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.
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.
The 1980s Cleveland Browns were the high point in the modern era of a franchise that hasn’t enjoyed much success since winning three championships in the first half of the 1950s and again in 1964. When the Super Bowl era arrived in the NFL, the Browns disappeared from its biggest games. But in the 1980s, Cleveland consistently got close and this compilation provides a detailed narrative of the six seasons where the team gave its proud city real hope.
You’ll read about the following…
*In 1980 they were “The Cardiac Kids” and Brian Sipe enjoyed an MVP year at quarterback before one bad decision in the bitter cold of the playoffs undid the season.
*After four years of mediocre-to-poor teams, Marty Schottenheimer took over and in 1985, the Browns were still mediocre—at 8-8, but good enough to win a division title. They had Dan Marino’s heavily favored Miami Dolphins on the ropes in the playoffs before a rally broke their hearts.
*That success—and the heartbreak—was just an appetizer for what was ahead in 1986 and 1987. In both years, the Browns were among the best teams in football. Schottenheimer oversaw an excellent defense and Bernie Kosar was one of the most accurate passers in the league. There was just this little hurdle named John Elway in their way. Cleveland lost to Denver in consecutive AFC Championship Games, both of which rank among the best playoff games in NFL history.
*1988 was marred by injuries, especially at quarterback. It took all of Schottenheimer’s coaching guile—along with a memorable comeback orchestrated by a veteran backup QB with a history of doing such things—to get the Browns back to the playoffs. Management rewarded the coach by firing him.
*That was the beginning of the end, but there was one last hurrah under new coach Bud Carson. Cleveland won a thrilling finale to secure the division title and a playoff victory over Buffalo was no less dramatic. There was just this Elway guy in their way in the AFC Championship Game and another loss ended the Browns season.
Each season is an article previously published on TheSportsNotebook.com. They have been edited for this compilation.
The franchise hasn’t been anywhere close to prominence since the 1980s. Perhaps in a new era where the city has overcome its championship drought thanks to the NBA’s Cavaliers, and baseball’s Indians nearly did the same, the Browns time will come too. For now, the 1980s Cleveland Browns are what brings about the warm memories in this era of frigid exile.
The names of that era are all here. Everyone from Marty to Bernie to the Hanford Dixon & Frank Minniefield combo at cornerback, to Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner in the backfield to the game-breaking explosiveness of Webster Slaughter. Read their story and take a trip back into the Dawg Pound of the 1980s.
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.
The 1988 Cleveland Browns were hungry for a Super Bowl breakthrough. The first three years of Marty Schottenheimer’s tenure had ended in postseason heartbreak. The Browns lost a crusher to the Dolphins in 1985. They lost two of the most famous endings in AFC Championship Game history to the Broncos in both 1986 and 1987. But instead of 1988 turning into a breakthrough, it ended up marred with injuries and an early playoff exit.
Cleveland’s strength was defense. They had the best cornerback combo in the league with Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews Sr. was a Pro Bowler who recorded six sacks. The first three draft choices were used on defense and the best pick was defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry. The brother of William, the famous “Refrigerator” for the Chicago Bears, Michael Dean wasn’t as renowned, but he was a better football player. Perry got six sacks of his own and began a career that would see him make several Pro Bowls.
The defense ranked sixth in the league in points allowed. Under normal circumstances, that would have been more than good enough to make Cleveland a legit Super Bowl contender again. But this was anything but a normal year on the offensive side of the ball.
Bernie Kosar was one of the top quarterbacks in the game and his numbers were there again in 1988—his 60% completion rate was the second-best in the league. He was in the top 10 in yards-per-attempt, and he was smart with the football. 1988 was also his most frustrating year, with seven missed games due to injury. The result was a revolving door at quarterback.
Cleveland didn’t have a particular good offensive line and while running backs Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were good, they didn’t have good years in ‘88. Both averaged less than four yards per carry.
The problems at quarterback led to low production among the receivers. Brian Brennan was the possession guy and Ozzie Newsome a solid tight end. The best of the group was big-play threat Webster Slaughter—and he missed half of the season. Byner’s 59 catches ended up leading the team.
Cleveland opened the season at lowly Kansas City and Kosar was knocked out with an injured elbow. Gary Danielson, the current CBS college football analyst was in his final year in the NFL and he stepped in. Danielson was by no means spectacular, but he was competent and in an ugly 6-3 win that was the Browns needed.
Danielson started the next week in a home game with the mediocre Jets. The offensive line played poorly, allowing four sacks and failing to clear any running room. Danielson ended up yanked for Mike Pagel, which made no difference in a 23-3 loss.
Cleveland still didn’t have a touchdown when they met Indianapolis on Monday Night Football. This was a rematch of a divisional playoff game of 1987 when the Browns pulled away in the second half. Pagel broke the offensive drought with a 14-yard TD pass to Newsome in the first quarter. Pagel later went 17 yards to Slaughter and Cleveland won 23-17.
A road trip to Super Bowl-bound Cincinnati went poorly. Even though the Browns defense contained Boomer Esiason, on his way to an MVP year, they were pummeled on the ground. Cleveland lost the rushing battle 213-68 and they lost the football game 24-17.
