BottleGate

December 17, 2019

The Cleveland Browns are continuously referred to as a ‘snake-bitten’ franchise, as their putrid misfortunes trump over their brief rarities of success. 

 

After winning all four titles in the short-lived All-America Football Conference from 1946-1949, the Browns were invited to join the NFL, and promptly won the championship the very next year. Three more NFL championships followed in the next fifteen seasons, the last of which came two years before the NFL and AFL began playing in something called ‘The Super Bowl’; a title contested between the winners of the two leagues.

 

While the initial success seemingly bathed the Browns with predictions of future glory, said glory has evaded the Browns in the gloomiest of fashions. Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season, with a Super Bowl title coming five years later. The announcement that the Cleveland Browns would return in 1999 with the same trademarks in effect seemed to reinvigorate the shell-shocked blue-collar city.

 

The post-1999 Browns have had two winning seasons, one playoff appearance (an instant wild-card weekend loss to rivals Pittsburgh after blowing a 24-7 3rd quarter lead), thirty different starting quarterbacks (an average of just under one-and-a-half DIFFERENT QB’s EVERY year) and a hefty load of sad-sack events that appear as though at this point, they could only ever happen to Cleveland. 

 

I feel as though I could craft a twenty-part series on all of the bad tidings the Browns have suffered since the turn of the millennium, but here, I’ll hone in on a particularly ugly event that just celebrated its eighteenth anniversary. It was an event that has marred the league to this day, and it is only fitting that the Browns play the role of victim in this scenario.

 

The year was 2001. The day was Sunday, the 16th of December. The Browns were playing host in their final home game of the regular season against the surprisingly poor Jacksonville Jaguars. Just two years removed from having the best record in the AFC at 14-2, the Jaguars had slumped to a dismal 4-8 record with four games to go.

 

Because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all Week 2 games were postponed and then rescheduled to the end of the season, now becoming the new Week 17. Therefore, everything was set back by a week, hence putting the Browns in a tricky spot having to now be on the road for the final three games after this final bout at home.

 

While the Jags were mathematically out of the playoffs with four games to go, the Browns were still in the thick of the hunt, sitting at 6-6. It was only their third year back in the league after their brief mid 90s hiatus, and after going 2-14 and 3-13 in 1999 and 2000, respectively, to be .500 in mid-December was astonishing. Hell, to be 6-6 in any season is astonishing for the Browns!

 

Nonetheless, the game was a close 15-10 for Jacksonville with just two minutes to go. Third year quarterback Tim Couch needed to dig into his limited bag of tricks to pull out this win and give the Dawg-Pound hope that the elusive playoff berth was still possible. 

 

The crowd of 72000 held their breath as the Browns prepared for a 4th down with 2 yards to go at the Jacksonville 13-yard line. Only 1:08 remained in the game. Cleveland had no more timeouts. Couch backed up to pass and threw over the middle to rookie wide-receiver, Quincy Morgan. 

 

From the broadcast angle, Morgan appeared to have controlled the ball as he was instantly hit and knocked to the ground, forward progress putting the ball at the 9-yard line. It was 1st and goal with the clock ticking. 

 

                            Source: cleveland.com 

 

A few Jaguars were signalling that it wasn’t a catch, but hey, most defensive backs do the very same thing, even if a catch is clearly obvious to everyone. The Browns hurried to the line of scrimmage for Couch to spike the ball and stop the clock. As Couch showed a slight hesitation in his spike, pandemonium broke loose.

 

Play-by-play announcers Gus Johnson and Brent Jones noted that the referees began congregating to discuss the shady-spike that Couch executed. If he took too much time to actually perform the spike, it would be ruled an intentional grounding penalty, and ten seconds would be shaved off the clock. 

 

However, the longer the referees deliberated, it became more clear that something else must be wrong. Head referee Terry McAulay then announced on his microphone to the entire stadium that he would be looking at video replay of Couch’s pass to Morgan to ensure that it was completed and the ball didn’t hit the ground prior to Morgan’s control.

 

This is the major issue: you CANNOT under any circumstances review a play after a subsequent play has been run. 

 

Couch’s spiking of the ball nullifies any chance of reviewing the previous pass to Morgan on 4th and 2. Right then and there, the opportunity has passed; you can’t do that, you simply can’t! McAulay, however, claimed on his microphone that NFL head office replay officials buzzed him on his little-pecker-pager just mille-seconds before Couch snapped to ball to perform the spike.

 

To complicate matters even more, the NFL rules on a controlled catch back then differ drastically from how they are today. Rulings upon review never seemed to follow a particular formula until Bert Emanuel’s infamous no-catch in the 1999 NFC Championship game between the Buccaneers and the Rams.

 

In this instance, by today’s standards, it would be pretty obvious that Morgan didn’t completely control the ball when his body impacted the ground. He slightly bobbled the ball, putting it to his chest after his shoulders and torso had already touched the grass. 

