As they bounced off wall-to-wall reporters and teammates in their dressing room late today, the best Cleveland Brown offensive and defensive players bumped into each other. To quarterback Brian Sipe, safety Thom Darden whispered: "We learned something out there."
What did that mean?
"It's the kind of thing," Sipe said later, "that players say to each other when you've just thrown the interception that ends the season."
Oh. And that was the game's final surprise -- an agreeable losing quarterback. There had been so many, including the decision to throw that ill-fated pass from the Oakland Raider 13-yard lne in the final minute and the Browns behind by two points.
The wind that created a 37 degrees below zero wind-chill factor had blown everything else around Municipal Stadium today. Surely, it had frozen the Brown coaches minds, swept up every bit of logic on the sidelines during a timeout and carried it toward Lake Erie -- and beyond. t
A pass on second down? The man who eventually intercepted it, Mike Davis, figured the Browns would run. So did the man who threw it, Sipe.
"We'd done so well playing that kind of offense," Sipe said. "But when I went to the sideline I thought we would run. It seemed the logical thing to do. But the staff was very adamant about this particular pass scoring. Consequently, I have to listen. They're smart people."
In truth, one did not have to be especially bright to realize that Don Cockroft just might miss the 30-or-so-yard field goal that two give-ups runs might create. Normally quite reliable, Cockroft earlier had missed an extra point and two field goals, including one from nearly the exact spot from which he might try the winner. And the wind was whipping as unpredictabley as ever.
"I would rather put my money on Sipe's arm for a touchdown," Brown Coach Sam Rutigliano said. "Obviously, that was no gut-cinch field goal. What we did on first down was run. What we wanted to do on second down was pass. What we wanted to do on third down was run again.
"After third down (if the pass fell incomplete), we wanted to let the clock run down before we called time. That way there would be just a few seconds left after we kicked the field goal. We'd kick off then -- and we'd win."
It was a resonable scenario -- and it might have worked if the arguably best quarterback in the NFL had been bright enough to throw the football into a snowdrift or the lake when his primary receiver on the play was covered.
"It was a crossing route," Sipe explained, "intended for Dave Logan all the way. I go to Logan every time except when they blitz, which they did this time. When that happens, Ozzie (Newsome) should be open. I went back onto the field (after the timeout) with no negative thoughts, just remnding myself not to get sacked (and make Cockroft's field-goal try even harder).
That might have been wrong. I should have reminded myself to throw the ball away if Logan wasn't open. I guess maybe I'm a victim of my own programming. That's the way we've run the play for two years -- and it's scored a lot of touchdowns. But I shouldn't have taken the chance I took today.
"I knew I was going to get hit the instant I threw the ball, so I didn't get as much on it as I could have. And I did get hit. I never saw the interception.But I heard the crowd. That was enough."
When Sipe pulled himself off the ground, he was in silent rage, snorting and then walking into the white clouds that he had created. All about him, teammates cursed or slammed their helmets into the frozen ground -- or both. As Sipe stomped off the field, Rutigliano hugged him.
"I told him I loved him," the coach later admitted. "I do say that to other people than my wife."
Perhaps because scarcely anyone expected them to dethrone the Steelers in the AFC Central Division this year, the Brown's postgame mood was not funeral. Perhaps that also was partly due to such as Rutiglano and Sipe being able to treat football as nothing more than a game.
Losing is not like death, the coach volunteered.
"Today's Sunday, tomorrow's Monday and the days will pass," he said. "Winning just wasn't in the cards today. But you've got to count your blessings cause it's been a fine year."
"I'm not gonna be singin' the blues," Sipe told the wave of reporters waiting for him as he returned from the shower. "It's been too great a year. We did things dramatically all year. We got into the playoffs dramatically. I guess it's only fitting we lose in dramatic fashion.
"It's almost a pleasure to get underestimated the way we did all season. I thought we were going to get underestimated all the way to the Super Bowl. iOne mistake, though, and the dream's over. But the important thing is that we had a dream -- and made most of it happen.
"So I'm going to San Diego (which is home and also site of the AFC title game next week) happy."
So are the Raiders. They have been underestimated even more than the Browns throughout nearly the entire season.
"I thought his (Sipe's) fumble (with 4:39 left in the game) was the clincher for us," Davis said. "But we had to add a little excitement for the crowd, warm 'em up a bit."
Many fans seemed more heated toward Cockroft than Sipe. The kicker and some critics suggested each could do impossible things to themselves as the Browns were leaving the field.
Across the way, there was glory for the Raiders. But the Raiders were thinking in more practical terms.
"Thanks for the nine grand," a lineman said to hero Davis.
"You're welcome," Davis said.