The 1986 Cleveland Browns came closer than any team has in franchise history to reaching the Super Bowl. After a stellar regular season and an epic playoff win, it took the signature moment from one of the NFL’s signature players to deny them at least a chance at the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Cleveland had already tasted some playoff heartbreak in 1985. After winning a weak division title at 8-8, they’d had the Miami Dolphins of Dan Marino in a 21-3 hole, before Marino rallied for a win. Even so, there was optimism alive again in Cleveland and the Browns came out and backed it up in 1986.
Bernie Kosar was in his second year as starting quarterback and the growth in his game was evident. He threw the fewest interceptions-per-pass than any other QB in the league. And that didn’t come at the expense of production in the passing game—Kosar’s 58% completion rate and his 7.3 yards-per-attempt were both slightly above the league average.
Kosar benefitted from a juiced-up receivers’ corps that got a lift from rookie Webster Slaughter, a legitimate deep threat. Slaughter caught 40 balls for 577 yards and was a perfect complement to the possession-style of Brian Brennan, who caught 55 passes for 838 yards.
The combination of a smart quarterback and an innovative offense coordinator in Lindy Infante kept a lot of people involved in the passing game. Reggie Langhorne caught 39 passes, as did 30-year-old tight end Ozzie Newsome. Herman Fontenot was a terrific target out of the backfield, catching 47 passes. Earnest Byner caught 37 more, and even the more bruising fullback, Kevin Mack, got in the act with 28 catches.
No team with Marty Schottenheimer as its coach is going to neglect the running game. Mack led the way with 665 yards and veteran Curtis Dickey added 523. The Browns had a Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Cody Risien and by the time you put all of this together it added up to the fifth-best offense in the NFL.
The defense ranked eleventh and was keyed by two excellent corners. Hanford Dixon was 1st-team All-Pro, while Frank Minnifield made the Pro Bowl. Two other starters also made it to Hawaii, outside linebacker Chip Banks and nose tackle Bob Golic (brother of current ESPN radio personality Mike Golic). The 3-4 defensive scheme got a further boost from the defensive ends, with 34-year-old Carl Hairston and Reggie Camp combining for 16 sacks.
Cleveland had as tough a test as you could want for Week 1—they had to go to Chicago, where the Bears were coming off a dominating 1985 Super Bowl run and primed for another run where they would go 14-2. The Browns lost 41-31, but the fact Kosar went 23/40 for 282 yards against a defense considered one of the best of all-time a year earlier gave some reason for hope. Had the Browns not shot themselves in the foot with 11 penalties, they might have won the game.
A road date with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) was next. For the second straight week the Browns were outrushed by a substantial margin and they trailed 13-9 in the fourth quarter. Kosar took over, finding Langhorne on a 55-yard TD strike and then leading another drive that ended with a Byner touchdown run. Cleveland hung on to win 23-20.
The problems in rushing yardage disparity hit rock bottom on a Thursday night home game with Cincinnati. The Browns were crushed 257-83, and this time they couldn’t protect Kosar either. He was sacked four times in an embarrassing 30-13 loss. The hangover seemed to linger for a while in a home game with a poor Detroit Lions team ten days later. It was 7-7 in the third quarter before Gerald McNeil’s 84-yard punt return for a touchdown lit a spark and the Browns won 24-21.
Pittsburgh was in a stretch of mediocre seasons, but a road date in old Three Rivers Stadium was never easy. This one wasn’t either. The game went back-and-forth, but the difference was that Cleveland stretched the field better, the prime example being Langhorne catching four passes for 108 yards. A four-yard touchdown run from Byner ultimate pulled out a 27-24 win.
The Kansas City Chiefs would make the playoffs this season and they came to the Dawg Pound next. Trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Kosar threw short touchdown passes to Byner and Newsome. The defense was able to shut down the KC running game and sack quarterback Todd Blackledge four times. The result was a 20-7 win.
