After four years of regular success and playoff disappointment, the 1989 Cleveland Browns opted for new leadership. In ways both good and bad, the season looked a lot like what had come before it.
Marty Schottenheimer coached Cleveland from 1985-88 and made the postseason all four times. Playoff heartbreak came at the hands of Dan Marino in 1985. John Elway administered a pair of excruciating AFC Championship Game losses in 1986 and 1987. In 1988, despite a series of decimating injuries, especially at quarterback, Schottenheimer coached Cleveland back to the playoffs before losing the wild-card game.
It wasn’t enough for ownership and the team parted ways with Schottenheimer. The new coach was Bud Carson, a veteran defensive coordinator most recently with the New York Jets, but never a head coach.
Carson did produce a good defensive team in Cleveland. The ‘89 Browns finished fourth in the league in points allowed thanks to a standout front four. Defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry was a 1st-team All-Pro and finished with seven sacks. Al Baker and Carl Hairston were getting long in the tooth, at age 33 and 37 respectively, but they combined for 14 more sacks. Linebacker Clay Matthews Sr. (father of the current Green Bay Packers linebacker) was a Pro Bowler, as was corner Frank Minnifield.
The offense had problems and it started in June when power running back Kevin Mack was arrested in a drug bust and missed the first twelve games of the season. The Browns lacked Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line and a combination of shifty Eric Metcalf and burly Tim Manoa didn’t produce good results.
Cleveland still had Bernie Kosar behind center and he could run a controlled passing game as well as anyone. His 59 percent completion rate was sixth in the NFL. That stat alone tells you it was a different world when it came to passing statistics. So does the fact that Kosar’s 18-14 TD/INT ratio was actually pretty good. He was intercepted on 2.7% of his passes and that was fourth-best among starting quarterbacks.
Kosar didn’t have a strong arm, so there wasn’t a lot of downfield passing action. His receiving corps was also fairly one-dimensional, but at least that dimension was something special—Webster Slaughter caught 65 balls and the speedy wideout averaged a dazzling 19 yards-per-catch.
Reggie Langhorne caught 60 balls, mostly in the mid-range game and Metcalf came out of the backfield to catch 54 more. Otherwise, Brian Brennan’s production dropped at wideout and 33-year-old tight end Ozzie Newsome (the franchise’s current general manager in Baltimore) was past his prime.
The Browns opened the season with a game at Pittsburgh in the late Sunday afternoon TV window and the Cleveland defense put on a show. Matthews started the scoring by returning a fumble for a touchdown. Defensive back David Grayson had two Pick-6s. The Browns won the turnover battle eight-zip, a statistic I’m reasonably confident usually portends victory. They won 51-0.
Cleveland’s D kept up the scoring in a Week 2 home game with the lowly New York Jets. They intercepted four passes, two by Felix Wright and one by Thane Gash that ended up in the end zone. It was enough for a 38-24 win.
The first loss came in a Monday Night road trip to defending AFC champion Cincinnati. The Browns were beat up in the trenches, losing the rush yardage battle 187-92 and allowing Kosar to be sacked six times in a 21-14 loss.
A familiar foe in John Elway and Denver came to the Dawg Pound. Kosar threw a nine-yard TD pass to Slaughter to grab an early lead. The Browns defense took over from there and forced Elway into a rough 6-for-19 passing day. Kosar was efficient, 25/38 for 216 yards and the result was a 16-13 win.
Another great quarterback in Dan Marino was up next in a road trip to Miami. Kosar and Marino both played reasonably well, but neither offense ever really broke through. The Browns ended up losing a tough 13-10 game in overtime. It got worse at home against the Pittsburgh following week—Kosar threw four interceptions, the Browns turned it over seven times in all and they lost 17-7.
The Browns were back on the Monday Night stage, this time hosting Chicago. Mike Ditka’s Bears had reached the playoffs each year since 1984 and won a Super Bowl in 1985, but ‘89 would be a lost season in the Windy City where they struggled to 6-10. Kosar was razor-sharp, going 22/29 for 281 yards. And with a 17-0 lead in the third quarter, he and Slaughter hooked up on a 97-yard touchdown pass. The final was 27-7.
Cleveland hosted the Houston Oilers next. The organization that eventually become the Tennessee Titans was a division rival to the Browns—prior to 2002 they shared the old AFC Central along with the Bengals and Steelers. The Oilers were also a good team, having been to the playoffs each of the previous two years and firmly in the hunt again this year.
The Kosar-to-Slaughter combo kept cranking out the big plays. Trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, they connected on an 80-yard TD strike. After Houston went ahead 17-14, Kosar hit Slaughter on a 77-yard scoring play. The Browns won it 28-17.
Cleveland kept rolling at a bad Tampa Bay team. Kosar drastically outplayed Vinny Testaverde, the quarterback who succeeded him at the University of Miami. Bernie was efficient, 18/22 for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Testaverde was forced to throw fifty times and while he got 370 yards, it also resulted in four interceptions. More important, it resulted in a 42-31 win for the Browns in a game that was never all that close.
It was the defense’s turn to deliver in a 17-7 win over mediocre Seattle. The Browns intercepted three passes, including one by Perry. They held the Seahawks to 46 rush yards. Cleveland was 7-3 and ready for an old friend to come to town.
Schottenheimer had taken the head coaching job in Kansas City and had gotten an immediate turnaround, taking a bad team and at least getting them to the point of being average. In shaky weather conditions the Browns and Chiefs played to a 10-10 tie. Four days later on Thanksgiving in Detroit, the Cleveland offense struggled even in the climate-controlled Silverdome. They got nothing going, the defense allowed a big day to the Lions’ rookie running back Barry Sanders and the day ended with a 13-10 loss.
