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Browns Get Helmet-Hard Lesson

Fans of the Cleveland Browns learned a valuable lesson Sunday (although don’t expect it to be licensed by the NFL any time soon):

Given a choice of projectiles and pitching motions, the delirious, two-handed helmet toss is a far worse thing to do than the one-handed, three-quarter-delivery, drunken-beer-bottle changeup.

Chuck a few hundred plastic beer bottles on the field, as Brown fans did at their last home game last December, and all you will get is a few days of national derision in the media and maybe a stern finger-wagging from the league office.

Spike your helmet on the field before the final whistle actually sounds, as Brown linebacker Dwayne Rudd did Sunday, and you will be penalized half the distance to the goal and one victory in the standings.

Rudd set a world record for Fastest Dash From Hero to Goat--really, when you examine it closely, no one is even in the same league anymore--when he mistimed the start of his post-victory celebration by a millisecond or two, ripped off his helmet and excitedly flung it 15 yards through the air while the final play of regulation was still underway, and was immediately flagged for premature jubilation, or unsportsmanlike conduct, or probably a combination of the two.

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Rudd was amped, he was pumped, he was stoked, he was a very happy, very large man who thought he’d just ended the game by throwing Kansas City quarterback Trent Green to the ground to clinch a 39-37 Brown victory. Rudd said he saw Green on the grass and “triple zeroes” on the clock before doing his helmet fling thing.

The big problem was what Rudd didn’t see: Green, at the last moment, flipping the ball to Kansas City tackle John Tait, who grabbed the last-ditch pitch and lumbered 28 yards to the Cleveland 25.

Because Rudd’s helmet hit the turf long before the play ended, Rudd was in violation of the NFL rule book. With no time on the clock, referee Ron Blum cited Rudd for unsportsmanlike conduct and penalized Cleveland half the distance to the goal.

Since no NFL game can end on a defensive penalty, Kansas City was allowed to send in its field-goal unit and tee it up for Morten Andersen, whose 30-yarder after time expired gave the Chiefs a 40-39 victory.

In one of numerous postgame interrogation sessions with the media, Brown Coach Butch Davis confessed, on the record, “I’m sick.”

Chief Coach Dick Vermeil, who hadn’t been handed so nice a gift since Kurt Warner moved up the depth chart in St. Louis, admitted “We were fortunate to win” and surmised that Davis and his players must be “shell-shocked.”

Rudd certainly fit the description.

“I thought he was down,” Rudd said, alluding to Green. “When I tackled him, he rolled over on my facemask. I looked up and saw triple zeroes on the clock and thought the game was over. But I didn’t get the chance to look behind me and see the game wasn’t over.”

Willie Roaf, the veteran Kansas City offensive lineman, called the game “the craziest I have played in 10 years.” On any scale, it would certainly have to rank up there, although considering the wild finishes on this first Sunday of the 2002 NFL season--three games were decided in overtime--it tended to blend into the scenery.

Lambeau Field, traditional home to tundra, Ice Bowls and frostbitten fans, was hotter than a greenhouse for Green Bay’s opener against Atlanta, with perspiration and IV bags flowing amid temperatures reaching the 90s. For the Packers, it seemed like a good day to get five quick touchdown passes out of Brett Favre and head as soon as possible for the postgame ice baths, but the Green Bay defense postponed the chill by letting the Falcons’ Michael Vick-led offense ring up 34 points, including Jay Feely’s game-tying field goal with five seconds left.

Of all times to go overtime. The Packers and Falcons staggered on for nearly 10 more sweltering minutes before Ryan Longwell’s field goal finally won it for Green Bay, 37-34. Any longer, Favre said, and “I’d be watching from the infirmary.”

This was a game in serious need of Chad Morton, who knows how to end overtimes in a hurry. Morton’s New York Jets were tied, 31-31, with Buffalo when the Bills committed a grievous mistake: They lost the coin toss.

Then they committed another: They kicked off to Morton.

One 96-yard dash later, game over. Morton had ended the shortest overtime period in NFL history with a kickoff return that gave the Jets a 37-31 victory. One other thing: It wasn’t Morton’s longest return of the day. He also had a 98-yarder during regulation, becoming the fifth player in league history to run two kickoffs back for scores in the same game.

Tampa Bay, which barely got Martin Gramatica on the field in time to kick the field goal that tied New Orleans, prolonged the agony for more than 12 minutes. With 2:50 left in overtime, Buccaneer punter Tom Tupa was trapped in his own end zone--holding the ball, wearing a defensive lineman as an overcoat--and panicked. Tupa, a 15-year veteran who has started 13 NFL games at quarterback, chose a bad time to throw a pass and a worse time to try it with his left arm.

It wasn’t a pass, actually. It looked more like a wounded pitchout.

It wound up in the arms of New Orleans’ James Allen, an innocent end zone bystander one second, the touchdown-scoring hero of the Saints’ 26-20 triumph the next.

What to do in such a situation? It’s hard to know. Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter, in the waning minutes of regulation in the Houston Texans’ first regular-season game ever, found himself in a similar predicament and opted to hold onto the ball and take the safety.

The big-picture result wasn’t any better. Dallas fell behind by nine and Houston went on to become the first expansion team since the ’61 Vikings to win its NFL debut, 19-10.

Ticking down the last historic seconds, every Houston player still on the field made sure to keep his headgear on his head until the final gun had sounded. Wise beyond their years, those Texans.


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