A Game-Changer in Cleveland
Before the 1978 draft, another coach was sent, like Mitchell, to visit Newsome, with very specific instructions. Rich Kotite was part of Sam Rutigliano’s new coaching staff with the Browns. Rutigliano wanted a weapon who could attack the double zone defenses of the day down the middle. That meant he needed a tight end. Newsome was a receiver most of his career at Alabama, but Rutigliano thought he could make the transition if he possessed one unique physical trait.
“I told [Kotite], ‘I don’t want to know anything else except does he have a big butt?’ ” Rutigliano recalls.
A few days later, Kotite returned from Tuscaloosa. As he walked into Rutigliano’s office, Kotite didn’t have any scouting reports or any materials on Newsome. “He just said, ‘Sam, he’s got a big butt.’ I said OK, and we drafted him 23rd overall, after taking linebacker Clay Matthews 12th,” Rutigliano recalls.
Newsome reported for a mini-camp and met with Rutigliano, who told his new player he could make it as a receiver but could be a great tight end. “Coach, Bear Bryant told me to tell you that he thinks I should play tight end too,” Newsome said. “Well, if coach Bryant feels that way, that’s good enough for both of us, right?” Rutigliano replied.
“Yes sir,” Newsome said.
On his first touch in the NFL, the 6-2, 232-pound Newsome scored on a 33-yard reverse. He finished his career with 662 receptions, 7,980 yards and 47 touchdowns, all records for the position at the time. He didn’t fumble on his final 557 touches. “It’s pretty incredible,” Belichick says. “I’ve used that story many times. We all make mistakes and we need to learn from them.” Newsome also caught a pass in 150 straight games, at the time the second-longest streak in league history.
His catching ability, which was likely enhanced by concentration learned playing catcher growing up, was legendary. Rutigliano says the only pass he saw Newsome drop in his seven seasons as Browns coach—and he includes all practices and exhibitions—was in the 47th game in his career, at Minnesota near the end of this third season in 1980.
“I was shocked,” says Calvin Hill, the All Pro running back who spent his final four seasons with Cleveland. “It never happened before. He just shrugged and said, ‘Hey, I dropped the pass.’ ”
Newsome had good enough speed. As for his blocking, former Browns left tackle Doug Dieken said Newsome was an effort guy. In other words, decent. “When you saw his butt, you knew he wasn’t a wide receiver,” Dieken says. “He worked at it. Wasn’t his strong suit.”
During Newsome’s rookie season, Dieken asked him for help against nasty Rams end Fred Dryer and proposed a then-legal high/low block, with Newsome going for Dryer’s knees. After the play, Dryer punched Newsome. “I said, ‘You leave my rookie alone,’ ” Dieken recalls. “Ozzie said, ‘Thanks for sticking up for me.’ He didn’t realize I set him up.”
Off the field and in the locker room, Newsome quickly latched onto the worldly Hill, a Yale grad who as an only child never had a sibling and liked Newsome. Rutigliano liked to joke that Hill read the Wall Street Journal on the team plane while everyone else read the comics. He probably wasn’t exaggerating much. Hill once took the sheltered Newsome to a French restaurant in Cleveland. After the suave waiter went over the menu, he asked Newsome what he would like to order. “I’m not sure what I want to order, but I want to hear you repeat that again,” Newsome said.
Hill, with the help of Rutigliano, would prod Newsome into giving up the traveling basketball games he played in during off-season for extra money and into getting a real job. Newsome worked at East Ohio Gas, recruiting management trainees. It was his first exposure to scouting as a profession. “Calvin Hill was very impactful role model for Ozzie,” Rutigliano says. And Hill was Newsome’s presenter at Ozzie’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1999.
After never missing a game because of injury in high school, college and the pros—a span of 21 years—Newsome wasn’t sure what to do next when he retired after the 1990 season. Modell told him to try both coaching and scouting, and new Browns coach Bill Belichick didn’t stand in the way.
Most former players, especially one as good as Newsome, either carry an arrogance into their new job or expect things to be made easier for them, or both. But one thing Newsome did in his life, just like his parents, was work. And he did that with the Browns. Newsome drew up the cards that the scout team worked off of, and help run the scout team. Belichick, Accorsi and Lombardi would give him the same jobs as plebes such as Savage.
“Oh yeah, he had all the crummy jobs,” Belichick says. “Just evaluating players from nowhere that weren’t very good, but they had to be evaluated. Hitting the road, scouting guys just like any other scout would. He had never had an attitude like he had all the answers or, ‘I played so I know more.’ He was very receptive to learning as much as he could about coaching, scouting, personnel—all the other things that go into the job. Whatever he was asked to do, he’d do his best for the team.”
In Belichick’s final two seasons in Cleveland, Newsome had risen to director of pro personnel, scouting the league and upcoming opponents. He had yet to do extensive work with the draft. But he did learn one valuable lesson during the 1995 draft, Belichick’s last one as Browns coach. Cleveland was prepared to take Penn State tight end Kyle Brady with the 10th overall pick, but the Jets nabbed him at No. 9. The story, which Belichick and Lombardi have long denied, is that Belichick was so upset he threw a phone against the wall, shattering it. Whether that is true or not, it can’t be disputed that the Browns didn’t have a consensus on a player past Brady, and now he was gone. They finally traded down, bypassing among others Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, to the 30th spot and picking up a first-round pick in ’96. With that 30th pick, the Browns chose Ohio State linebacker Craig Powell, who had two injury-plagued seasons with the team, never starting a game, and was out of the NFL by 1999.
“One of the lessons learned for both of us was if you’re picking 12th, you need 12 players [on your board]. If you’re picking 25th, you need 25 players. Period,” Savage says.
Belichick never got to use that acquired pick. Newsome and Savage did.