“Gentlemen, football is not a matter of life or death. Six hundred million Chinese don’t even know the Bucs exist.”
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach John McKay addressing reporters at the height of the team’s 26-game losing streak, 1976-77.
By Ed Meyer
The last time I set foot in an NFL pressbox as a reporter was in the 1995 Super Bowl in Miami. The San Diego Chargers got there, stunning all of football, by beating the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game at Three Rivers Stadium.
I cringe when I think of how much has changed since then.
Three Rivers Stadium was demolished, much to the joy of the Cleveland Browns in what was, for them, a true House of Horrors.
Legendary Coach Chuck Noll, known by reporters in Pittsburgh as The Emperor, passed away from the ravages of Alzheimer’s.
The Chargers, once an old AFL powerhouse with John Hadl at quarterback, now play in the glittery shadows of the Hollywood Hills in Big LA.
And wouldn’t you know it, my 18th consecutive Super Bowl there in Miami would be my last as the Browns beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal.
It wasn’t my choosing.
The newspaper had brought in a new sports editor. We did not see eye to eye, philosophically, about how the revered Browns should be covered.
I preferred hard-edge reporting throughout Art Modell’s Browns ownership, and aimed to sharpen it in his final months in Cleveland. The new sports editor preferred a different course and a new writer.
By June 1995, I was gone from the Browns beat after 14 years. I was reassigned to cover Ohio State football and the PGA Tour, where I once was fortunate enough to spend much of an unforgettable day at the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando in the company of Arnold Palmer.
Arnold and I had beers together at his clubhouse bar as we talked about the story I was working on. He treated me like one of his long-lost buds from Latrobe.
Many friends and colleagues, Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com among them, told me at the time that I got lucky. I would soon be covering the Masters on the most majestic grounds in all of sports.
Now, three years into my retirement from the Beacon Journal, after miserably flailing away to reduce my handicap this past summer, I have decided to return to cover the Browns as co-owner of the BrownsMaven website for the Sports Xchange.
It took me all these years to finally be able to call my own shots on stories and reporting content – freedoms that are hard to pass up.
I must confess. I missed being in the arena where good newspapermen and women compete, honorably, to bring you the best stories of the day to the best of their abilities.
It is what I will try to do again, although after all this time away from the Browns and the NFL, the challenge and the odds are stacked against me.
I need to catch up.
I don’t truly know any of the Browns players. I don’t know any of the Browns coaches. Except for General Manager John Dorsey – he wore No. 99 on his Green Bay Packers linebacker jersey in the 1980s – I don’t know any of the Browns’ braintrust.
What I do know, after watching the first half of the 2018 season following another Browns coaching teardown, is that I am confident that rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, 23, is a winner.
In my time covering the Browns, I saw Terry Bradshaw, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar throw; Franco Harris, Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack run; Chuck Noll, Sam Rutigliano, Marty Schottenheimer, Bud Carson and Bill Belichick coach.
They all etched indelible images in our memory banks, and I feel the young Mayfield will, too.
There is something else I know about the game – losing streaks.
My first NFL reporting assignment was in 1975 for the Clearwater Sun when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were awarded an expansion franchise.
They lost 26 straight games out of the starting gate, and as The Streak mounted to historic proportion, they became the most feared team in football, because no team wanted to be humiliated by losing to them.
Hank Stram’s New Orleans Saints became the first victim, getting pounded 33-14 at the Superdome in December 1977. The Tampa Bay defense was relentless behind the great defensive end Lee Roy Selmon of Oklahoma, and the offense finally clicked with Gary Huff of Florida State at quarterback.
I was on the team’s return flight from New Orleans. Champagne corks popped by the dozens when the plane got airborne. The players finally had a night when they could loosen up and have some fun.
As we returned to Tampa, police estimated that some 8,000 Bucs fans were lining the highways and side streets – even climbing to open spots in trees – when the Bucs’ bus caravan returned to their home base on the outskirts of Dale Mabry Boulevard.
