1994 Cleveland Browns: Bill Belichick’s 1st Playoff Team

Bill Belichick became a staple of the NFL playoffs during his legendary 21st century tenure in New England. But his first trip to the postseason came with the 1994 Cleveland Browns.

Following a 3-13 disaster in 1990, the Browns tapped Belichick, fresh off coordinating the defense of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. At a time just prior to free agency, rebuilds were seen as a lengthier project and Cleveland had been making steady progress. They got to 6-10 in 1991, then went 7-9 in back-to-back years, as they moved on from Bernie Kosar, the franchise’s iconic quarterback during the heyday of the late 1980s. By 1994, it was time for the next step.

In vintage Belichick fashion, the ’94 Browns did it with defense. They had a coordinator named Nick Saban who turned out to be pretty sharp himself. The defensive line was led by Pro Bowlers in Rob Burnett at end and Michael Dean Pery in the middle. Pepper Johnson was a veteran Pro Bowl presence at middle linebacker. And Eric Turner was the best free safety in the league, intercepting nine passes and being named 1st-team All-Pro. Cleveland’s defense was the stingiest in the NFL.

The offense had a nice blend of running backs. Leroy Hoard ran for nearly 900 yards, caught 45 balls, and punched his own Pro Bowl ticket. So did Eric Metcalf, although in Metcalf’s case it was for his electric skills returning kicks. But he also caught 47 passes and was a valuable target out of the backfield.

Vinny Testaverde was behind center, and his final numbers were pedestrian. His 55 percent completion rate ranked 21st in the league. With a 16-18 TD/INT ratio he was intercepted on 4.8 percent of his passes—worst among the 29 starters with enough passes to qualify. And his 6.8 yards-per-attempt was in the middle of the league.

But Vinny did have some big-play targets, namely Derrick Alexander who caught 48 balls at better than 17 yards a pop. Mark Carrier’s 29 catches were good for 15.6 yards a catch. All of it put together—some big-play passing, a steady running game, and special teams action—got the Browns to 11th in the NFL for points scored.

Cleveland opened the season at Cincinnati, where the Bengals were of the league’s worst teams. The special teams made an immediate impact in the second quarter. Randy Baldwin took a kickoff to the house and Metcalf returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown. It was 25-10 by halftime and ended 28-20.

The Pittsburgh Steelers came in for the home opener. The Steelers had made the playoffs each of the last two years under young head coach Bill Cowher and they would be Cleveland’s prime competition for the division title this year. The Browns jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but then things went awry. There was no running game, Testaverde threw four interceptions and the afternoon ended in a 17-10 loss.

A home game with mediocre Arizona was up next. It was 3-0 at the half when the Browns offense finally erupted. Testaverde ran for one touchdown. Then he tossed a 16-yard TD pass to fullback Tommy Vardell. Vinny and Alexander hooked up on an 81-yard scoring strike. The rout was on, and it ended 32-0.

Cleveland went to Indianapolis to play another average team in the Colts. Testaverde was making big plays. He went 16/28 for 266 yards and three touchdowns. The last TD pass was a 65-yard toss to Hoard that broke a 14-14 tie in the fourth quarter and led to a 21-14 win.

A bad New York Jets team came to Cleveland and Vinny continued to play well. He went 21/36 for 257 yards. Alexander caught seven balls for 105 yards. The Browns raced to a 24-zip lead by halftime and cruised home to a 27-7 win. They were 4-1 and heading into the bye week on a good note.

Cleveland went to Houston for a Thursday Night game on the far side of the bye. The Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) had generally been the most consistent team in the old AFC Central the past seven years. But Houston had said goodbye to Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and would collapse hard in 1994. But they put up a good fight here. Testaverde built an 11-0 lead in the first half, tossing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Carrier. But the offense bogged down, and the Browns D had to hold on to the 11-8 win.

Cincinnati made their return trip to Cleveland. The Browns spotted the Bengals a 10-3 lead. Then, just like in Week 1, it was time for some special teams magic. Cleveland blocked a punt for one touchdown. Metcalf ripped off a 73-yard punt return. The avalanche started, and the game ended as a 37-13 rout.

But there was also bad news. Testaverde was hurt. The Browns had a veteran backup in Mark Rypien, who was just three years removed from winning the Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins. But the next four weeks would be touch and go for the Cleveland offense.

Rypien played well in Denver, going 17/30 for 210 yards. The problem was the lack of a running game kept Cleveland from finishing off drives. And the Browns’ old nemesis, John Elway, was having a big day. The Browns lost 26-14 to a team that would finish under .500.

New England came to the old Dawg Pound for a late afternoon game on the first Sunday of November. Rypien again was in the lineup. A defensive war was tied 3-3 going into the final period. The Browns intercepted Drew Bledsoe four times, including two by Turner. It made the difference in a tough 13-6 win over an opponent Cleveland had not seen the last of.

A visit to mediocre Philadelphia was next and Rypien stayed in the lineup. He was erratic against the Eagles, but Hoard muscled his way for 86 yards on the ground. The defense played well, and Cleveland churned out a 26-7 win. Testaverde tried to come back on the road against playoff-bound Kansas City but struggled to a 4-for-12 start. Rypien came in. It didn’t help. The Browns lost three fumbles and lost the football game 20-13.

