The 1988 Cleveland Browns were hungry for a Super Bowl breakthrough. The first three years of Marty Schottenheimer’s tenure had ended in postseason heartbreak. The Browns lost a crusher to the Dolphins in 1985. They lost two of the most famous endings in AFC Championship Game history to the Broncos in both 1986 and 1987. But instead of 1988 turning into a breakthrough, it ended up marred with injuries and an early playoff exit.
Cleveland’s strength was defense. They had the best cornerback combo in the league with Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews Sr. was a Pro Bowler who recorded six sacks. The first three draft choices were used on defense and the best pick was defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry. The brother of William, the famous “Refrigerator” for the Chicago Bears, Michael Dean wasn’t as renowned, but he was a better football player. Perry got six sacks of his own and began a career that would see him make several Pro Bowls.
The defense ranked sixth in the league in points allowed. Under normal circumstances, that would have been more than good enough to make Cleveland a legit Super Bowl contender again. But this was anything but a normal year on the offensive side of the ball.
Bernie Kosar was one of the top quarterbacks in the game and his numbers were there again in 1988—his 60% completion rate was the second-best in the league. He was in the top 10 in yards-per-attempt, and he was smart with the football. 1988 was also his most frustrating year, with seven missed games due to injury. The result was a revolving door at quarterback.
Cleveland didn’t have a particular good offensive line and while running backs Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were good, they didn’t have good years in ‘88. Both averaged less than four yards per carry.
The problems at quarterback led to low production among the receivers. Brian Brennan was the possession guy and Ozzie Newsome a solid tight end. The best of the group was big-play threat Webster Slaughter—and he missed half of the season. Byner’s 59 catches ended up leading the team.
Cleveland opened the season at lowly Kansas City and Kosar was knocked out with an injured elbow. Gary Danielson, the current CBS college football analyst was in his final year in the NFL and he stepped in. Danielson was by no means spectacular, but he was competent and in an ugly 6-3 win that was the Browns needed.
Danielson started the next week in a home game with the mediocre Jets. The offensive line played poorly, allowing four sacks and failing to clear any running room. Danielson ended up yanked for Mike Pagel, which made no difference in a 23-3 loss.
Cleveland still didn’t have a touchdown when they met Indianapolis on Monday Night Football. This was a rematch of a divisional playoff game of 1987 when the Browns pulled away in the second half. Pagel broke the offensive drought with a 14-yard TD pass to Newsome in the first quarter. Pagel later went 17 yards to Slaughter and Cleveland won 23-17.
A road trip to Super Bowl-bound Cincinnati went poorly. Even though the Browns defense contained Boomer Esiason, on his way to an MVP year, they were pummeled on the ground. Cleveland lost the rushing battle 213-68 and they lost the football game 24-17.
The Browns went to Pittsburgh, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1984 and was on its way to a 5-11 season. In a sign of how much respect Cleveland was losing, oddsmakers installed the Steelers as a slight favorite. Cleveland spent a half playing down to those expectations and trailed 9-7 at the half.
Pagel got the offense moving in the third quarter, but two drives inside the 10-yard line both ended in field goals and the Browns still clung to a 13-9 lead when Pittsburgh began driving in the fourth quarter. Defensive back Brian Washington stepped up with an interception and 75-yard return for a touchdown that sealed the game and the ultimate 23-9 win.
More quarterback woes came up with a home game against Seattle. Pagel was knocked out and another veteran, Don Strock came in. The Seahawks would win the AFC West in 1988 (the division they occupied prior to the realignment of 2002), but were a mediocre 9-7. No matter—Cleveland turned it over four times, gave up nearly 100 yards on the ground to Seattle running back Curt Warner and lost 16-10.
Another home date with a future division champ was up next as Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles came to the Dawg Pound. Mack turned in his best game of the year, running for 100 yards on sixteen carries. Strock threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Slaughter in the third quarter. The 19-3 win was impressive, but it came at a price—this was the game Slaughter hit the injury list.
But on October 23 in Phoenix, Bernie was coming back. He picked up where he’d left off last season, throwing a couple first-half touchdown passes and building a 14-0 lead. When the Cardinals rallied for a 21-20 lead, Kosar threw a 25-yard strike to Reggie Langhorne. Although Kosar threw three interceptions, he also passed for 314 yards and led a 29-21 win.