McKay addressed the throng with a bullhorn from the hood of a car.
Henry Stram, as McKay called him, burned the Saints game film in a garbage pale during his Monday post mortem.
If this could happen 41 years ago in Tampa, ask yourself: What would happen here in Cleveland if the Browns were ever to reach a Super Bowl, much less win one?
The Bucs did so many unfathomable things, being a witness here to the Browns losing consistently for 2 ½ years was no new experience.
What did jolt me, after Hue Jackson won three games – three out of 40 -- was that it took the Browns this long to fire him.
You deserve, at this point, an explanation of where I have been, and what I have done, since I was ousted from the Browns beat in June 1995, only days before I felt that I was on the verge of reporting that Modell was leaving town with the most storied team in NFL history.
My first Beacon Journal editor, Stuart Warner, who brought me here in the summer of 1981 after I had covered the Bucs for six years, later became an assistant managing editor on the paper’s Metro news staff.
After my short stint covering Ohio State football and the PGA, I asked Stuart to transfer me to hard news. I had always wanted to be an investigative reporter after reading one of my journalism heroes, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, while growing up in Chicago.
Stuart had me transferred to Metro in late 1996, and I spent the next 19 years at the paper covering breaking news on the Quick Response Team; major criminal cases on the Projects/Investigations Team; Northeast Ohio police departments; court cases in our five-county circulation area; and landmark Ohio Supreme Court decisions.
So I’ve seen the worst of the worst, in life and in football.
It is why I included the quote at the top of this story from McKay, who won four national championships at the University of Southern California.
Football, certainly, is not ingrained in everyone. It is, however, a fascinating sport filled with great athletes, inspirational stories, and the admirable players and coaches whom we looked up to since our youth.
After 23 years away from the game, the question “how could you still know anything about football” is a valid one.
I will take you now to a coach’s blackboard.
I can still see McKay drawing up plays in chalk on Mondays during the infamous Bucs losing streak.
He would stand up there, many times cigar in hand, and diagram the movements of every player on the field, explaining how their blunders caused the game to slip away from the Bucs time and time again.
The McKay Golden Rule for quarterbacks was: Never throw late over the middle. “When the deep safety moves up to help the cornerback in coverage, if you force it in there over the middle – ‘Wap’ – interception. We’ve tried to preach that to our people,,” he would say, “but some of them must be hard of hearing.”
And for goodness sakes, if you’re a punt returner pinned back, you stand at your 10-yard line. If you see the ball sail over your head, let it. More often than not, you will get the benefit of the bounce.
McKay was an avid golfer, often leaving the Bucs’ practice facility early on Friday afternoons for a Nassau game with his buds.
“I’ve got the shortest backswing,” he would say, “and the fattest wallet in the NFL.”
We would laugh like hell.
Getting in digs at the obsessive character who once coached the Washington Redskins, George Allen, McKay was fond of saying he never saw the purpose of staying up until 2 o’clock in the morning, to decide which way to send a man in motion.
The Browns need to have some fun like that. They need to loosen up. They finally have some top-flight NFL talent – Myles Garrett at defensive end, rookie first-round draft pick Denzel Ward at cornerback, Joe Schobert at linebacker, veteran slot receiver Jarvis Landry, all-purpose running back Duke Johnson and Mayfield at quarterback.
Their offensive line needs to improve drastically, and quickly.
McKay would tell us that one of the Bucs’ greatest coaching challenges was their guys up front.
“We tell our linemen they need to hold their blocks for three seconds if we’re going to be able to complete a pass to a player on our team,’’ McKay would say, “but we’re still having trouble getting our people to understand that concept.”
The same three-second challenge faces the Browns in the Baker Mayfield era. They need to get it right.
If the 0-26 Bucs could do it – they advanced to the NFC title game in their fourth year of existence – any team should be able to do it.