Skip to main content

Club 46

Club 46: Dennis Northcutt reminisces on storied Browns career 

Northcutt is open to talking about his drop in the 2002 AFC Wild Card game, but his career is full of moments that speak to his reliability as a wide receiver

Dennis Northcutt doesn't shy away from talking about a moment many Browns fans remember from his career as a receiver in Cleveland.

It happened in the 2002 season in the Browns' first — and, for the next 18 years — only playoff game of the expansion era of the franchise. Cleveland faced third-and-12 from its own 21 and was leading 33-28 with 3 minutes left. A first down would've been massive to help the Browns drain the clock and add another nail on the coffin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were down 24-7 at one point in the third quarter but suddenly were a possession away from the lead.

Quarterback Kelly Holcomb had already thrown Northcutt six passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, so of course he was going to look for Northcutt again on the most important pass of the game.

Northcutt ran his route, veered to the left sideline and turned around for the ball.

Then, he watched the ball hit the grass after it zipped through his outstretched arms.


"I should have caught it," Northcutt said after the game. "I ran a good route, I got open and I dropped it. Plain and simple."

Eighteen years after the play, which preceded another Steelers possession that ended with the game-winning touchdown and the end of the Browns' season, Northcutt still shows no hesitancy when it comes to talking about the drop.

"I own it," Northcutt said in a recent Club 46 interview with Jay Crawford. "Cleveland deserves more than what they have gotten over these years. They deserve so much more. We had the opportunity to do something special. As a ballplayer, as a professional athlete, you're paid to do a job … I wear it on my shoulders. I accepted it as a grown man. I make no excuses."

But Northcutt's legacy extends far beyond a single play. He spent seven years with the Browns and recorded 276 receptions for 3,428 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He was a reliable receiver who specialized in getting open and creating space despite his small size — 5-feet-11, 175 pounds.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Northcutt used football as his escape from a neighborhood plagued with crime and gangs. He chose to deepen his devotion to the game rather than join his friends in partaking in risky activities, and it paid off when he made his college decision.

Northcutt attended the University of Arizona. He picked the Wildcats after USC, a school he adored as a kid growing up in LA, revoked their promise of giving him a full-time scholarship and instead suggested he spend a year at a junior college to improve his skills as an undersized receiver. Northcutt was having none of that.

At Arizona, he was the only freshman who didn't take a redshirt season. He suited up for 11 games and caught a touchdown before making his next three years one of the best any receiver has built in Tucson. When college was over, he had accrued 217 receptions, 3,186 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns.

"I had to learn and start watching film," he said. "How do smaller guys in the NFL around college, how do they get off the press? They use quickness, their feet and they use their hands just to get the (defensive back's) hands off of them. That's when I learned."

Northcutt was projected as a late first round pick in the 2000 draft class, and that's (almost) exactly where he went: 32nd overall to the Cleveland Browns, who had the first pick in the second round. His first phone call came from head coach Chris Palmer.

"Can you play in the snow," Palmer asked him.

"Absolutely," Northcutt said. He had never seen snow in his life.

"Welcome to Cleveland," Palmer said. "We're about to draft you."

The Cleveland Browns Presents: Club 46 - player stories through generations of football

Northcutt — who didn't even know where Cleveland was located at the time — was heading to Ohio. He joined a team that started from the ground up after it re-joined the NFL and assembled their roster primarily via an expansion draft. The result after the first two seasons was only five wins.

But success slowly came in 2001. The Browns reached seven wins that year behind a new coach in Butch Davis. He believed in Northcutt, who carved out a significant role in the offense and had a career year in 2002 with 601 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

He was a key player in the Browns' run to the playoffs that season, which is why Holcomb threw his way several times in their AFC Wild Card game.

Northcutt's one mistake, however, has stuck in the minds of many Browns fans over the years. He understands why.

"I had one opportunity to give them a lot of success and give them something to really hold on to," he said. "I robbed them from that opportunity to see what could have happened. For those who love me still, I appreciate it. For those who want to blame me and still have a grudge about it, I understand that too. It's part of the game. It's part of the business. I get it."

But Northcutt was able to move on. He stayed in Cleveland for four of his final seven seasons in the NFL and continued to work. He loved the Browns, and his memories of making other plays are what comes to mind first when he thinks about his NFL career.

He didn't let one mistake define him.

"I was able to hold my head up, because I knew what kind of player I was," he said. "I knew my person. I knew my personality, my character.

"I'm always going to be a Brown to heart."

Related Content