RUST BELT REVELRY
A woman, near tears with joy and hoarse from screaming at her heroes, leaned over the dugout that leads to the Browns' locker room tunnel. It was impossible to be heard over the gleeful din at Cleveland Stadium, but she was doing her best. When Brown running back Eric Metcalf approached the dugout, the woman went berserk. "Airrr-ick!" she screamed, but he was gone. "Oh my god!" she yelled to no one. "I'm gonna pass out!"
There was bedlam after Metcalf had become the first player in the history of the league to return two punts at least 75 yards for touchdowns in the same game. His second, a 75-yard juke and sprint up the right sideline with 2:05 left, gave the Browns a thrilling 28-23 win.
Following the winning score, Jim Brown—yes, that Jim Brown—pirouetted and pumped his fist, more emotional than he had ever been as a player. Comedian Martin Mull, a Cleveland native, hugged kicker Matt Stover. "Nothing compares to this! We're beating the Steelers!" Mull yelled. The P.A. system blared Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days. Players hugged and woofed at the sky. At 5-2, Cleveland leads second-place Pittsburgh in the AFC Central by a game going into the division's second bye week.
It doesn't get much better than this in the NFL: No plastic stadium or exploding scoreboard, only frenzied fans with their painted faces and doggy ears and a terrific rivalry between two Rust Belt teams. "This was classic, physical, emotional football," said Brown. "I was thrilled to be here."
Cleveland jumped out to a 14-0 second-quarter lead on Michael Jackson's 62-yard sprint with a Vinny Testaverde pass and Metcalf's first return, a 91-yarder. By halftime the Steelers had tied the score on two short Barry Foster runs. Then it was Pittsburgh 17-14. Then, Cleveland 21-17, on a touchdown pass from Testaverde to Ron Wolfley. Then, as the sun set over Lake Erie and the sailboats beat the dusk back home, came the day's strangest sequence of plays.
Midway through the third quarter, with the ball on the Pittsburgh 20, Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell threw incomplete, defensive tackle Jerry Ball nailed Foster for a six-yard loss, and O'Donnell was intercepted by nickelback Del Speer. He returned the ball to the Pittsburgh 16 before fumbling it back to the Steelers. Two plays later, with O'Donnell in the shotgun at his own 24, 284-pound tight end Eric Green went in motion. When center Dermontti Dawson snapped the ball, it hit Green on his ample posterior. After a mad scramble, fullback Merril Hoge picked up the ball and ran around end for a first down. The drive led to Gary Anderson's second field goal. His third three-pointer, midway through the fourth quarter, put Pittsburgh ahead 23-21.
With 2:24 to play, Steeler punter Mark Royals boomed a 53-yarder that Metcalf gathered in at his 25. He headed for the sideline, seemingly resigned to a 12-or 15-yard return. "Then I saw a lot of brown jerseys," recalled Metcalf. The brown jerseys cleared a path, and Metcalf was gone.
Said Steeler linebacker Greg Lloyd, who had played superbly, "He didn't beat us. He beat our special teams. That's stupid football. The defense took care of business."
After the game Cleveland owner Art Modell sipped a glass of chardonnay in his private suite at the stadium and talked about his team and his town. "We have an emotional hold on this city unlike any other team has on any other city in America," he said. "You feel it. The town pulses with it. It lives for the Browns, and it goes into a frenzy in weeks like this."
Modell walked over to his coach, Bill Belichick, embraced him and kissed him on the right cheek. Holding Belichick by both shoulders Modell whispered into his right car, "Take a month off."
Modell is the most emotional owner in the league, and this had been an emotional week. The press and the fans were still all over Belichick for his decision a few weeks back to go with Testaverde over Cleveland icon Bernie Kosar. (On Sunday, Testaverde was lost for eight to 10 weeks with a separated right shoulder.) In midweek Modell handed Belichick—who is 18-21 with no playoff appearances in 2½ years with the Browns—a two-year contract extension, through the 1997 season. Said Modell, "I had to give him the extension to send word to certain people in the community that I was behind Bill 100 percent. I back him unconditionally. He's giving me an honest shake. I trust him to build a champion."
For one idyllic Sunday at least, that doesn't seem all that improbable.
A STERLING SEASON
The league's quietest megastar is at it again, wowing us on the field for three hours each week and then shying away from the spotlight. According to his friends, Packer wide receiver Sterling Sharpe rarely does interviews because he has no interest in becoming famous. In Green Bay's 37-14 win over Tampa Bay, the quiet man ripped the Bucs for 10 catches, 147 yards and four touchdowns—the best day of his pro career. "He doesn't want anybody to praise him," says Green Bay defensive lineman Matt Brock. "He just wants to catch balls and make defensive backs look like fools."
Last year Sharpe set the NFL season record for receptions, with 108, and after six games this fall he's on pace to haul in 115. He is the Midwest's Jerry Rice. At 6'1", 210 pounds, Sharpe is an inch shorter but five pounds heavier than Rice, Since 1989 Rice, with abler quarterbacks, has had 388 receptions to Sharpe's 377. Sharpe has been playing in pain—he has Achilles tendinitis—but he can still turn on the afterburners. His touchdown catches on Sunday left Tampa Bay's director of player personnel, Jerry Angelo, shaking his head. "That was one of the finest exhibitions as a wide receiver I've ever seen," Angelo said. "I don't think I've ever seen him run so strong after the catch."
