On December 16, 2001, the Cleveland Browns, with a 6-6 record, hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars in a week 14 matchup with playoff implications. The Browns, who returned to Cleveland only two seasons prior, were on the verge of their first playoff berth since 1994. With a win over the 5-8 Jaguars, their hopes at the postseason would look good. However, with an unprecedented decision by the officiating crew, those hopes diminished and the fans became irate, making the game one of the most infamous in NFL history.
The Browns were down, 15-10, with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. They were driving well into Jacksonville territory. On fourth-and-two on the Jaguars’ 12-yard line and 1:08 left in the game, Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch completed a pass to Quincy Morgan for a first down on Jacksonville’s 8-yard line. The Browns hurried to the line, and Couch spiked the ball to stop the clock with 48 seconds left.
After the spike, the referees gathered together for a discussion. Gus Johnson and Brent Jones, the announcers working the game for CBS, initially thought they were discussing whether Couch should be penalized for intentional grounding, as he pump faked slightly before throwing the ball into the ground.
Instead, head referee Terry McAulay went to talk to the replay booth to the confusion of everyone in the stadium. After a quick discussion, McAulay announced to the stadium that the replay booth buzzed the officiating crew to review the fourth-down play from two plays prior. Although the replay rules state a play couldn’t be reviewed after another play was executed, the officials still took a look. They determined Morgan bobbled the pass just enough to overturn the play and give Jacksonville the ball, all but ending the game.
At the announcement of this ruling, Cleveland fans that day became so upset, they starting raining bottles onto the field. In fear of their safety and the safety of the players, the referees decided to call the game with 48 seconds left, leaving the score 15-10 in favor of Jacksonville. This incident has become known as “Bottlegate.”
How did the Browns and their fans find themselves in this situation? Why was this game so important to all involved?
It all starts with the departure and eventual return of the Cleveland Browns franchise. Patrick Basista and his family have been fans of Cleveland sports their entire lives. He recalls the air of disappointment aorund the team leaving for Baltimore in 1995. “(The Browns leaving) is pretty vivid on my memory,” Basista recalls. “That Christmas, I was four or five years old, and I recal my dad buying me Browns gear for Christmas. I mean all out: helmet, jersey, pants, socks. Just everything. He said, ‘They’re never coming back.'”
When the team returned, Basista remembered it happening so quickly. “I don’t recall much of that, because it was such a whirlwind,” said Basista. “There were some talks, and then we just had a team again.”
Basista’s family took advantage of this return by buying season tickets to the Browns beginning their first season back in 1999 that they still own to this day. Being seven years old at the time, it wasn’t until the “Bottlegate” game that he had the opportunity to experience a game in person.
“I think the first Browns memory I have is Bottlegate,” Basista recalls. “I was excited to go. I recall my dad saying it was a very important game, and I think that’s why he wanted me to be there, because this was the first time the Browns were on the precipice of a playoff berth since they came back.”
Basista and his father enjoyed their season seats just a section over from the “Dawg Pound,” the Cleveland Browns fan section. Throughout the game, he remembered a sense of nerves throughout the stadium, especially on the Browns’ last drive.
“I recall my dad being very nervous because the Browns were making a late-game push. I think it was pretty nervous in the stadium.”
Nerves soon turned to confusion when the referees went to review the play. Once the call was reversed, those pent-up nerves were released in the form of anger and projectile beer bottles.
“I remember people being very irate and saying words that I didn’t know what they meant at that time,” Basista recalled. “It was the first time I had ever seen my dad truly scared. Once one person started throwing bottles, more joined, and it turned into complete chaos.”
The biggest memory that stuck out to Basista that day was when people behind him and his father started throwing glass bottles. That’s when his father knew it was time to leave. “I remember my father saying, ‘We need to go now.’ And I remember him shielding me as we ran out of the stadium.”
What gets lost in the “Bottlegate” saga was that the game was completed. By the time both teams made it back to their respective locker rooms, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called the officiating crew and ordered them to finish the game. They forced both teams back out to the field for the Jaguars to take two knees, run out the clock, and officially end it. At this time, bottles still flew from the stands and boos still echoed through the stadium.
Basista didn’t recall this moment, as he and his father were already well on their way home. “I was long gone,” he said with a chuckle.
In all, Cleveland fell to 6-7, Jacksonville moved to 5-8, and over one dozen Browns fans were arrested.
What was unrealized at the time of the game was the long-term implications of “Bottlegate.” The Browns finished the 2001 season 7-9, three games out of a Wild Card position in the AFC. The next season, the Browns made it to the playoffs, but lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round. They have not been back since.
A win against the Jacksonville Jaguars would have kept the hope of playoffs alive in Cleveland. If the Browns found a way to make the playoffs in both 2001 and 2002, the winning trajectory may have continued.
“I think (making the playoffs) would’ve made the players a lot more confident in winning in the NFL,” Basista said. “(Making the playoffs in 2001) could’ve been the change of an era. It could’ve changed everything.”
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