A bigger win came on the final Sunday of October over Cincinnati. The defense again contained Esiason and now they had some offensive firepower to help them. Kosar went 18/28 for 210 yards and no mistakes. Clarence Weathers caught seven balls for 140 yards and the Browns won 23-16.
Cleveland seemed to have some momentum going into a pair of high-profile road games. The Houston Oilers were a key rival in the old AFC Central, a division that also included Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) joined the Bengals and Browns in the playoff hunt. Cleveland would go to Houston on Monday Night and then travel to Denver for a late Sunday afternoon national TV game.
The games couldn’t have gone much worse. The Browns only rushed for 44 yards in Houston, dug themselves a 21-3 hole and lost 24-17. They lost three fumbles in Denver, were carved up by John Elway and lost 30-17. At 5-5, the season was slipping away.
Cleveland righted the ship at home against Pittsburgh, taking care of the ball and forcing four turnovers. Langhorne caught a 77-yard touchdown pass from Kosar in the third quarter to seal a 27-17 win. It set up a big battle in the nation’s capital. The Washington Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champs, but they were also struggling at 6-5. Both were proud teams. Both had a long way to go to make the playoffs, and the loser of this game could realistically forget it.
On a rainy day at old RFK Stadium, the Browns found their running game. Mack muscled his way for 116 yards. Trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter, Byner rambled 27 yards for the winning score. The Browns were still alive and they kept it going with a 24-21 home win over Dallas. Kosar was brilliant, going 19/27 for 308 yards and three TD passes. The fact the Browns could only muster 27 rush yards against one of the worst teams in the league—this was the Cowboy team that would get Tom Landry fired and Jimmy Johnson brought in—was still a matter of concern.
Cleveland was 9-5 and in spite of all the injuries, still were in good shape to make the playoffs. Cincinnati had the Central under control and Houston was also 9-5. New England and Indianapolis were giving chase for the two wild-card spots, but the Browns were in control and had a Monday Night trip to a weak Miami team. And Slaughter was coming back.
Naturally, Kosar would re-injure himself in this game and be shut down for the season as Cleveland dug a 31-17 hole. Strock was summoned. The veteran backup had made his reputation as a reliable #2 right here in Miami, most famously when he nearly brought the Dolphins back from a 24-0 deficit against the Chargers in an epic 1981 AFC divisional playoff game. On this Monday Night, he reminded the folks of South Beach what he could, leading consecutive touchdown drives to tie the game. But Dan Marino threw for over 400 yards and had the last word. The Browns lost 38-31.
The loss meant Cleveland no longer controlled their playoff destiny. Houston had one wild-card nailed down. New England was in control of the next spot. The Browns were hosting the Oilers on Sunday, but unless the Patriots lost in a late Saturday afternoon game it wouldn’t matter.
Cleveland turned to an unlikely source for help—John Elway and Denver, who were hosting New England. Elway did the people of Cleveland a solid and delivered a 21-10 win. The Browns had a shot.
It was a shot they were ready to cough up. Strock threw an early Pick-6 and Cleveland trailed Houston 23-7 in the third quarter. This was before the two-point conversion existed in the NFL, so it was a pure three-score deficit. For a team that had offensive problems, the season was all but over.
But Strock still had some comeback magic and authored another memorable comeback. He threw a short touchdown pass to Byner. Then Byner ran for another and cut the lead to two. Strock finished with 326 passing yards and his 22-yard strike to Slaughter sealed a 28-23 comeback. Cleveland was not only in the playoffs, but they moved past Houston in the tiebreakers. The teams would rematch in the AFC wild-card game and that game would be played in the Dawg Pound.
It wouldn’t be the 1988 Cleveland Browns if we didn’t have one more quarterback injury. Strock was knocked out in the playoff game and Pagel came in. It was a sloppy game with 22 combined penalties. The record book tells you Cleveland lost 24-23, and you might think it was another playoff heartbreak. In reality, the Browns were down 24-16 and got a touchdown with 31 seconds left. With no two-point option, the only drama surrounded the onside kick. When that didn’t pan out, Cleveland’s season was over.
Schottenheimer had done his most impressive coaching job yet in making the playoffs, but it wasn’t enough for owner Art Modell. Marty was fired. Even though Cleveland made it back to the AFC Championship Game in 1989 with a healthy Kosar, the end for this franchise was near. From 1990-2016, they’ve made the playoffs twice and posted three winning seasons. 1988 could have just been an unfortunate blip on the radar because of injuries. The poor reaction by ownership turned it into a long-term disaster.