The promising season continued to take a turn for the worse when Cincinnati came across the state and spun a 21-0 shutout. The Browns were now 7-5-1 and trailing the Oilers by a half-game in the AFC Central. The Steelers and Bengals were both hot on their heels at 7-6 and four other teams—the Colts, Dolphins, Raiders and Chiefs—were in the middle of a mad scramble for the two wild-card spots.
Cleveland still controlled their fate, but they gave that away in Indianapolis. Despite taking a 17-7 lead, four turnovers resulted in a 23-17 overtime loss. The Browns had now played three overtime games, lost two and tied one. They were now pushed to the brink and had a difficult schedule ahead—playoff-bound Minnesota and a road trip to Houston—along with needing outside help.
First things first—Cleveland needed to win a football game. The field at the Dawg Pound was frozen when the Vikings came in. Langhorne worked it well, catching six balls for 140 yards. Kosar functioned as well as could be expected, going 17/38 for 250 yards and avoiding mistakes. Trailing 17-14 in the closing seconds, veteran kicker Matt Bahr hit a field goal to send it to overtime.
Finally, overtime brought good results, though it took some trickery. Lining up for a 24-yard field goal, Carson decided not to risk it again on the frozen surface. Cleveland ran a fake and holder/backup QB Mike Pagel tossed a TD pass to wide-open linebacker Van Waiters. Elsewhere in the division, Cincinnati had crushed Houston 61-7, giving the Browns the help they needed.
The season finale at the Astrodome would be a Saturday night affair and it was winner-take-all for the AFC Central and #2 seed in the playoffs. If the Browns lost, there was a mathematical chance they could still grab a wild-card although a lot would have to break their way. The stakes were about as high as they could be for a regular season game.
Kosar came out blazing. He found Metcalf on a 68-yard touchdown pass and later hit Slaughter from 40 yards out. The Browns were rolling at 17-0. Houston’s explosive offense led by Warren Moon came back and took a 20-17 lead with less than five minutes to play. In a season that had been a wild display of ups and downs, it was time for one more ride on the roller-coaster.
Cleveland first drove into field goal range and then got to the 4-yard line with under a minute to go. Mack had returned to the lineup and that start of December and though he’d yet to make an impact, this was the kind of situation he was built for. A touchdown run sealed the 24-20 win and an improbable AFC Central title. Had the Browns lost, they would have ended up being nudged out for the playoffs by Schottenheimer’s Chiefs, an ironic twist the front office was undoubtedly even happier to avoid.
After a week off, Cleveland hosted Buffalo on early Saturday afternoon in the divisional playoff round. The weather was what you might expect for northeast Ohio in January, which is to say it was frigid and the field was frozen. And that made an impact from the beginning to the end.
Bahr missed an early field goal when he slipped. A couple plays later, Felix Wright slipped and allowed a safe pass from Bills’ quarterback Jim Kelly to Andre Reed to turn into a 72-yard touchdown play. The Browns moved back into field goal range and this time Bahr delivered, with a 45-yarder.
In the second quarter, the scoring began to open up. It started with another addition to the Kosar-to-Slaughter highlight reel, this one a 52-yard TD pass. Kelly responded with a 33-yard touchdown pass of his own to James Lofton. Cleveland drove back and Kosar flipped a three-yard touchdown to Ron Middleton. Cleveland led 17-14 at the half.
The Browns relied on winning the turnover battle in this game and an interception set up a 44-yard touchdown pass from Kosar to—who else?–Slaughter. The Bills responded when Kelly found running back Thurman Thomas on a short TD pass, but Metcalf immediately countered by taking the ensuing kickoff to the house. It was 31-21 and the city of Cleveland was smelling a third AFC Championship Game appearance in four years.
After trading field goals, Buffalo got another Kelly-to-Thomas TD pass. While the Browns’ defense did a yeoman’s job against the run, holding Buffalo to 49 rush yards, Thomas tormented them out of the backfield, catching 13 passes for 150 yards. But after this touchdown, the conditions became a factor again when Bills’ kicker Scott Norwood slipped on the extra point. The margin stayed at four points, 34-30.
That proved decisive. Kelly, who was brilliant with 405 passing yards, drove Buffalo to the Cleveland 11-yard line. There was time for two more plays, but the missed PAT ensured that a field goal could not be one of them. Kelly threw to the end zone, but Matthews came up with the final big play, an interception on the goal line and the win was secured.
Cleveland had survived Kelly’s onslaught by only having one turnover themselves, getting a bit of a running game from Mack—12 carries for 62 yards—and having the big special teams play from Metcalf. They were again one step from the Super Bowl.
And again, the hurdle was John Elway and again, it didn’t well for the Browns. They started slowly, digging a quick 10-0 hole, but were within 24-21 after three quarters. Kosar wasn’t playing well though and he finished the day 19/44 for 210 yards and threw three interceptions. Elway did play well, 20/36 for 385 yards and three scores. Denver pulled away and won 37-21.
1989 was the last real high the Cleveland Browns have had. As a head coach, Carson proved to have been more or less riding Schottenheimer’s coattails. The following year, the Browns started 2-7 and Carson was fired. They’ve made the playoffs exactly twice since then and never to the AFC Championship Game again. The late 1980s Cleveland Browns were great fun to watch, but this was their last hurrah.