 

Some could even go so far as to say that Morgan took three quick steps when he first caught the ball, thus his bobble when he hit the ground could transcend into a brief fumble. It’s definitely a valid argument based off the ambiguous rulings of the time.

 

That being said, it still could have gone either way back in 2001, and the ruling on the field claimed that it was a catch. The aforementioned rules about not being able to review a play after another play has been run is still in effect, so McAulay most likely knew he was screwed once the review was underway.

 

Lo and behold, McAulay’s announcement a couple of minutes later; “After review, the pass is incomplete. First down, Jacksonville.” Bedlam.

 

THOUSANDS of beer bottles began raining down on the officials and Jacksonville sidelines, a truly disgusting act from the Cleveland supporters, though this bent up frustration after many years of misfortunes exploded at the hands of a clear violation of league rules by the officials. 

 

First year Browns coach Butch Davis was visibly irate and demanded answers from the officials of why they would still go ahead with the review after Couch spiked the ball. Upon reviewing the replay of the spike, it appears as though McAulay never noticed the supposed ‘buzzer’ go off until after the spike had been performed.

 

It was a sight for sore eyes. The entire series of circumstances was too much for the Browns fans to handle, as was the influence of alcohol, coupled with the fact that this horrendous decision could ruin their chances to make the playoffs saw a situation go from back to worse. 

 

Thank goodness the stadium sold only plastic beer bottles, and the increased security presence after September 11th would crack down on any suspicious drinking accessories coming into the grounds. The chances of a few actual glass bottles being pelted at the officiating crew could still be probable, however.

 

It became clear that order couldn’t be restored in the coming minutes. McAulay, rightfully fearing for his safety, as well as the safety of the rest of his crew and for the Jaguars, declared the game over with 48 seconds remaining on the clock. 

 

That decision was met with just as much, if not even more tossing of debris than before. McAulay, the rest of the referees, the Jaguars, and even the Browns tried their best to protect themselves from the onslaught of bottles as they dashed for the tunnels, but the floodgates had long been broken.

 

                           Source: Scott Heckel/The Repository

 

As the bottles continued to fly onto the field and the sidelines, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue phoned the referee’s dressing room and ordered them to return to complete the game, deeming McAulay’s premature decision unsatisfactory.

 

Nearly 70% of the spectators had left the stadium ten minutes after the decision to suspend the rest of the contest, and the enthused television spectators were still caught up in the baffling series of events that were now taking centre-stage throughout the entire league.

 

Tagliabue’s demands were met, and despite the overwhelming safety concerns for the officials and teams, those required returned to the field to formally complete the contest.

 

By now, over twenty minutes had passed since the disputed 4th down play. Many of the players were already undressed and showering as the new demands came forth. Spectators that had vacated the stadium were now trying to get back in, some thinking that the incomplete pass ruling was overturned and the Browns might still have the ball. 

 

The Jaguars took a knee twice, and the clock ran out, with the final score staying 15-10 for Jacksonville. They improved to 5-8, and would go onto finish the season with a 6-10 record. 

 

The Browns played their final three matches on the road, winning one of them, seemingly disillusioned from the events that had transpired, ending their season at 7-9. While they would go on to make the playoffs in 2002 for the only time since their 1999 reincarnation, the momentum they had built in 2001 was halted by such an unfortunate and despicable decision.

 

There is absolutely no excuse for the behaviour that was exhibited by the Browns fans that day. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries reported, though several fans in the lower bowl reported being struck with numerous plastic bottles.

 

                            Source: Scott Heckel/The Repository

 

It was simply another unfortunate incident occurring to a franchise that just can’t catch a break. When things begin to turn themselves around and brief hints of promise appear along the horizon, the Browns let said opportunities slip through their fingers. 

 

Any sports fan will agree that referees are merely human, and being prone to errors and blemishes are what make sports so emotionally grueling, yet compelling. It’s still so hard to resonate with McAulay’s defenses, however. There are seven officials that oversee an American Football game, and contrasts in opinions are frequent. 

 

For McAulay to state that he was buzzed by replay officials prior to the spike is still hard to believe, especially while footage clearly shows him ruling an ‘incomplete pass’ signal on the spike before he looks down at his buzzer. Their chances to have another look at the Morgan catch had expired. 

 

Could you imagine if on the very next play, the Browns scored a touchdown to take the lead?! The same could be said for a coach who wants to throw a challenge flag; once another play is run, that chance vanishes.

 

Folks in Cleveland claim that this historic incident is still hard to swallow. With the Browns essentially mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet again with this past Sunday’s loss to Arizona, this eighteenth anniversary holds more gloom and sorrow than most days in mid-December.

 

Though time heals wounds, the bitterness that still surrounds BottleGate is rooted to the core of the Browns franchise. It’s what makes sports so exhilarating, yet devastating. It’s just Cleveland Browns football.

 

 

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