But the Browns gave it right back a week later when the lowly Green Bay Packers came to town. After taking a 14-3 lead at the half, Cleveland was unable to run the ball and put the game away. They ultimately blew it 17-14. There was no solace in the moment and the only one in retrospect was that the Packers still saw something in Infante, making him their head coach two years later.
Minnesota was a contending team that would compete to the end for a playoff spot and Cleveland’s road trip to the old Metrodome saw them dig a quick 17-3 hole. It was the special teams, coached by Bill Cowher, that again lit a spark. A Viking field goal attempt was blocked and brought back for a touchdown. The running game found its traction for the first time this season and Dickey rushed for 106 yards, including a 17-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. A pair of short field goals put the Browns over the top in a 23-20 win.
Cleveland churned out a 24-9 win at awful Indianapolis. Kosar struck quickly with a 14-yard TD pass to Brennan and a 72-yard scoring play to Fontenot, both in the first quarter. Kosar finished 15/25 for 238 yards and three touchdowns in the easy win.
Two big games against the Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Raiders were on deck. These had been the two best teams in the AFC in the first part of the 1980s—the Browns had lost playoff games to both– and each was fighting for its life this time around. Any new up-and-comers had to deal with the old guard first.
The Dolphins came in on Monday Night and the Browns asserted themselves on the ground. Led by Dickey’s 92 yards, they enjoyed a 168-56 edge on the ground. The more experienced Kosar was a match for Marino this time around. He was 32/50 for 401 yards, while Marino threw for 295 yards. The only downside was red-zone execution—on three trips inside the 10-yard line Cleveland settled for field goals and it made the 26-16 final closer than it had to be.
Miami would fall short of the playoffs, as would the Raiders who were on deck next. But the oddsmakers still weren’t buying on the Browns, making them a 6 ½ point underdog in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Cleveland played down to expectations this time. Kosar was sacked six times, the offense only generated eight first downs and they lost 27-14.
The Browns were still 7-4 and had two straight divisional home games coming up, with Pittsburgh and Houston (the Oilers joined the Browns, Bengals and Steelers in the old AFC Central). The Steeler game was another back-and-forth affair and this time the Cleveland offense was on its game. They got 35 first downs in this game, allowed no sacks and Kosar was 28/46 for 414 yards, spreading the ball to nine different receivers. The game went to overtime tied 31-31 when Kosar went 36 yards to Slaughter to win it.
More overtime thrills awaited against the Oilers, who only won five games, but had Warren Moon at quarterback and would become a playoff perennial the very next season. The Browns trailed 3-0 after three quarters. Kosar was uncharacteristically sloppy, throwing three interceptions. But the defense bailed him out, picking off Moon and backup Oliver Luck (father of Andrew Luck) six times. Mack ran for 121 yards and Cleveland eventually tied it 10-10 and then got a field goal in OT for the win.
Cleveland was 9-4 and leading the Central. Cincinnati was just a game back though. There was a head-to-head battle coming up in two weeks in Cincy, where the Bengals could pull even and sweep the season series.
First things first. The Browns had to beat Buffalo, a poor team in 1986, but one with Jim Kelly at quarterback. It wasn’t easy, and it took 141 yards on the ground, balanced between Mack and Dickey, combined with a 3-1 turnover edge to scrape out a 21-17 road win.
Cincinnati held serve and set up the showdown game. In the meantime, the other leading contenders in other divisions—the Jets, Patriots and Broncos had all lost, dropping them to 10-4. Cleveland had the superior conference record meaning that if they could stay atop the Central, that would translate into a #1 seed for the playoffs.
Again though, first things first. The Browns were a three-point underdog in Cincinnati. Cleveland completely flipped the script from that awful Week 3 Thursday Night performance. This time Mack ran for 93 yards. Kosar was 13/29 for 246 yards, a lower percentage than he was used to, but stretching the field with Slaughter and Langhorne. Cleveland clinched the division with a 34-3 rout.
