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Browns Week 4: Marty

I wrote something in the hours after the Browns’ loss to Cincinnati — something about the awfulness of the game, and the sensible decision of my PosCast partner Michael Schur to rescind his temporary Browns fanhood, and the sheer hopelessness of rooting for a team that seems to stuck in time, adding players but never improving, changing methods but never developing, hiring new coaches but never seeming to learn any lessons at all. For various reasons, it just didn’t seem quite appropriate at the time so I did not post it.

Then I saw ESPN’s touching and heartbreaking piece on Marty Schottenheimer.

Football has stopped mattering to me. I don’t say that as any kind of political or social statement; I’m not trying to convince anyone to like football or not like football. I’m speaking personally. I just don’t care about football anymore. The reasons are — well, to be honest with you, I have not spent a lot of time considering the reasons. I’m sure you could guess at a few of them. Doesn’t matter. Gradually, over the last decade or so, I stopped enjoying the game as much and then I stopped enjoying the game at all and then, finally, one day, I thought, “If I’m

not enjoying this, why do I still watch?”

And I stopped. The other day I was in a restaurant and looked up to see my old pal Herm Edwards and others arguing (or simply discussing — the sound was off) the “sideline tantrum of Antonio Brown.

I cannot begin to tell you the bliss, the absolute and unqualified joy, I felt not knowing a single thing about it.

Ah, but I still watch the Browns every week, still do this diary … and that’s because of Marty Schottenheimer. It’s not only Marty. I watch the Browns because it connects me to a childhood when the Browns were EVERYTHING, my North, my South, my East, my West, my working week and my Sunday rest. Yes, it’s goofy that when I think of that gorgeous and haunting W.H. Auden poem, the Browns come to mind, but that’s how it was. I mark my entire childhood by the Browns, by who their quarterback was, by who their coach was, by how close any particular event was to Red Right 88 or the Drive or the time a dentist named Dave Mays somehow led Cleveland to a victory over mighty Pittsburgh.

Mays was later acquitted of murder and later still convicted of fraud, but that’s another story.

There was a silly commercial they used to play in Cleveland with the song “Cleveland’s a great place to live,” as the theme. During the commercial there was a scene of Browns quarterback Brian Sipe throwing a pass to legendary sports broadcaster Gib Shanley and the ball hitting Shanley in the butt. I think of the commercial at least once a month, often once a week. I think of that commercial way more than I think of anything of value I learned in school. It isn’t that my childhood was influenced by the Cleveland Browns. My childhood WAS the Cleveland Browns.

That’s why I write this Browns diary. I want to keep a bit of that kid alive. I plan to watch precisely 16 games this season, all Cleveland Browns, and not a single minute of anything else football.

Back to Marty: I was 17 and at the very height of my Browns madness when Schottenheimer became head coach of the Cleveland Browns. It happened two weeks after Sam Rutigliano buried himself with one of the more bizarre calls in NFL history. I loved Sam Rutigliano; he seemed to me then the ideal football coach. He was fun, he was funny, he was a little bit nutty, it was like your favorite teacher becoming football coach of your favorite team. And man did he love throwing the football. Few coaches did then — Coryell, Walsh, Rutigliano, whoever was at Brigham Young. Under Rutigliano’s watchful eye, Sipe became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. That was a big deal then.

“What we do best is passing the football,” Rutigliano said. “And besides, anything else would be increasingly boring.”

See? How can you not love that guy? I was at my most naive then; I was 17 but already in college, unsure about everything but I believed in the power of good intentions and that no deficit was too big to overcome. Rutigliano helped teach me that. He was a happy and lovable guy who coached as if he was on a perpetual gambler’s lucky streak.

Unfortunately, gambler’s lucky streaks end — or, more to the point, they are probably illusions from the start — and the Browns lost plenty of games they should have won because Sam just wasn’t quite buttoned up. Then came that bizarre game against New England. The Browns trailed the Patriots by a point with 23 seconds left. They were at the New Engliand 21, so well in field goal range. They also had no timeouts. It was obvious they would kick the field goal and ride out the inevitable Hail Mary and take the victory.

Only they didn’t. Rutigliano — in a call that echoed but was in fact tactically much worse than Red Right 88 — called a pass play for his quarterback Paul McDonald. It was such a wild lapse in football judgment that McDonald himself pleaded with Rutigliano to just kick the field goal. Rutigliano insisted on the pass. McDonald threw the interception.

And Browns fans sang “Goodbye Sam!” as the team ran off the field.

“Very frankly,” Rutigliano said immediately after the game, “it was the wrong decision.”

Browns owner Art Modell agreed it was the wrong decisions, then said he would absolutely not fire Rutigliano during the season because that wasn’t the right thing to do, then two weeks later he fired Rutigliano during the season because he was Art Modell. He hired the Browns’ defensive coordinator, Marty Schottenheimer. I had no idea then how much the guy would influence my life.

