Revisiting Raiders-Browns and 'Red Right 88': 'That was a hell of a play in our history'

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Thursday, January 4, 2024

Editor's note: This story originally published on Oct. 28, 2020 and is being re-published Thursday on the 43rd anniversary of "Red Right 88".

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden was a high school senior in South Bend, Indiana, on Jan. 4, 1981, his boyhood fandom of the Cleveland Browns long a thing of the past.

"When Paul Brown went to the Cincinnati Bengals, my dad became a Bengal fan, but I had a hard time with that so I became a Raider fan and a Houston Oiler fan," Gruden said this week.

Mark Davis, then a 25-year-old scion of Raiders iconoclast owner Al Davis, was in frigid Cleveland that day, taking in one of the greatest finishes in NFL postseason history while sitting in the elements -- 4 degrees at kickoff for the AFC divisional playoff game before dropping with a wind chill as low as minus-37.

"The suites they had there in the old stadium had glassed-in areas and outside seats," said Davis, who assumed control of the Raiders upon his father's death in 2011. "I'd come in every now and then, but I sat outside in the seats, so I felt the cold the whole game."

Though probably not as much as Tom Flores did on the frozen sidelines. Flores, in his second year as Raiders coach, surveyed the scene at massive Cleveland Municipal Stadium before kickoff and thought, if he had the opportunity to make the Browns' offense drive into the open end of the stadium, with a harsh wind blowing in off Lake Erie, in the fourth quarter, he'd jump at the opportunity.

"I thought," Flores said nearly four decades later, "it might be a factor."

And then some.

'They might have iced this one'

The then-Oakland Raiders have called Los Angeles, Oakland again and now Las Vegas home since that fateful day, and they have played in Cleveland six times since, though only once more in that ancient and now-extinct yard.

Remember the parka-, gloves- and beanie cap-wearing Flores, with the Raiders having won the opening coin flip, taking the ball and knowing he could then decide which end zone the Raiders would defend to start the second half, with an eye on the final quarter?

Or it not mattering if Mark van Eeghen had been able to convert either on third-and-1 or fourth-and-inches at the Browns' 15-yard line with less than three minutes to play and the Raiders nursing a 14-12 lead?

"I wouldn't feel too good if I was an Oakland Raider right now," offered John Brodie on the NBC telecast.

"They are ready for another Cleveland Brown finish," added his broadcast partner, Don Criqui, the noise of the crowd in the background swelling. "Fasten all seat belts. The Kardiac Kids, they call them. They will give you those heart palpitations."

Sure enough, NFL MVP Brian Sipe came to life, calmly driving the Browns into a whipping wind on an ice-slicked field. Sipe, after nearly falling on his second-down dropback, found tight end Ozzie Newsome for a 29-yard pickup down the left sideline, with Odis McKinney recovering from his own slippage to trip Newsome up before he broke free.

Four snaps later, Sipe hit Greg Pruitt for a 23-yard gain, before Mike Pruitt dashed 14 yards and added a 1-yard run as the Browns were suddenly at the Raiders' 13-yard line, calling a timeout with 49 seconds to play.

"Sipe will throw it in the cheap seats if anybody's covered," Brodie offered. "But I think it's easier to complete a pass than it would be to convert a field goal ... I will not try Lester Hayes, though."

It was second-and-9, and the Browns still had one timeout remaining. So they would run the ball one more time, let the clock run down and then send out Don Cockroft for a chip shot winning field goal, yes?

Eh ...

Cockroft had already missed two field goals and an extra point and, yes, would have been kicking into the open end of the stadium and a swirling, 21 mph wind.

"I was looking over at their sideline, and I saw the exchange," Raiders safety Mike Davis said in 2014. "I told Ted Hendricks, 'Teddy, look, they're not going to kick the field goal; they're going to run a play.' He told me I was crazy, so I told him to look again, and Cockroft was still wearing his jacket."

Browns coach Sam Rutigliano gave Sipe the full name of the play -- Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay, 88 -- and offered his quarterback a bit of advice.

"His last words to me were, 'Just don't get sacked," Sipe said after the game, according to the 1981 preseason issue of Pro Quarterback magazine.

Davis saw the Browns' formation from his perspective -- strong left with two running backs -- and recognized they had run the same thing "three times" in the first half and knew a pass was coming as the Raiders settled in their base defense -- Bronco Orange Cover 1.

"I didn't feel the cold anymore," Davis said. "I didn't worry about it anymore. The sounds became more focused and sharper; the colors of the uniforms, they were more vivid.

