated in a touchdown pass to Warren Wells.

The Browns got the ball back with 1:34 to play, but the Browns promptly turned the ball over when Bill Nelsen threw an interception, and the Raiders had a chance for the winning score. However, the Cleveland defense stiffened, and the Raiders were forced to try a 52 yard field goal. Blanda had only kicked two field goals longer than that distance in his entire career, but nevertheless, he struck the ball squarely from his own 48 yard line (the goal posts were on the goal line back then, remember?) and drilled it through the uprights as time expired.

Blanda's heroics continued the next week against Denver, where his touchdown pass in the last minute of play led the Raiders to a 24-19 victory. The following week, he kicked a late field goal to beat the Chargers, 20-17. The team finished 8-4-2 that year, and counting an appearance against the Steelers, when he relieved an injured Lamonica with the score tied 7-7 and led the Raiders to a 31-14 victory, and a last second, 48 yard field goal to tie the Chiefs, Blanda's miracles saved the Raiders from five defeats in 1970. Not bad for a guy that the Raiders tried to waive at the beginning of the season.

The Browns went 7-7 that season, which was the worst record in franchise history up until that time. To make matters worse, Paul Brown's bastard child, the Cincinnati Bengals, ended up winning the inaugural AFC Central title. That was a depressing start to what turned out to be a depressing decade for the Cleveland Browns.

The loss to the Raiders in 1970 was a small but memorable component in the Browns slow decline. Today, just maybe, the Browns have a chance to take a small step in the opposite direction, as they seek their first back to back victories in the same season since 2003. I think there are two key questions that have to be answered in assessing the Browns' prospects today. The first is whether the Browns offense that we saw last week is for real, or just the Crennel regime's version of the dead cat bounce. If there really is some spark in the offense, then the second question is whether the defensive line can slow LaMont Jordan down enough to prevent the game from turning into a track meet?

My own take is that the offense isn't going to score 51 points this week, but that the improvement on the offensive line isn't a mirage. That means that Jamal Lewis will be able to run effectively against a Raider defense that's been pretty unimpressive during the first two weeks of the season. If that's the case, then the rest of the playbook opens up and the Browns are going to be in the game. However, Cleveland's defense stinks, and I think we are looking at the potential for another track meet.

I don't like the prospects of trying to win by trading scores all afternoon in front of a hostile crowd, so I'm going to give the nod to the Raiders, 31-27.

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