The 1987 Cleveland Browns came into the season off consecutive playoff appearances, but with each one ending in heartbreak. In 1985, they lost an AFC divisional round game in Miami after leading 21-3. In 1986, they lost an AFC Championship Game at home to Denver when the Broncos drove 98 yards in the final five minutes for the tying touchdown. 1987, for good and bad, was more of the same. The Browns were an excellent team, complete and well-coached. And come January, there was heartbreak in Cleveland.
It was the third year in the league for quarterback Bernie Kosar, who was coming into his own as a star. Kosar completed 62% of his passes for 7.8 yards-per-pass, both near the top of the NFL. His TD-INT ratio was 22/9. He spread the ball around to a group of receivers led by big-play threat Webster Slaughter and possession receiver Brian Brennan. Tight end Ozzie Newsome was nearing the end of the line, but still caught 34 passes.
Kosar also made good use of his backs in the passing game. Earnest Byner’s 52 catches led the team and big Kevin Mack caught 32 more. Mack added 735 yards rushing and made the Pro Bowl. Cody Risien anchored the offensive line with a Pro Bowl year at right tackle and with a brilliant coordinator in Lindy Infante, the Browns ranked third in the NFL in points scored.
Marty Schottenheimer’s defense was loaded with talent. Pro Bowl players included nose tackle Bob Golic (brother of current ESPN radio personality Mike Golic) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (whose son, Clay Jr., now plays in Green Bay). The Browns also had the best cornerback tandem in the league with Pro Bowler Frank Minnifield and 1st-team All-Pro Hanford Dixon.
Cleveland’s D was stingy against both the run and the pass and they ranked second in the league in points allowed. When you add the special teams boost they got from Pro Bowl return man Gerald McNeil, there was nothing this team didn’t do well.
But they didn’t do it well in a season opener at New Orleans. They were beaten in the trenches, being outrushed 191-93 and allowing four sacks. In a 21-21 game in the fourth quarter, two of these sacks were for safeties. It turned out this Saints’ team was much better than anyone thought and went on to win 12 games. At the time, with New Orleans having never made the postseason in two decades, it looked like a pretty big disappointment.
A home game with Pittsburgh was tied 10-10 in the third quarter when Cleveland finally got clicking. Kosar threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to McNeill. Matthews took an interception 26 yards to the house, one of five picks the Browns defense got on this day. The final was 34-10 and in a normal year the stage was set for a big Monday Night battle against Denver.
But 1987 was anything but normal. The players went on strike. All Week 3 games were canceled and replacement players were summoned. For three weeks, these replacements would take the field and the games would count in the final standings. For the Browns, this stretch included two divisional games that would end up being important in a tight AFC Central race.
The first game was a non-division battle in New England and running back Larry Mason, a 26-year-old from Southern Miss, became the latest runner for Schottenheimer to make into a star. He pounded the Pats for 133 yards on 32 carries and the Browns won 23-10.
Cleveland’s quarterback was Jeff Christensen. He came from Eastern Illinois, a school whose quarterback legacy includes Tony Romo, Mike Shanahan and Sean Payton. Christensen didn’t work out in a home date with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans, who joined the Browns, Steelers and Bengals in the old AFC Central). Christensen threw three interceptions in a 15-10 loss.
The resolves of the regular players was starting to wilt and some were crossing the picket line to resume playing. One of them for Cleveland was backup quarterback Gary Danielson, a former starter on a playoff team with the Detroit Lions and current CBS college football analyst. Brennan was another one to cross. The Danielson-to-Brennan combo ate up the replacement Cincinnati roster. Danielson went 25/31 for 281 yards and four touchdowns. Brennan caught ten balls for 139 yards and the result was a 34-0 rout.
With the strike settled, the NFL was back to normal for Cleveland’s Monday Night home game with the Los Angeles Rams on October 26. Browns’ defensive back Felix Wright returned an interception 40 yards for a score to key a 20-0 lead. It was one of four turnovers the D produced in a 30-17 win
Cleveland went to San Diego, who ended the season in mediocrity, but got off to a quick start and was in first place deep into November. The Browns led 24-14 after three quarters, but did not run the ball and allowed Charger quarterback Dan Fouts to tie the game and ultimately lost it in overtime, 27-24. Cleveland came back blazing against woeful Atlanta. Kosar threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Slaughter to get it started and a balanced running game led by rookie fullback Tim Manoa keyed a 38-3 rout for the home fans.
Buffalo was a mediocre, but improving team with a young Jim Kelly at quarterback. Each team returned a fumble for a touchdown and neither one ran the ball all that well. But Kosar was further along in his development than Kelly at this stage, and also had more help. Kosar went 24/34 for 346 yards, spread the ball out to nine different receivers and led a 27-21 win.
A big game at Houston was up on November 22 and Cleveland was in a hole to the Oilers due to a head-to-head loss with the replacement players. The Browns made up for it in spades in the Astrodome. Minnifield intercepted three passes, the defense forced six turnovers in all and the result was a 40-7 romp.
Cleveland was rolling, but a trip to red-hot San Francisco, who finished with the best regular season record in the league was next. Kosar played well, going 26/37 for 275 yards and they were within 21-17 at the half. But Joe Montana was too much for the defense, throwing for four touchdowns and the Browns lost 38-24.
There were four games left and with a 7-4 record, Cleveland was in first place in the AFC Central, but Houston and Pittsburgh were just a game back. A 9-7 home loss to Indianapolis where Kosar was erratic and the running game non-existent was a big blow. The Oilers and Steelers both won and there was a three-way tie atop the division.
