Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Browns-Jets series had historic start

 The date was Sept. 21, 1970. It was a warm early fall evening down by the lakefront in downtown Cleveland. Seventy-five degrees for the beginning of what was to become a sports institution.

Until that eventful night, the National Football League had only experimented with playing a game on Monday night. Until then, it was the usual Sunday schedule with an occasional Saturday night thrown in.

But this evening was going to be special to where it eventually changed the television viewing habits of the fastest growing sports audience. These were the grass roots years of what has become a giant in the world of sports television..

Helping launch the newest phase of the NFL were the Browns and New York Jets, teams that had never played each other until the merger between the NFL and American Football League in 1970.

The game, of course, was a sellout. In those days, the Browns sold out on a regular basis in that cavernous stadium with teams competitive enough to warrant such box office success.

With ABC Television cameras poised to give birth to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s latest and boldest innovative move, the nation was treated to a wildly entertaining football game. It was an entertainment spectacle as well in the TV booth with Keith Jackson, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.

The big-market Jets with quarterback Joe Namath against the Browns, one of the NFL’s bellwether franchises. It was the perfect cap for the first weekend of the season (they played a 14-game schedule back then).

The Browns constructed a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a Bill Nelsen-to-Gary Collins connection and short Bo Scott run and made it stand up in the 31-21 victory, although the Jets made it interesting with a late charge.

Namath strafed the Cleveland secondary for nearly 300 yards, but was intercepted three times, the most damaging a 25-yard pick six by linebacker Billy Andrews with less than a minute left in the game. 

The Jets piled up 454 yards, but the three interceptions, a fumble recovery by the Browns and Homer Jones’ 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half proved too much for them to make up.

The Browns went on to finish 7-7- under coach Blanton Collier that season; the Jets were 4-10 under coach Weeb Ewbank. MNF went in to become a weekly TV staple for avid football fans and remains that today even though ABC relegated it to ESPN a few years ago.

And now, these two teams meet again for the 26th time Thursday night on the same lakefront one day shy of being exactly 48 years to the day since that historic first game. And once again in the national spotlight on the NFL Network.

There are numerous good story lines for this one. Sam Darnold, the USC quarterback many fans wanted the Browns to take with the top pick in the last college draft, is under center for the Jets.

The kid has experienced an up-and-down beginning to his professional career with three scoring passes and three interceptions, but has connected on 66% of his passes for 266 yards a game. The Jets whacked Detroit, 48-17, before losing their home opener last Sunday to Miami.

What makes this scenario extremely interesting is that Baker Mayfield, who became General Manager john Dorsey’s choice with the first overall selection, will watch Darnold, most likely all the while wishing frustratingly that he was out on the field instead of Tyrod Taylor.

Three ex-Browns dot the New York roster. Isaiah Crowell, the Browns' hot and cold running back the past several seasons, is the Jets’ top runner. Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who bolted for Washington last season, is one of Darnold’s favorite targets. And cornerback Buster Skrine leads the Jets in tackles with 14, all but one solo.

The Browns, who trundle into this one with a 19-game winless streak and 4-45-1 record in their last 50 games, own a 13-12 advantage in the series, but the Jets have won the last five in a row.

On the Cleveland front, the Josh Gordon/placekicker turmoil has quieted somewhat. Getting the club’s complete attention will be Hue Jacksons biggest challenge as he tries to prevent moving closer permanently to the exit door at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

As the losses continue to pile up, Jackson’s job security is headed in a completely different direction. It’s only a matter of time before Dorsey becomes fidgety enough to make a move regardless of where the Browns are on the schedule.

The struggling Cleveland offense will face a Jets defense that has allowed only one touchdown this season. The thinking, though, is that Taylor is familiar with the Jets’ defense, having faced them twice a year for the last three years with the Buffalo Bills.

This very well could be a game decided by the better defense. The Browns have not played a bad game yet on that side of the ball and would be looking at an unbeaten record with any kind of help from their teammates on offense.

The Jets are just as opportunistic as the Browns on defense. They have swiped five passes already with one pick 6 by former Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee, and have limited opposite running backs to just 87 yards a game.

The Browns will try to shut down a New York offense that averages 372 yards a game and runs the ball 42% of the time. When Darnold puts it up, his favorite receivers are Quincy Enunwa, who missed all last season with an injury, Pryor and Robby Anderson.

And finally . . . this is an official alert for the Browns’ special teams, who have played about as poorly as possible thus far: Watch out for Jets return ace Andre Roberts, who has already returned one kickoff for a touchdown and averages 22 yards a punt return.

Because the two teams excel more on defense, look for a low-scoring affair with turnovers being the deciding factor. Punters Britton Colquitt and Lac Edwards will get a lot of work.

It will be a battle of field goals between Greg Joseph, who replaces the departed Zane Gonzalez, and Jason Myers. Imagine making your professional debut on national television.

Each team scores one touchdown (stingy defense) and Joseph overcomes early jitters to outkick Myers, booting the game-winner with less than a minute left in regulation to avoid the possibility of yet another overtime and snaps the way-too-long winless streak at 19. Make it:

Browns 16, Jets 13

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