Schottenheimer was sort of the opposite of Rutigliano. He was not fun. He was not especially charismatic. More to the point, he had this Eeyore quality about him; while Rutigliano always saw the glass as half full, Marty saw the glass as undoubtedly poisoned. Sam believed that destiny rewards the bold and pure of heart. I believe Marty Schottenheimer started every morning fully believing that his car would not start.

But this was EXACTLY what I needed at that moment in my life. The favorite schoolteacher who gave out A’s like candy was gone. In his place was the teacher who absolutely docks you points for spelling and grammar. Marty, more than anyone else, taught me that success comes from all these little things that nobody wants to talk about.

“Focus and finish,” he used to say.

“One play at a time,” he used to say.

“When the game is on the line, you call your best play for your best player,” he used to say.

“Do not underestimate the power of the human will,” he used to say.

There are dozens more; I wrote them down once, and I probably have that sheet somewhere. Martyball Principles, I think I called it. Every single time I have ever spent too much time futzing around with some story as deadline I think “Focus and finish.” Every single time I have faced a steep and impossible seeming project, I have to told myself “One play at a time.” They are cliches. But I hear them in the gruff voice of Schottenheimer, in that tone they take on something more.

He talked often about “The Gleam.” He would constantly tell his players, “There’s a gleam, men. Go get the gleam.” There’s a video of Browns defensive lineman Bob Golic saying, “We had no idea what he was talking about.” Well, of course they didn’t know. I didn’t know either, but it sounded so good that I had to figure it out.

And so a football coach pushed a kid to find Tennyson’s poem …

Not of the sunlight,

Not of the mooonlight,

Not of the starlight!

O young Mariner,

Down to the haven,

Call your companions,

Launch your vessel,

And crowd your canvas,

And, ere it vanishes

Over the margin,

After it, follow it, 

Follow The Gleam

I don’t know if “Merlin and the Gleam” was really the inspiration for Marty. I never asked him. And it doesn’t matter. What mattered was that he took the mess that was Rutigliano’s Browns and, piece by piece, one play at a time, he put them together again, this time in his image: Sensible, tough, sturdy, relentless, boring — and successful He did the same thing in Kansas City (now EXTRA boring!) and San Diego.

His teams usually made the playoffs, and in the playoffs they lost, often in heartbreaking ways that justified Schottenheimer’s sense of the world. He was one of America’s leading spokesmen against turning the ball over … so his teams would lose on fumbles. He was so conservative a playcaller that the National Playcalling Association gave him a perfect 100% rating … so his teams lost on missed field goals. One memorable day he asked the reporters in the room to please turn off their tape recorders and just tell him what he was doing wrong.

But if you look closely at the record, you find that he wasn’t really doing anything wrong, he was instead a prisoner of doing so much right. Marty’s teams constantly overachieved. They did not have the talent to do what they did. They posted these gaudy records, and then they would inevitably face a more talented team in the playoffs — through the years, he was beaten (and beaten) by Dan Marino, by John Elway, by Jim Kelly, by Tom Brady. He never had a quarterback like that. Through the years, he was beaten when the players had momentary lapses, when officials made questionable calls, when some lousy break happened.

And, sure, through the years he lost too when he fell back into himself. He could have used just 5% of Rutigliano’s go-for-broke spirit. It might have made a different. And, then again, maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference at all.

Either way, Marty Schottenheimer changed my life. In later years, when I covered him as a columnist in Kansas City, we didn’t always appreciate each other. But we mostly did. I remember him once calling me into his office, beginning with “Look, I respect that you have a job to do,” and then proceeding to tell me about two dozen ways that I was doing that job wrong. We talked through it, I listened to him, he listened to me, we came to an understanding. And then he talked about where to get the best Beef on Weck in Buffalo and how a receiver missing a block was the real reason Ernest Byner fumbled that day and, incredibly, how he wished he was a better writer.

“Maybe if I could have written better, I wouldn’t be doing this football coaching thing,” he said.

“Maybe if I had been a better football player, I wouldn’t be doing this writing thing,” I said.

He smiled. “I think I got closer to the dream than you did,” he said.

He did. He got a lot closer to the dream … and the gleam … ere it vanishes … over the margin … after it, follow it …

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25 Responses to Browns Week 4: Marty

  1. I’m sending this to my husband, and I’m pretty sure he’ll cry.

  2. Brian says:

    Great, beautiful and funny writing. “Rutigliano always saw the glass as half full, Marty saw the glass as undoubtedly poisoned.”