Cincinnati came in next. Not only was this a rivalry game, but the Bengals had the makings of a good team, one that had a winning record in 1986 and would go to the Super Bowl in 1988. But the strike had messed them up and 1987 was proving a lost season. Kosar threw an early 22-yard touchdown pass to Slaughter, one of three TD passes before halftime. It was 35-10 after three quarters and the final score was deceptively respectively, 38-24.
The Steelers also won, but the Oilers lost. The Browns made their position stronger with a 24-17 road win over the Los Angeles Raiders. Kosar’s receivers dominated, with Slaughter and Brennan combining for 13 catches and 194 yards. Pittsburgh lost and Cleveland was able to clinch a playoff berth. But the AFC Central was not assured—they were a game up on both rivals and Houston would win a three-way tiebreaker. Moreover, with the Browns having to finish the year in Pittsburgh, a loss meant that the Oilers would need only to defeat the collapsing Bengals to take the division.
The Browns-Steelers game in old Three Rivers Stadium was in the early afternoon on Saturday. Neither team got much of a running game going, but Kosar played well, going 21/36 for 241 yards. And the proud veteran Newsome was clutch, catching six balls for 94 yards. Cleveland’s 19-13 win assured them of the division and at least the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs. They still had hope of the top spot, but that ended late Sunday afternoon when Denver beat San Diego.
After a week off, Cleveland began the divisional round of the playoffs with the early afternoon kick on Saturday. The offense would have a chance to make amends for its worst performance of the season with Indianapolis in Municipal Stadium on a 16-degree afternoon.
Oddsmakers were bullish on the Browns, installing them as a decisive eight-point favorite in spite of the earlier head-to-head result and the Colts having pulled off a blockbuster midseason trade for Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. Cleveland started strong, with a 15-play/86-yard drive to begin the game, ending with Kosar’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Byner.
After Indy answered with a touchdown of their own, the Browns marched right back to the Colts 2-yard line. Kosar threw an interception in the end zone. He was able to make some amends with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Langhorne in the second quarter, but Indianapolis answered again and the game went to the locker room tied 14-all.
From the perspective of history, we know that Marty Schottenheimer, an excellent coach though he was, had his problems in the postseason. Even from the perspective of 1987, we know the Browns had underperformed in this spot last year, needing a miracle to pull out a win over the Jets in the divisional round. And we certainly know the heartbreak history that has been Cleveland sports in general. So when the Colts opened the second half by driving to the Browns 20-yard line, Cleveland fans couldn’t be faulted if they reached for the panic button.
But this was going to be a different day. The Brown defense pressured Colt quarterback Jack Trudeau, hit him as he released the ball and it landed in the hands of Felix Wright. It would be Cleveland that drove for the go-ahead touchdown to make it 21-14.
The Browns’ ground game was starting to take over. Byner rushed for 122 yards and on the flip side, they held Dickerson to 50 yards on 15 carries. A short field goal early in the fourth quarter gave Cleveland some breathing room at 24-14 and Kosar later flipped a two-yard TD pass to Brennan.
That all but sealed it, although Indy scored with 1:07 left and then recovered an onside kick. Minnifield finished it off by intercepting a pass and going 48 yards to the house to finish the 38-21 win. Kosar had gone 20/31 for 229 yards and again spread the football around, again using nine different receivers with no one catching more than four balls.
The stage was set for the rematch. Cleveland and Denver in the AFC Championship Game. The teams were seen as dead even, with the Broncos status as a three-point favorite attributable only to the game being played at Mile High Stadium.
Turnovers marred the opening of the game. Kosar threw a pass to Slaughter that was right in his arms, but it bounced up and ended as an interception, resulting in a quickie Bronco touchdown. Mack fumbled near midfield. The Brown defense appeared to have held on 3rd-and-goal, but Minnifield was flagged for defensive holding. It set up another touchdown.
By halftime, Cleveland was down 21-3. They got a turnover of their own with a Wright interception and cut it to 21-10, but quickly let Bronco receiver Mark Jackson turn a short slant into an 80-yard touchdown play. Down 28-10, there was no reason to think the Browns would make it a game.
But that’s what happened. Kosar got locked in and he led three straight touchdown drives. Denver had a field goal mixed in there and the game was tied 31-31. The Broncos reclaimed the lead at 38-31 with four minutes left. Kosar, who finished this game 26/41 for 356 yards and only the fluke interception as a mistake, was as hot as hot could be. He led the Browns right back inside the 10-yard line. It was apparent only two things could stop the Cleveland offense—a turnover, or if they failed to get the ball in overtime.
In the tough history of Cleveland sports, this play is one that lives in infamy. Byner took the ball and looked headed for the end zone. Watching the game as a 17-year-old, me and my dad were pulling for the Browns and had already started to cheer as Byner lunged toward the end zone. Only Denver safety Jeremiah Castille had come from behind and stripped the football. Castille recovered it with little more than a minute remaining. The game was all over, save for a token safety the Broncos took to avoid punting from their own end zone. It ended 38-33.
As tough as the 1986 loss to Denver—which took place in Cleveland—had been, this one seemed worse at the time. The year before, everyone saw the eventual champion New York Giants as close to unbeatable and they were. This time around, the 1987 edition of the Washington Redskins was the least imposing of any of the great teams produced in the Joe Gibbs era. There was a feeling the Browns had fumbled away a Lombardi Trophy. The fact the Redskins trounced the Broncos 42-10 might have alleviated a bit of the pain, but surely not much. .
The 1987 Cleveland Browns were an outstanding football team. Whenever this franchise finally gets over the hump and at least reaches a Super Bowl, perhaps we can get on with remembering them for that.