Marty Schottenheimer enjoyed a long and successful career as an NFL head coach, one marked by tough running games, good defense and, regrettably, a lot of playoff heartbreak. All of those were present in his maiden voyage at the helm of the 1985 Cleveland Browns.
The Browns had reached the playoffs in 1980 as the #1 seed in the AFC before a heartbreaking loss to the Raiders. Cleveland snuck into the postseason again in the strike-torn year of 1982 with a 4-5 record and was quickly eliminated.
Midway through 1984, they were falling apart at 1-7 when Schottenheimer got the job in midseason. The team finished on a respectable note, splitting their last eight games and setting the tone for Marty’s first full year.
In addition to the coaching change, the Browns were breaking in a new quarterback. Bernie Kosar, a local high school product who had won a national championship for the Miami Hurricanes in 1983, was in his rookie year. Kosar opened the season on the bench behind 34-year-old Gary Danielson, but the rookie would ultimately start ten games.
The passing production was, to be kind, rather modest. Kosar completed 50 percent of his throws for a low 6.4 yards-per-attempt. It was the running game that drove the Browns. Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were both 23-years-old and each bulldozed for over 1,000 yards and Mack made the Pro Bowl. They did it in spite of an offensive line that lacked Pro Bowl talent of its own.
There wasn’t a lot of talent at the wideouts, but the Browns did have a great tight end. Ozzie Newsome was perfect for a quarterback who excelled in the short game, as Kosar did. Newsome caught 62 passes for 711 yards and enjoyed a Pro Bowl year of his own.
Cleveland’s offense was 23rd in the NFL in points scored, but the defense more than picked up the slack. A pair of outside linebackers, Chip Banks and Clay Matthews Sr. (father of the current Green Bay Packers LB of the same name) combined for 17 sacks and each made the Pro Bowl. So did nose tackle Bob Golic, the brother of current ESPN radio personality Mike Golic. The secondary was led by strong safety Al Gross who intercepted five passes.
A home game with the Cardinals, who then played in St. Louis, saw the veteran Danielson start at quarterback and he threw two touchdown passes in bringing the Browns back from a 17-3 deficit to lead 24-17. But Cleveland lost the turnover battle 3-0, the game went to overtime and St. Louis won 27-24.
The Browns hosted the archrival Steelers, who had won the old AFC Central (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Houston Oilers) the previous two years and reached the AFC Championship Game in 1984. The Cleveland running game asserted itself, winning rush yardage 145-54 and the football game 17-7. A visit to a playoff team in Dallas didn’t go as well, a 20-7 loss where the Browns token touchdown came at the end.
Mack got rolling in San Diego, with 130 yards and the Browns overall ran for 275 yards in a 21-7 win over a mediocre opponent. In a home game with the eventual AFC champion New England Patriots, the Browns turned it over five times…and still managed to win 24-20. Kosar came in and went 9/15 for 105 yards.
The Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) were a bad team, but like the Browns, they had a quarterback whose NFL journey was in its infancy, in this case Warren Moon. The game in the Astrodome was ugly for a half and Cleveland trailed 6-0. But Kosar was able to make big plays, his 8/19 going for 208 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown pass to Clarence Weathers, The Browns won 1-6.
Kosar again played reasonably well in a home game with the Los Angeles Raiders, going 10/22 for 140 yards. In fact he outplayed counterpart Marc Wilson, who was 15/36 for 213 yards. But this was a rare game where Cleveland didn’t have the edge in the backfield. Los Angeles’ Marcus Allen was in the midst of an MVP year and the Raiders ultimately finished 12-4. The Browns came up just short 21-20. They lost another home game a week later to the ten-win Washington Redskins, getting just 97 yards rushing in a 14-7 defeat.
Two big divisional road games, at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were next and the losing continued. In the rain at old Three Rivers Stadium, the Browns were outrushed 155-66 by the Steelers and lost 10-9. A week later, they couldn’t contain the passing combination of Boomer Esiason-to-Cris Collingsworth took a 27-10 beatdown at the hands of the Bengals.