  3. Tom says:

    I was always amazed that Marty didn’t get hired after he was fired from the Chargers. If you were a terrible downtrodden team (like the Lions for example) wouldn’t you want to at least get to the playoffs? Granted with Marty you weren’t going to win in them (the Chargers had to hire freaking Norv Turner to do that!) but if you were always going 4-12 making it would be great.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Yeah, but once a team makes the playoffs, expectations change. Getting 7-8 wins is great year 1. Then they expect 9-10. Get in the playoffs? Then they want a playoff win. Eventually they expect a Super Bowl win. Except at Cincinnati apparently. Of course the Browns have never gotten to that point.

    • Dave says:

      Marty was too strong for the Lions. They liked optimistic yes men who made nice with reporters and didn’t create unseemly tableaux for William Clay Ford to ponder.

  4. Marc Schneider says:

    One of the biggest (of many) mistakes that Dan Snyder has made in Washington was firing Marty after one year. The team had started 0-5 but ended up 8-8. I’m pretty sure Marty would have at least kept the Redskins reasonably competitive, but Snyder didn’t like Martyball. He wanted someone slicker and cooler, who would throw the ball around and didn’t play boring, conservative football-so he went out and hired Steve Spurrier, who was a disaster and quit after two years.

    It’s really a shame that Marty never got a championship because he seemed like a decent guy and things just never went his way.

  5. RonH says:

    Thanks Joe, this article is why I always look forward to your next post. I’m not a Cleveland fan, but can relate to living and dying with a football team at the same age you were (Baltimore Colts). And I did not know much about Marty- except the obvious playoff shortfalls. Connecting with me emotionally while shedding some light on a known, but not deeply well known sports figure, with such a personal touch. That is what you do we’ll. You are a gem of a writer.

  6. Crazy Diamond says:

    The game of football itself is still quite enjoyable. The problem for many fans is everything ELSE that comes with the game: politics, stupid dancing, showboating, greedy players and owners, players moving from team to team, relocation, you name it. I loved loved loved the Denver Broncos of the 1980s and 1990s because we had so many good, unselfish players that stayed with the team for the vast majority of their careers: Elway, Atwater, Mecklenburg, Atwater (save for his lone last season in NY), Dennis Smith, Rod Smith, Terrell Davis. Those guys were class acts and handled their business. Now, it’s tough to find any team with more than one or two players who are both talented and classy, let alone loyal.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I don’t know what team you’re following, but the Falcons have a solid squad of guys on and off the field. No team is perfect. But Julio Jones and Matt Ryan are the faces of the franchise, and you can’t find two classier guys. Sure, there are a lot of blockheads in the league, but I think if you look a little closer (not just what they talk about on ESPN) you’d find that 90%+ of the guys are good guys.

      Heck, before Trump made his comments and threw gas on the fire, I think there might have been 10 guys kneeling for the National Anthem. That’s like 1%.

      • invitro says:

        “you’d find that 90%+ of the guys are good guys.” — I think you’re vastly overstating this, or have a very low bar for “good guy”. Jeff Benedict found in his 1998 book “Pros and Cons” that “21 percent of the NFL’s players have been charged with a serious crime.” (Benedict’s later book on the NBA found that an amazing 40% of NBA players had been under suspicion for a serious crime, which although an amazing statistic probably wouldn’t shock any serious follower of the NBA circa 2004).

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I don’t understand why people complain about “greedy” players. These guys are sacrificing their bodies and making oodles of money for the owners. Why shouldn’t they be able, like any other American, to be able to change teams and make more money. I really doubt that you actually know enough about players to determine who are classy. For all you know, those Broncos you mentioned might have been jerks in real life. No one knows. I think what you liked about them is that they won.

      I have a lot of issues with the NFL and I tend to agree about the dancing and showboating; it’s not my style and I’m uncomfortable with it. And a lot of the players I’m sure are not people I would want to hang out with. But I would bet that the proportion of assholes to good guys has not really changed.

      • invitro says:

        “making oodles of money for the owners.” — I don’t buy this without some proof. I think the players are making oodles of money for themselves, and if the owners are making oodles of money, they earned it just as much as the players did.

        “But I would bet that the proportion of assholes to good guys has not really changed.” — I quoted Benedict’s 21% number above; that’s the number of NFL players in 1998 that had been charged with a serious crime. Do you really think that 21% of NFL players in 1960 had been charged with a serious crime? I don’t.

        • Marc Schneider says:


          I’m not saying the owners don’t deserve the money but my point was, why condemn players for trying to make a lot of money? No one condemns traders on Wall Street for trying to make a lot of money. Why are players particularly greedy? And fans have always thought players were greedy no matter what they were making.

