TheSportsNotebook is preparing the release of a new book about great moments in 1980s sports. In writing the book, one of the things that stood out to me was just how consequential Bernie Kosar was to that decade, when you consider his college & NFL career. It seemed I was regularly encountering a career highlight or heartbreak. As it turns out, Bernie’s got a book of his own coming out in early September, so this seemed an ideal time to take a brief look back on his career.
In he late 1980s, Kosar was one of the best quarterbacks in football. This was the last great high point of the Cleveland Browns, when they came oh-so-close to a Super Bowl two different times and were consistently in the playoffs. While it would be a stretch to say Kosar carried them—they were well-coached with Marty Schottenheimer, ran the ball well and had a pair of lockdown corners in Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, they also got elite quarterback play.
During this time period, Kosar consistently ranked among the league’s best in what I consider the core categories of completion percentage, interception percentage and yards-per-attempt. His intelligence and ability to avoid mistakes was his primary attribute—he was among the top five in terms of lowest INT% each year during the Browns’ run, but it would be a mistake to think of him as a mere game-manager. He also ranked well in yards-per-attempt.
The stats won’t jump off the page at the younger fans and even those of us middle-aged folk who have become numb to how much easier quarterbacks have it today. In 1986, when Cleveland went 12-4, the TD/INT ratio was 17-10. In 1987, his best year, it was 22-9. That’s why it’s important to look at his numbers in terms of how he ranked among his contemporaries, where he was always among the best.
It’s ironic that in his best year of 1987, he was beaten out for the MVP award by Denver’s John Elway. Because as everyone in Cleveland knows, Elway was the stumbling block for the Browns in this era. Three times, Cleveland lost to Denver in the AFC Championship Game. Two of those—1986 and 1987—were losses that rank among the most gutwrenching in playoff history.
But it was no fault of Kosar’s. In 1986, he threw what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown with just under six minutes to play. Elway drove 98 yards to tie it and then won in overtime. In 1987, he authored an explosive comeback from a 28-10 hole on the road and had his team on the doorstep of tying the game before a fumble near the goal-line. “The Drive” and “The Fumble” live in Cleveland sports infamy and denied both Kosar and Schottenheimer a much brighter legacy.
Bernie was no less consequential in the early part of the 1980s as a college quarterback for the University of Miami. As a freshman, he merely orchestrated one of the most famous upsets in college football history, a 31-30 shocker over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that won a national championship and started his school on the road to becoming “The U”.
One year later he was on the wrong end of another famous moment—after spending the Friday after Thanksgiving completely picking apart a good Boston College defense, he was on the verge of a 45-41 win…until Doug Flutie uncorked the desperation pass that’s been replayed more times than anyone can count.
Bernie finished his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s and got a Super Bowl ring with that dynasty. Even as a backup, Kosar still earned his ring. In 1993, he stepped in for an injured Troy Aikman and led the way to a pair of regular season wins—both of which his team needed to win the NFC East and get the #1 seed in the playoffs. In the NFC Championship Game itself, Aikman was knocked out and Kosar had to come in with a 21-14 lead and throw a touchdown pass to Alvin Harper to seal it.
Bernie Kosar was an overachiever, who made the most of his relatively limited athletic ability and his awkward-looking sidearm throwing motion. He was one of the smartest quarterbacks of his day. His retirement has been a hard one—he’s undergone treatment for concussion-related symptoms and that’s been accompanied by financial problems. Here’s hoping the release of his new book is a fresh start for him and a reminder of how good he was back in the day.