With a four-game losing streak and 4-6 record and visit from the woeful Buffalo Bills was just what the doctor ordered. Byner ran for 109 yards, Mack added 94 and Cleveland churned out a 17-7 win. Cincinnati made their return trip across the state the following week and Mack rolled up 117 yards in a 24-6 payback win.
The AFC Central was weak in 1985, and the Browns’ 6-6 record actually had them tied for first with the Steelers. What’s more, the Bengals and Oilers were each in pursuit at 5-7. It was excitement driven by a shared mediocrity as the season hit the homestretch.
Cleveland paid a visit to the Meadowlands to face Bill Parcells’ New York Giants who would ultimately reach the second round of the NFC playoffs. Both teams were built on defense so the scoring outburst the ensued was quite unexpected. The Browns trailed 33-21 and Kosar was struggling, Schottenheimer turned to Danielson and the veteran delivered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to steal a 35-33 upset. By day’s end, Cleveland was in sole possession of first.
Kosar returned to the lineup at mediocre Seattle a week alter and played well, going 18/31 for 249 yards. But this time, the running game failed and the defense couldn’t contain Seahawks’ quarterback Dave Krieg. The 31-13 loss enabled Cincinnati to pull even in the division race at 7-7, with Pittsburgh and Houston both losing.
The Oilers were now 5-9 and the Browns were a (-10) favorite when Houston came to the Dawg Pound for the season’s penultimate game. Kosar played mistake-free football, going 14/28 for 161 yards. He ran for one touchdown and flipped a short TD pass to Newsome for a 14-7 lead. Two more short touchdown passes in the third quarter extended the lead to 28-7 and the Browns hung on 28-21.
Cincinnati lost, and the Bengals and Steelers were both 7-8, one game back of the Browns at 8-7. Cleveland had the tiebreaker against both teams, but if a three-way tie occurred, the Bengals would take the AFC Central. Moreover, the Browns had a difficult road trip to face the New York Jets, a 10-5 team facing a win-or-go-home scenario.
The good news was that the schedule was no easier for the Bengals or Steelers. Cincinnati had to go to New England, who was identical to the Jets—dealing with a must-win at 10-5. And the Steelers had to face the Giants, who also had their back to the wall to qualify for the postseason. In summation, all three teams were on the road against superior opponents who had everything to play for.
Cleveland and Pittsburgh were each in the Meadowlands, as the Steelers played on Saturday afternoon at the Giants. Any sense of drama to the AFC Central race was snuffed out when the Steelers lost. The Browns could celebrate on Saturday night as they wrapped up the division. The following day, Cleveland did make a little history—in their 37-10 loss they became the first team to reach the playoffs without a winning record, finishing 8-8.
The playoff format prior to 1990 had five teams per conference making it, with three division winners and two wild-cards. So even with the mediocre record, the Browns still got a week off before going to Miami. The Dolphins were the defending AFC champs and Dan Marino was the 1st-team All-NFL quarterback.
In a Saturday afternoon game that opened the divisional round weekend, Cleveland was ready to shock the world. They ran for 251 yards, and Byner scored two touchdowns. When he rumbled 66 yards for a score in the third quarter, the (+10.5) underdog Browns were ahead 21-3.
But alas, there was no passing game—Kosar was just 10/19 for 66 yards and Marino came blazing back. The Dolphins scored two touchdowns before the third quarter was out and finally got the game-winner with a little less than two minutes to play. Cleveland had its heart broken in a 24-21 loss.
The Schottenheimer-Kosar era had gotten underway, and Cleveland would get better. They would make the playoffs each of the next three seasons and twice reach the AFC Championship Game. But this wouldn’t be a story of the Browns in general or Marty Schottenheimer in particular, if it didn’t end in some awful heartbreak. Two losses to John Elway’s Broncos are each a part of NFL lore. But unlike our own day, at least the Browns were winning. It started in 1985.