This weekend marks the sixth anniversary of the three-way Eric Dickerson trade, which has been a washout for everyone but Buffalo. In the deal the Bills got All-Pro linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who remains an impact player. From the Rams the Colts got Dickerson, whose retirement last week finally put an end to his years of whining as his career steadily declined. The Rams received six draft picks who, for the most part, have turned out to be failures. Only one of those selections, backup running back Cleveland Gary, is still on the team's active roster. Another, cornerback Darryl Henley, is reportedly under investigation by federal agents for trafficking in cocaine.... You'll recall that Paul Gruber, Tampa Bay's iron-man tackle, had insisted that he would never again wear a Buc uniform; the team, he maintained, was not committed to winning. After playing 4,850 consecutive downs, Gruber was holding out, demanding to be dealt to another team. On Oct. 19, the season's final day for trades, Tampa Bay worked out a swap that would have sent Gruber to the contending Raiders. But when L.A. offered Gruber a four-year deal at $1,675 million per season, Gruber balked. Seems the Bucs were prepared to sweeten their most recent offer to a four-year contract worth nearly $2.4 million a year. After lunching with Buc owner Hugh Culverhouse, Gruber saw things in a wholely different light. "I feel confident there is going to be some winning done," he said, both his stomach and his wallet pleasantly full. He was in a Buc uniform on Sunday.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•A 16-13 win over the Rams in Anaheim gave Detroit its first win on the West Coast since 1982.
•The Bengals are 8-31 since the death of the team's founder, Paul Brown, in 1991.
•The Raiders are on pace for a 1,458-yard penalty season, which would break the NFL's single-season record, held by the '69 Raiders, by 184 yards.
•At 32, Detroit's Mel Gray became the oldest player to return a kickoff for a TD—he ran one back against Seattle on Oct. 17—since Johnny (Blood) McNally did it at 33 for the old Pittsburgh Pirates in 1937.
•Bear running back Tim Worley could become the first player to play in 17 regular-season games in one year. Worley played in all six Steeler games before being traded to Chicago last week. Because the Bears have had both of their bye weeks, they still have 11 games left.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Washington at Buffalo, Monday. Twenty-one months ago, when the Redskins routed the Bills 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI, Washington, coached by Joe Gibbs, got its touchdowns from Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and Gary Clark. The Skins are now 1-5; Gibbs, Riggs and Clark are gone; Byner has gained nine yards rushing; Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien is hurting; and stalwart left tackle Jim Lachey is out for the year with a knee injury. Buffalo is 5-1, Marv Levy still coaches, Jim Kelly still throws the ball, Thurman Thomas still runs it, and Andre Reed and Don Beebe still catch it.
THE END ZONE
The paternity watch: Kelly Proehl, the wife of Phoenix wideout Ricky Proehl, is due to deliver a daughter this Sunday, when the Cardinals play host to New Orleans. But, says Kelly, "we've just decided if there's a block of time when he can't be there, he can't be there."
Metcalf's game-winning return left the Steeler special teamers with mud on their faces.
Brown defenders, who had been overshadowed by the Steeler D, rose to the occasion.
Sanders (20) is still the best at his position.
The Midseason All-Pro Team
The results of SI's poll of 14 pro-personnel directors and scouts bode well for Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman. Our panel voted Aikman—whose contract is scheduled to be renegotiated in December—the league's midseason MVP in a landslide (he had seven votes, with no other player getting more than one).
"If there's a time when you especially want to be playing well," says Aikman, who after eight weeks has completed 67% of his passes and whose 99.5 efficiency rating is second in the league, "obviously it's when your contract's being discussed."
Aikman has never professed to be the best at his position, but, he says, with his negotiations with team owner Jerry Jones only a month away, "I'd like for people to at least be able to make the argument."
WR: Michael Irvin, Cowboys; Andre Rison, Falcons
TE: Brent Jones, 49ers
T: Erik Williams, Cowboys; Jumbo Elliott, Giants
G: Randall McDaniel, Vikings; Steve Wisniewski, Raiders
C: Bruce Matthews, Oilers
QB: Troy Aikman, Cowboys
RB: Barry Sanders, Lions; Bam-Foster, Steelers
DE: Bruce Smith, Bills; Anthony Smith, Raiders
DT: Cortez Kennedy, Seahawks; Sean Gilbert, Rams
OLB: Greg Lloyd, Steelers; Renaldo Turnbull, Saints
ILB: Junior Seau, Chargers; Michael Brooks, Giants
CB: Rod Woodson, Steelers; Eric Allen, Eagles
S: Henry Jones, Bills: Steve Atwater, Broncos
P: Greg Montgomery, Oilers
K: Jason Hanson, Lions
Return Specialist: Mel Gray, Lions
Coach: Dan Reeves, Giants
Offensive Rookie: quarterback Rick Mirer, Seahawks
Defensive Rookie: end Eric Curry, Bucs
Offensive Player: Aikman
Defensive Player: Rod Woodson, Steelers
Most Valuable Free Agent: quarterback Wade Wilson, Saints