The good run the Cleveland Browns enjoyed through the latter part of the 1980s had come to a crashing end with a disastrous 1990 season. That meant it was time for a coaching change and the Browns hit the jackpot—they hired a New York Giants assistant by the name of Bill Belichick. In turn, Belichick hired Nick Saban as his defensive coordinator. The 1991 Cleveland Browns began the long road back to respectability.
Bernie Kosar enjoyed a good year at quarterback in 1991. His 62% completion rate was sixth in the NFL and he played smart, mistake-free football. The downfield passing game didn’t scare anyone, but it was respectable. Webster Slaughter caught 64 balls for over 900 yards to lead up the receivers corps.
The Browns, with no Pro Bowl players on offense, relied on depth and a number of players contributed. Brian Brennan and Reggie Langhorne combined to catch 70 passes and ease some of the pressure on Slaughter. Kevin Mack’s 72 catches out of the backfield led the team. Eric Metcalf and Leroy Hoard were also receiving threats from the running back position. Tight end Scott Galbraith added 27 more catches.
Taken collectively, the offense ranked 16th in the league, which was at least manageable. Defensively, Cleveland also ranked in the middle of the league. They were led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry. Cornerback Frank Minnifield, a star of the 1980s teams, was still hanging on and able to contribute at age 31.
Belichick’s head coaching debut came on September 1 in a home game with Dallas. The Cowboys were a rising force under Jimmy Johnson and the Browns were outrushed decisively and lost 26-14. The new head coach’s first victory came—ironically off—in New England. They forced four turnovers and got two sacks from defensive back Randy Hilliard. Kosar went 15/22 for 187 yards in the 20-0 whitewash.
Slaughter got loose the next week at home against Cincinnati, catching eight balls for 107 yards. Cleveland didn’t find the end zone, but they got four field goals, a safety and won a strange 14-13 game. Belichick then faced his old employer, the defending champion Giants. They hung in the game, but gave up over 200 yards rushing in a 13-10 loss that took them into the bye week.
Cleveland was slow out of the gate when they returned against the New York Jets, falling behind 14-0. the Browns eventually tied the game, before losing on a late field goal. A visit to the powerful Washington Redskins, the eventual Super Bowl champs was next. For the third time in seven games, Cleveland’s rush defense was overwhelmed by an NFC East team, giving up 208 yards in a 42-17 loss.
At 2-4, the season was in danger of slipping away when they went to San Diego and trailed 24-17 in the fourth quarter. Kosar was playing well though and would go 26/42 for 297 yards with no mistakes. He tied the game with a 15-yard TD pass to Hoard. In overtime, Browns’ linebacker David Brandon, a former Charger, beat his old team when he intercepted a pass and took it to the house for the 30-24 win.
Cleveland came home to face a mediocre Pittsburgh team, built an early 10-0 lead and then used mistake-free football to churn out the 17-14 win that got them back to .500. In an AFC playoff race that was being defined by mediocrity—an 8-8 record would ultimately get the final wild-card spot—the Browns were back in it.
The problems in the running game persisted though, as the Browns lost the rush yardage battle to the Bengals, 162-83 and lost the football game 23-21. The problems running the ball foretold disaster the following week at home against Philadelphia. Kosar threw touchdown passes to Slaughter and Hoard and built up a 23-0 lead. But the Browns could only control the ball for 19 minutes of clock time and they blew the lead, losing 32-30.
It was more of the same the following Sunday Night in Houston against the playoff-bound Oilers. Cleveland led 17-7, but only ran the ball for 49 yards and watched Warren Moon throw three second-half touchdowns to beat them 28-24. It was almost more of the same the next week at home against Kansas City, coached by old friend Marty Schottenheimer and playoff-bound themselves. The Browns led 20-3 and then had to hang on for the 20-15 win.
A road trip to woeful Indianapolis provided some stress relief. Brandon got three sacks and Clay Matthews Sr. (father of the current Green Bay Packers linebacker) got two more in a 31-0 rout. The Browns were 6-7 and a game back of both the Jets and Dolphins in the race for #6 playoff seed. The loss to the Jets though, meant the tiebreaker situation did not look promising and there was no room for error.
Any Cleveland fan of this era knew that the Denver Broncos were the opponent were dreams were brought to die. The 14th game of the 1991 season was no different. The Browns played well defensively, getting two sacks from Matthews and they were in a 7-7 tie in the fourth quarter. But there was no offense generated and Denver ultimately won 17-7. The playoff bid was over.
Cleveland didn’t quit, hosting Houston in a game that was important for AFC playoff seeding. In a hard snow, Kosar went 28/40 for 258 yards, with Hoard catching ten passes. They were on the Oiler 2-yard line trailing 17-14 with time for one more play.
The poor field conditions meant a field goal was no sure thing and in either case, it would only tie the game. The percentages seemed to point to winning or losing on one play. But Belichick opted to try the field goal…which was badly shanked.
There was only a visit to Pittsburgh left and Cleveland basically mailed this one in, turning the ball over five times, giving up five sacks and losing 17-10. The game was meaningless as far as playoff implications, but far-reaching in terms of historic implications. It was the final game for Steeler legend Chuck Noll, the coach of the greatest dynasty of the 1970s. This was basically the place where Belichick and Noll saw their ships pass in the night.
But as Cleveland fans know all too well, Belichick wouldn’t build his dynasty in Cleveland. This rebuilding project was going along reasonably well, and they made the playoffs by 1994–a reasonable timeframe in the era prior to free agency when teams couldn’t be rebuilt as quickly as they are now. They won five of their first seven games in 1995.
Then owner Art Modell completely pulled the plug, announcing his team was relocating to Baltimore, where they would become the Ravens. The Browns collapsed in 1995. The city got its franchise back in 1999, but they’ve never truly recovered. As for Belichick…it’s safe to say he landed on his feet.