Remembering One Of Chuck Muncie's All-Time Best Performances
By Steven King
The game was supposed to happen the previous season – really, only eight months before.
But Mike Davis made sure that didn’t happen. So the schedule makers did the best they could, pitting the Cleveland Browns against the San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Stadium in the 1981 season opener on Monday Night Football.
The Browns would have played at the Chargers in the 1980 AFC Championship Game, but Cleveland – which seemed to be a team of destiny – lost 14-12 to the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round on Jan 4, 1981, when Davis – an otherwise nondescript defensive back – intercepted Brian Sipe’s pass in the end zone in the final minute.
In Cleveland, it’s referred to simply as “the Red Right 88 game”, named for the play on which Sipe was picked off. San Diego also ended up losing to the Raiders, 34-27, in the AFC title game a week later and was denied a trip to the Super Bowl.
So the Browns and Chargers both went into the 1981 season determined to finish the job and get to the Super Bowl; the opener would determine who had a leg up – at least in the early going – in that effort. The fact it was nationally televised and was played before the usual raucous, sold-out home crowd only added to the excitement.
All this came to mind Tuesday to a lot of longtime Browns fans with the news that Chuck Muncie – a star running back for the Chargers in that 1981 game – had died of an apparent heart attack. He was 60.
Muncie played nine seasons in the NFL, the first 4½ with the New Orleans Saints – who took him as the No. 3 overall pick in the 1976 NFL Draft out of California – and the last 4½ with the Chargers, who traded for him in 1980. It was one of the Chargers’ all-time best deals, as Cleveland would find out in that 1981 game.
A three-time Pro Bowler and a three-time all-NFL pick, Muncie rushed for 6,702 yards and 71 touchdowns in his career. And it seemed like he got all of those yards – or at least a healthy portion of them – on that humid night in Cleveland. Muncie was arguably the star of the game – or at least one of the biggest stars – by running all over the Browns, literally and figuratively. He carried 24 times for 161 yards – more than three times as many yards as Cleveland had as a team – in a resounding 44-14 win. It was Cleveland’s most lopsided loss since the 1978 season finale.
Muncie’s nine-yard touchdown run in the second quarter got the Chargers sparked a stretch of 17 unanswered points as they broke open a tight game and took a commanding 27-7 lead early in the third quarter. He was also second on the team with four receptions that night as QB Dan Fouts threw for 330 yards and three scores. WR Charlie Joiner was his favorite target, catching six passes for 191 yards.
Sipe had a big day, too (375 yards and two touchdowns), but he was also intercepted twice. As he always seemed to do, Sipe spread the ball around, with five players managing at least five catches. RB Greg Pruitt led the way with seven receptions for 86 yards while TE Ozzie Newsome had six grabs for 87 yards. But it wasn’t nearly enough for the Browns to keep up with Muncie and the Chargers, who seemed to be on a mission that night.
That was a sign of things to come that year for the Browns. Cleveland, which won a number of close games to earn the “Kardiac Kids” label in 1980, ended up losing a number of tight contests the following season, watching its record flip from 11-5 to 5-11 in the process. The opener was also a prelude of what would happen with the Chargers in 1981. They won three in a row and four of their first five on the way to finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs for the third time in a run of four straight trips to the postseason – still tied for the most in team history.
Once again, the Chargers captured their divisional round playoff matchup, 41-38, over the Miami Dolphins in overtime in what is still considered one of the greatest games in NFL history. And once again, they lost in the AFC Championship Game, this time to the Cincinnati Bengals in frigid conditions.
So neither the Chargers nor the Browns met their goal of getting to the Super Bowl in that 1981 season, but San Diego got much, much closer than did Cleveland. A big reason for that was the play of Muncie. He rushed for 1,144 yards and 19 touchdowns that year – tying the then-NFL record for rushing scores. He also finished fifth on the club with 43 receptions.
Now, how would Muncie – and the Chargers – have fared against the Browns had they met in the 1980 conference title game? Then-Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano has always maintained that it would have been a tough matchup for his team and, judging by what occurred in the 1981 opener, maybe he’s right. We’ll never know for sure, though.
But we do know – or at least what we can safely assume, especially from a Cleveland point of view -- was that the late Muncie might have never been better than he was against the Browns in that opener 32 years ago.