To young football fans, the Browns struggling through an awful season is pretty much par for the course. But the world of 1990 was different. In that world, the Browns were coming off a strong decade, where they made the playoffs each year from 1985-89, including three appearances in the AFC Championship Game. The complete collapse of the 1990 Cleveland Browns came as a surprise.
Bernie Kosar’s decline at quarterback began. The 54% completion rate was doable in that era, but it was low for Kosar and was accompanied by a mediocre 6.1 yards-per-attempt. And the 15 interceptions Kosar threw in 13 starts were exceptionally out of character.
The only two strong points on the team were defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry, a 1st-team All-Pro and wide receiver Webster Slaughter, who caught 59 balls for 847 yards. Beyond that, the Browns were at or near the bottom of the league in both offense and defense.
That didn’t stop the season from starting on a good note. The Pittsburgh Steelers had made the playoffs in 1989 and would contend to the final week in 1990. The Browns defense came up big in the home opener in the late afternoon TV window. Anthony Blaylock returned a fumble 30 yards for the game’s only touchdown in the third quarter, Cleveland forced three turnovers and got out of the gate with a 13-3 win.
But three straight losses followed, including a 34-0 humiliation in Kansas City, where former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer had taken up residence. It set up a big Monday Night date against an all-to-familiar foe in the Denver Broncos.
Denver, led by the great John Elway at quarterback, had been the team who stopped Cleveland in all three of their AFC Championship Game appearances. Two of them, in 1986 and 1987, had been particularly gutwrenching. The Broncos were off to a 2-2 start and both of these AFC powers needed a win.
It was Cleveland who got it. The Browns defense had trouble with the Denver ground game, allowing over 100 yards to Bobby Humphrey and they trailed 29-20 in the fourth quarter. For once though, Cleveland turned the tables on Elway. Kosar finished 24/38 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Slaughter caught seven balls for 123 yards and they got out of old Mile High Stadium with a 30-29 win.
But this is where the season falls apart. The next four weeks were difficult and Cleveland could not meet the challenge. They lost to eventual playoff teams in the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals to dig themselves a 2-5 hole. On deck were the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers and the eventual AFC champion Buffalo Bills.
Cleveland went to San Francisco and gave a noble effort. The forced the legendary Joe Montana into a poor game, 17/37 for just 185 yards and were tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter. But a late 49er field goal won the game. A week later at home, the Browns were non-competitive in a 42-0 loss to the Bills.
Owner Art Modell used the bye week to fire head coach Bud Carson and replace him on an interim basis with Jim Shofner. The moved changed nothing. Down the stretch, the Browns lost twice to the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans who were a division rival prior to 2002) and gave up 93 points in the process. Cleveland lost decisively to the Los Angeles Rams, another team who collapsed in 1990 after a strong run in the 1980s.
The only two notable games were a 13-10 home win over a poor Atlanta Falcons team where Kevin Mack rushed for 80 yards. And to Cleveland’s credit, they didn’t mail in the Week 17 finale in Cincinnati where the Bengals were playing for the division title. Mack rushed for 85 yards and the game was tied 14-14 into the fourth quarter before Cincy got a touchdown to win it.
By rights, the offseason should have been the greatest in the history of the league—the Browns made the right hire for their new head coach, grabbing the highly touted defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. A guy named Bill Belichick. He got the franchise back on track, building the Browns back to respectability over the next three years (prior to the era of free agency, a five-year window to rebuild was considered the norm).
When Cleveland returned to the playoffs in 1994 under Belichick, won a postseason game (ironically over New England) and got off to a 3-1 start in 1995, it looked like good times were back in the Dawg Pound. But Modell then decided to move the franchise to Baltimore for 1996 and everything fell apart. The rest of 1995 was a lost season and Cleveland didn’t get an NFL team back until 1999. It was then they became the Browns so many of us know and pity. But in 1990, their collapse to a three-win season was a bit more surprising.