After nearly three years of struggling offensively - and not making the playoffs -- while posting just one winning record under ultra-strict, disciplinarian head coach Forrest Gregg, the Browns in 1978 decided to take a softer approach to liven up their attack - and their team.
They did so by going off the beaten path and hiring a virtual unknown assistant at the time, New Orleans Saints receivers coach Sam Rutigliano, to replace Gregg, who was fired with one game left in the 1977 season. Rutigliano was the fourth head coach hired by Art Modell in his 18 years as club owner to that point, and it marked the first time Modell had not promoted from within the organization to fill the spot.
Although it took a while for things to develop, the idea of bringing in someone from the outside nonetheless worked. With Rutigliano, who was as progressive, innovative and forward-thinking of an offensive mind as there was in the game at the time, running the show, the once-stagnant Browns attack scored 30 or more points four times in eight games in the second half of that season.
More importantly, Rutigliano was able to jump-start the career of quarterback Brian Sipe, which would pay huge dividends for the team two years later when he won the NFL Most Valuable Player award and led the Browns to the AFC Central title. He finished with 21 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in 1978 for a quarterback rating of 80.7, by far his best numbers in his five seasons with the Browns.
The 1978 Browns started well, winning their first three games over the San Francisco 49ers (24-7), Cincinnati Bengals (13-10 in overtime) and Atlanta Falcons (24-16). They then stood 4-2 after beating the Saints 24-16 three games later.
But in the process of the Browns offense getting revved up, the defense soon started to come unglued. Yes, the Browns were scoring a lot of points in those final eight games, but they were giving up a lot, too. In fact, they surrendered 34 or more points in three successive games at the very end of the year.
The result was an 8-8 finish in which the Browns were outscored by 22 points overall, 356 to 334, in the first year that the NFL expanded from a 14- to a 16-game regular season.
With those two point totals so close, it's not hard to believe, then, that the vast majority of the games, regardless if they were high- or low-scoring affairs, were close and exciting - and fun to watch as well, drawing the fans' interest. Three went into overtime. Six were decided by eight or fewer points. Three were decided by four or fewer points.
It all set the stage for the birth of the Kardiac Kids in 1980, when 13 of the 16 games were nail-biters.
A real downer, though, was the way in which the Browns finished the 1978 season. After a 30-19 home win over a Los Angeles Rams team that would go 12-4 and advance to the NFC Championship Game, the Browns had a real confidence about themselves. They were 7-6 with three games to play against teams they felt they could beat in Seattle (which eventually finished 9-7), the New York Jets (8-8) and Cincinnati (4-12).
They edged the Jets 37-34 in OT, but got blown out by both the Seahawks (47-24) and Bengals (48-16) to fail to qualify for the playoffs.
As the 1978 season wound down, it was clear the Browns were getting better under Rutigliano's guidance and that the groundwork for even bigger things had been laid. But even with that, they weren't quite ready yet for prime time on a consistent basis.
|9/3||W 24-7||San Francisco 49ers||68,973|
|9/10||W 13-10||Cincinnati Bengals (OT)||72,691|
|9/17||W 24-16||at Atlanta Falcons||56,648|
|9/24||L 9-15||at Pittsburgh Steelers (OT)||49,573|
|10/1||L 13-16||Houston Oilers||72,776|
|10/8||W 24-16||at New Orleans Saints||50,158|
|10/15||L 14-34||Pittsburgh Steelers||81,302|
|10/22||L 3-17||at Kansas City Chiefs||41,157|
|10/29||W 41-20||Buffalo Bills||51,409|
|11/5||L 10-14||at Houston Oilers||45,827|
|11/12||L 7-19||Denver Broncos||70,856|
|11/19||W 45-24||at Baltimore Colts||45,341|
|11/26||W 30-19||Los Angeles Rams||55,158|
|12/3||L 24-47||at Seattle Seahawks||62,262|
|12/10||W 37-34||New York Jets (OT)||36,881|
|12/17||L 16-48||at Cincinnati Bengals||46,985|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||293||329|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||85/217||96/230|
|3rd Down Pct.||39.20%||41.70%|
|Total Net Yards||5,347||5,352|
|Avg. Per Game||334.2||334.5|
|Avg. Per Play||5.2||4.9|
|Net Yards Rushing||2,488||2,149|
|Avg. Per Game||155.5||134.3|
|Net Yards Passing||2,859||3,203|
|Avg. Per Game||178.7||200.2|
|Net Punting Avg.||79/34.5||82/34.5|