Cleveland began preparations for the home finale with San Diego with the idea they needed to win in mind. But on Saturday, Denver lost its regular season finale, and the Browns clinched the top seed. They still rolled over the four-win Chargers 47-17, dominating every which way and Brennan catching seven passes for 176 yards.
The playoffs were at hand. After a week off, the Browns hosted the New York Jets. After a 10-1 start that had New York thinking about a Jets-Giants Super Bowl (the Giants were the top seed in the NFC and would ultimately win it all), the Jets collapsed and lost their last five games. But they righted the ship with a 35-15 win over the Chiefs in the wild-card game and even though the Browns were installed as a (-7) favorite, this game would push them to the very brink.
It was an early afternoon game on Saturday and the Jets caught the Browns napping with a 42-yard flea-flicker touchdown in the first quarter. Kosar responded by leading a 98-yard drive, capped off by a 37-yard pass to Fontenot that tied it. The teams traded field goals in the second quarter, the Jets getting theirs on a late defensive lapse by Cleveland where they allowed immobile quarterback Ken O’Brien to scramble for a fourth-down conversion.
Cleveland’s offense began to bog down. There was no running game to speak of and the Jets scraped out another field goal for a 13-10 lead after three quarters. The Browns were forced to throw constantly—Kosar would put the ball in the air a playoff-record 64 times. Even with a quarterback as smart as Bernie, you’re asking for trouble with that. Early in the fourth quarter he threw an interception in the end zone. And as the game hit the crunch point, Kosar threw another interception in his own end that set up a 25-yard touchdown run by Freeman McNeil. There was 4:14 left and Cleveland trailed 20-10.
The comeback began on 2nd-and-24 from their own 18-yard line. After throwing an incompletion, Kosar was roughed by Jets’ defensive end Mark Gastineau. Given new life, the Browns drove for a touchdown that ended with a one-yard plunge from Mack.
Cleveland’s defense was amazing all day long. They got a playoff record of their own, nine sacks. But they were never better than on the run defense that followed this touchdown, stuffing the Jets quickly and getting the ball back for Kosar. The Browns were on their own 32-yard line, there were 51 seconds left and they trailed 20-17.
Slaughter got loose down the right sideline and Kosar put it on the numbers for a 63-yard touchdown pass. Cleveland actually had a chance to win it in overtime, but settled for a short field goal that produced overtime.
Another big play from Kosar, this one a 35-yard pass to Langhorne down to the Jets 5-yard line had everyone ready to celebrate. Cleveland went for the field goal immediately…and shanked it. But the defense wasn’t letting the Jets go anywhere.
With 2:38 to go in the first OT, the Browns got the ball for the final drive. Mack’s running was starting to finally chew up yardage. Cleveland got the ball into the red zone again, now early into the second overtime. Four years earlier, kicker Mark Moseley had won an improbable MVP award when he was with the Washington Redskins. All of Cleveland now just wanted him to make a simple chipshot. Moseley delivered and the Browns had an amazing 23-20 win.
So much about this game would be ironic the following week and only in Cleveland could fate turn around and slap them back so quickly. One week later, with Denver coming in, it was the Browns who had control of the game late, 20-13. It was the opponent who led a 98-yard touchdown drive. This time it was John Elway, starting the drive with little more than five minutes left and with it effectively announcing to the world that he had arrived as an elite quarterback. And it was the Browns on the short end of a 23-20 overtime loss.
It’s that drive—or The Drive—that lingers in NFL lore and in the hearts of Cleveland fans. And given the franchise has yet to even reach the Super Bowl, maybe that’s inevitable. But the 1986 Cleveland Browns in particular deserve a better fate.
They went from fringe playoff team in 1985 to true contender in 1986. They won a historic playoff game of their own. And given how good the New York Giants were, no one was probably beating them in the Super Bowl anyway. Let’s cut these Browns a break in the historic legacy and remember all the good that they did.