"Man coverage, and Ozzie was my man. I just thought, 'Bring it to me, because I'm not going to let you have it.' I knew I had free safety help."

But Davis thought Newsome would run an out pattern to Davis' left. Instead, Newsome went up and across the end zone, to Davis' right.

"I said, 'Oh, s---. Lord, do not let me slip on this ice,'" Davis said. "I had 2 steps to make up. He was open, so I put on the gas."

Free safety Burgess Owens stepped up in coverage and confused Sipe, who felt Hendricks and Rod Martin closing in on him.

"The play was designed to go to [Dave] Logan, but when I saw Burgess Owens pick up Logan, I went to Newsome," Sipe said at the time. "Our passing game, remember, is based on what the defense does. So when Burgess did what he did, it changed my plan. But I'm not trying to dodge responsibility. Play selection isn't as important as execution."

A diving Davis jumped the route and somehow hauled in the ball in the end zone.

"How he came up with that ball," Brodie said, "is a miracle."

"They might have iced this one," Criqui added. "No pun intended."

Davis' teammates and coaches had more fun.

"Could not catch a cold in Alaska barefooted," the late Gene Upshaw told NFL Films. "He had absolutely the worst hands in that secondary."

Added Chet Franklin, then a Raiders secondary coach, "He was a tough guy and could knock the hell out of you, but he couldn't catch the ball very well."

Flores still gets a kick out of Davis making the transcendent play.

"He did not have the best of hands, and that's probably why he was playing defense," Flores laughed. "But the sucker could run, he could hit, he was smart. That was a big play. A million-dollar catch."

Davis is now deaf in both ears, but he had a cochlear implant placed in his right ear that allows him to hear.

In 2014, Davis recalled his seminal pick with crystal clear clarity and having used every sense at his disposal.

"As the play unfolded, I could hear feet hitting the ground, and I saw Ozzie's eyes get big, so I knew the ball was in the air and I took a peak in," Davis said. "I broke on it. When the ball first came out, it was a spiral, but then the wind hit it and it started to wobble. It still had a little sting on it when it hit me, and I grabbed it. Then, all of a sudden, I saw sparks and stars because I hit my head on the ground. It was quiet. So quiet I could hear myself breathing. I could hear my uniform sliding on the ice. I thought, I must be knocked out because it was like the world had just stopped. Nobody knew what happened because it happened so fast."

Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett knelt on the frozen field twice.

The Raiders had a date the following week in San Diego with theChargersfor the AFC Championship Game. From there, they would go on to thump the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV.

Flores doesn't blame the Browns for going for broke with Red Right 88, and neither Sipe nor Rutigliano had regrets for gambling.

"Going for the big play is what got us there," Sipe said.

"I'd make the same call again if I was in the same position," Rutigliano told NFL Films years later.

Red Right 88 still a part of Raiders lore

Details of the day and play have not gotten hazy through the fog of time. Not with the entire broadcast readily available on the internet. Mark Davis, nearly four decades removed from that day, remembers his first reaction to the end zone interception.

"I always look for a penalty flag -- are they going to take it away?" Davis said. "After that, I was euphoric. Very happy. To get out of there with a win, it was so ... cold."

And he is still impressed with the forward thinking of Flores, who is now the lone coaching finalist candidate for Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration this year.

"It paid off," Davis said. "You look at Cliff Branch running patterns in that game and his hands are in his ... pants. I'm serious, man. He was running plays and his hands stayed in his pants. It was that cold. That was a hell of a day. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

"That was a hell of a play in our history. No doubt about that."

Football historian that he is, Gruden is now more worried about this version of Raiders players getting a win in Cleveland on Sunday than what went down in 1981. Still, his all-time favorite player as a little kid growing up in Sandusky and Dayton, Ohio, was Browns Hall of Fame running back Leroy Kelly, who had replaced Jim Brown and last played in the NFL in 1973.

"I made this huge poster when I was 6 years old, a picture of Leroy Kelly," Gruden said. "I drew it, and my mom, if you can believe this, knew Leroy Kelly was going to an autograph show about 10 years ago. She took that thing she had saved for 40 years and she took it to Leroy Kelly and had him autograph it for me."

It now hangs in Gruden's house -- along with other memorabilia that have a decided Silver and Black tint to it.

Mike Davis, meanwhile, said he had only one memento from his career on display in his house -- the football he intercepted in Cleveland.

"That cold," Davis said, "cut through you like a hot knife."