Even so, Testaverde would be back for good the following week. The Browns had at least survived the four weeks without their starting quarterback and were sitting on an 8-3 record. A record that easily became 9-3 when they dismantled Houston 34-10 behind 103 yards rushing from Hoard.

Cleveland and Pittsburgh were tied for first in the AFC Central, and for the #1 seed in the AFC overall. They had a head-to-head game remaining in the season’s penultimate week. The problem the Browns had was that the game would be on the road, and the tiebreaker situation did not look promising, even if they did win.

Thus, there was very little slack. Which made a late afternoon home game with the New York Giants even more disappointing. The Giants would narrowly miss the playoffs and were a seven-point underdog. But Cleveland lost three fumbles, turned it over five times overall, wasted a 171-yard receiving performance from Alexander and lost 16-13. They slipped a game behind Pittsburgh.

What’s more, a road trip to Dallas was next. The Cowboys were the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. They and the San Francisco 49ers were widely regarded as light-years ahead of the rest of the NFL. That would prove to be true by season’s end…but not on this late Saturday afternoon.

A 10 ½-point underdog, the Browns collected four turnovers. The Belichick/Saban defense kept Troy Aikman off balance. Hoard ran for 99 yards. Cleveland pulled a 19-14 upset. They were still alive for the AFC Central title, and in firm command to at least get the top wild-card. In the three-division format that existed prior to 2002, getting the top wild-card meant the 4-seed and a home playoff game.

The path to the division title and the #1 seed was steep. Cleveland had to win in Pittsburgh, then win their finale, and hope the Steelers lost theirs. But it was possible. Pittsburgh did have a difficult road trip to San Diego, who was playing for the 2-seed and a first-round bye, the following week.

However, the final week would not matter. On a dark, rainy late afternoon in the Steel City, the Browns fell behind 14-0. They couldn’t run the ball and lost the turnover battle 3-0. Testaverde threw for 250 yards, but at 21/42, was erratic in doing so. They lost 17-7, and playoff positions were locked in. Cleveland would host a wild-card game. Pittsburgh had homefield advantage.

Testaverde tuned up nicely for the playoffs at home against the Seattle Seahawks, going 16/21 for 228 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Browns won 35-9 to close out an excellent 11-5 campaign.

Coming into Cleveland on New Year’s Day Sunday was none other than the New England Patriots. It was already seen as an ironic matchup, given that the Patriots were coached by Belichick’s old boss from the Giants, Bill Parcells. Of course, in light of what we now know about Belichick’s own career arc, the irony is even stronger.

The Patriots were hot, having won seven straight to get into the postseason, and the Browns were only a three-point favorite—the edge customarily given for homefield advantage. Oddsmakers saw these teams as about even.

Cleveland got an early field goal from Matt Stover. Action opened up a bit in the second quarter. A Bledsoe touchdown pass gave the Patriots the lead. Testaverde answered a short TD toss to Carrier. New England drove down inside the 10-yard line. But the Brown defense forced a field goal, and kept the game tied 10-10 going into halftime.

The Cleveland defense was shutting down the New England ground game and at least grinding out some rush yardage themselves. The final tally would be 125-57 for the Browns, and Hoard ran in from 10 yards out to get a 17-10 lead in the third quarter.

More important is that Testaverde was completely outplaying Bledsoe. Forced to the air, the latter went 22/51 for 256 yards and threw three interceptions. Testaverde was sharp and efficient, going 22/30 for 268 yards and no mistakes. He led a drive for a big field goal in the fourth quarter to get a 20-10 lead. The Patriots answered with a field goal of their own, but that’s where it ended. Cleveland won 20-13.

The win earned the Browns what they wanted—a third chance at Pittsburgh. Cleveland had respect from the oddsmakers, only a 3 ½ point road underdog in an early Saturday afternoon game that would kick off the divisional round. A lot of observers wondered if the Steelers could really beat this Browns team three straight times.

But the Cleveland defense would play one of its worst games of the year. They were pounded on the ground for 238 rush yards. A 3-0 deficit in the second quarter turned into a 24-3 rout by halftime. Testaverde was only 13/31 for 144 yards. A highly anticipated game was never close, and it ended 29-9.

There was still plenty of reason for optimism in Cleveland. They had made their playoff breakthrough under Belichick and were primed for more. They opened 1995 with high expectations and started 3-1.

Then, in one of the most stunning developments in sports history, it all came undone. Owner Art Modell shocked the country by announcing his plan to leave Cleveland and relocate to Baltimore (where they would become the Ravens). Even non-football fans were taken aback by the sudden abandonment of one of the NFL’s great cities and most loyal fan bases. A 1995 visit to Pittsburgh for a Monday Night game saw the rival Steeler fans wear brown and orange armbands to demonstrate their solidarity. At home, the Browns were mercilessly booed by their own betrayed fan base.

All of which is to say that the ’95 season turned into a mess. Modell fired Belichick, scapegoating him for a problem the owner had obviously created.

Belichick would, of course, more than land on his feet. The fans of Cleveland weren’t so lucky. The NFL didn’t return to the city until 1999, when a new franchise was given the Browns name and history. And they have only sporadically contended since. 1994 managed to be a rare combination of a breakthrough year and the end of an era, all at once.