          As for the percentage of assholes, I don’t know about your statistics. I wasn’t referring specifically to crimes. It’s an interesting stat that you raise and certainly raises issues, but it’s not really what I was talking about. I was reacting to the comment about how few players today are “talented, classy, and loyal.” No one really knows if those Denver Broncos were classy and loyal. Maybe some of them beat their wives. You don’t know. But I don’t think there has been some sea change in the percentage of jerks to good guys. I think sports teams have always had a certain percentage who were jackasses and no one really knows who they are. But there is more attention focused on players today and the media is more likely to report stuff that they would not have in, say, 1960.

          • Crazy Diamond says:

            They were loyal to the city of Denver and loyal to the Denver Broncos organization and fanbase. I’m not saying all those guys were saints, but rather that they were overall decent people in comparison to the average player today. It’s not even so much a comparison of teams or specific players as it is a comparison of the times. Sure there were problems in the 1980s but it just *seems* like the quality of the players (as people) has eroded precipitously since the 1980s. Of course there are outliers to this but again I’m speaking in generalities. I guarantee you if you ask the average fan if players in the 1980s were classier than the players in 2017 the overwhelming majority (of fans) would say “YES!”

          • Marc Schneider says:

            To me, it’s like movie stars. Back in the day, we didn’t know as much about what they did offscreen-and, of course, the studios didn’t want anyone to know. Movie stars today seem like complete assholes compared to those of yore; for example, Charlie Sheen. But I was just reading about how Spencer Tracey was an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a sexual harasser to his co-stars. I don’t think people change but what we know about famous people changes.

    • Dave says:

      If an NFL football game could be concluded in two and a half hours it might still be joyous. But between the cross-promotions, the TV timeouts, the posturing and the endless video reviews, it combines the worst attributes of Jerry Springer and an EPA hearing.

  7. Tom Flynn says:

    Yeah, but Sam would have blitzed Elway when the Broncos were pinned 3 and 18, and it would have been the absolute right call. Marty rushed three and put everyone else back into his dry white toast defense and proceeded to blow the Super Bowl chance that was in our grasp.

    My wife and I had a Browns themed wedding back in 1987. We no longer watch football.

    • Crazy Diamond says:

      May I ask when/why you stopped watching? I don’t blame you, but I’m curious.

      • Tom Flynn says:

        No point in watching the Browns. Discovered that the NFL is really boring if you don’t have an emotional connection to a team. Amazing what you can do with a Sunday if you aren’t sitting in front of a TV all day.

  8. Bruce W. says:

    “whoever was at Brigham Young” was, of course, the late LaVell Edwards, who sadly left us this last December.

  9. jroth95 says:

    My mom had a post-college job tutoring students at Pitt, including (or maybe only?) the football players. She reported that Ditka was an arrogant jerk, but that Marty Schottenheimer was sweet and completely normal. He never coached a team I cared about, but I always rooted for him. I was sorry to hear about his condition.

  10. Jeff says:

    Great article, Joe. By the way “whoever was at Brigham Young” was LaVell Edwards, BYU’s Head Coach from 1972-2000, and one of the earliest innovators of the passing offense.

  11. KHAZAD says:

    I have always thought that Schottenheimer was the most underrated coach I have ever watched. He took over four different bad teams,with a combined record of 18-37-1 prior to him (it is 3.5 seasons becuse he took over the Browns in mid season) and immediately made them respectable, go 28-27-1 in his first year. (Or half year in the Brown’s case) and had only two seasons below .500 in 21 years of coaching. He had 20 different starting QBs. I think Joe has it right in that his poor playoff record was partially due to making the playoffs with teams that overachieved and might not have even made it with a different coach.

    Sometimes I think too much emphasis is put on Super Bowl Wins, which can often be tied to a quarterback. Bill Belichick is 54-63 without Tom Brady, and that was taking over a Browns team that had been to the AFC Championship 3 times in 5 years prior to him taking over, and a Patriots team that had gone 27-21 under Pete Carroll with Bledsoe. So is Belichick really great,or did he just luck into Brady? George Seifert had the best winning percentage in history with Montana and Young, but went 16-32 when he tried to take over another team.

    Schottenheimer belongs in the NFL Hall of Fame.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think that’s mostly right and I also think rankings of QBs are tied too much to Super Bowl wins. That’s why I think Elway in some respects is the most underrated QB in history. Until the last two SB years, he took some very average teams (including, obviously, the one that beat the Browns) to the Super Bowl, where they got crushed by far superior teams. Somehow, those losses got laid at Elway’s feet. Same with Marino; the only year the Dolphins went under Marino, it was all because of him. They had no running game, a mediocre defense, and not even a good kicker. They got crushed by a truly great 49er team, but yet, somehow that is Marino’s fault.

  12. Pat says:

    I’m a complete dummy when it comes to football. I will say I appreciate it that someone was able to rhyme his name with “naughty rotten rhymer.”

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