The Browns went to Pittsburgh, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1984 and was on its way to a 5-11 season. In a sign of how much respect Cleveland was losing, oddsmakers installed the Steelers as a slight favorite. Cleveland spent a half playing down to those expectations and trailed 9-7 at the half.
Pagel got the offense moving in the third quarter, but two drives inside the 10-yard line both ended in field goals and the Browns still clung to a 13-9 lead when Pittsburgh began driving in the fourth quarter. Defensive back Brian Washington stepped up with an interception and 75-yard return for a touchdown that sealed the game and the ultimate 23-9 win.
More quarterback woes came up with a home game against Seattle. Pagel was knocked out and another veteran, Don Strock came in. The Seahawks would win the AFC West in 1988 (the division they occupied prior to the realignment of 2002), but were a mediocre 9-7. No matter—Cleveland turned it over four times, gave up nearly 100 yards on the ground to Seattle running back Curt Warner and lost 16-10.
Another home date with a future division champ was up next as Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles came to the Dawg Pound. Mack turned in his best game of the year, running for 100 yards on sixteen carries. Strock threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Slaughter in the third quarter. The 19-3 win was impressive, but it came at a price—this was the game Slaughter hit the injury list.
But on October 23 in Phoenix, Bernie was coming back. He picked up where he’d left off last season, throwing a couple first-half touchdown passes and building a 14-0 lead. When the Cardinals rallied for a 21-20 lead, Kosar threw a 25-yard strike to Reggie Langhorne. Although Kosar threw three interceptions, he also passed for 314 yards and led a 29-21 win.
A bigger win came on the final Sunday of October over Cincinnati. The defense again contained Esiason and now they had some offensive firepower to help them. Kosar went 18/28 for 210 yards and no mistakes. Clarence Weathers caught seven balls for 140 yards and the Browns won 23-16.
Cleveland seemed to have some momentum going into a pair of high-profile road games. The Houston Oilers were a key rival in the old AFC Central, a division that also included Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) joined the Bengals and Browns in the playoff hunt. Cleveland would go to Houston on Monday Night and then travel to Denver for a late Sunday afternoon national TV game.
The games couldn’t have gone much worse. The Browns only rushed for 44 yards in Houston, dug themselves a 21-3 hole and lost 24-17. They lost three fumbles in Denver, were carved up by John Elway and lost 30-17. At 5-5, the season was slipping away.
Cleveland righted the ship at home against Pittsburgh, taking care of the ball and forcing four turnovers. Langhorne caught a 77-yard touchdown pass from Kosar in the third quarter to seal a 27-17 win. It set up a big battle in the nation’s capital. The Washington Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champs, but they were also struggling at 6-5. Both were proud teams. Both had a long way to go to make the playoffs, and the loser of this game could realistically forget it.
On a rainy day at old RFK Stadium, the Browns found their running game. Mack muscled his way for 116 yards. Trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter, Byner rambled 27 yards for the winning score. The Browns were still alive and they kept it going with a 24-21 home win over Dallas. Kosar was brilliant, going 19/27 for 308 yards and three TD passes. The fact the Browns could only muster 27 rush yards against one of the worst teams in the league—this was the Cowboy team that would get Tom Landry fired and Jimmy Johnson brought in—was still a matter of concern.
Cleveland was 9-5 and in spite of all the injuries, still were in good shape to make the playoffs. Cincinnati had the Central under control and Houston was also 9-5. New England and Indianapolis were giving chase for the two wild-card spots, but the Browns were in control and had a Monday Night trip to a weak Miami team. And Slaughter was coming back.
Naturally, Kosar would re-injure himself in this game and be shut down for the season as Cleveland dug a 31-17 hole. Strock was summoned. The veteran backup had made his reputation as a reliable #2 right here in Miami, most famously when he nearly brought the Dolphinsback from a 24-0 deficit against the Chargers in an epic 1981 AFC divisional playoff game. On this Monday Night, he reminded the folks of South Beach what he could, leading consecutive touchdown drives to tie the game. But Dan Marino threw for over 400 yards and had the last word. The Browns lost 38-31.
The loss meant Cleveland no longer controlled their playoff destiny. Houston had one wild-card nailed down. New England was in control of the next spot. The Browns were hosting the Oilers on Sunday, but unless the Patriots lost in a late Saturday afternoon game it wouldn’t matter.
Cleveland turned to an unlikely source for help—John Elway and Denver, who were hosting New England. Elway did the people of Cleveland a solid and delivered a 21-10 win. The Browns had a shot.
It was a shot they were ready to cough up. Strock threw an early Pick-6 and Cleveland trailed Houston 23-7 in the third quarter. This was before the two-point conversion existed in the NFL, so it was a pure three-score deficit. For a team that had offensive problems, the season was all but over.
But Strock still had some comeback magic and authored another memorable comeback. He threw a short touchdown pass to Byner. Then Byner ran for another and cut the lead to two. Strock finished with 326 passing yards and his 22-yard strike to Slaughter sealed a 28-23 comeback. Cleveland was not only in the playoffs, but they moved past Houston in the tiebreakers. The teams would rematch in the AFC wild-card game and that game would be played in the Dawg Pound.
It wouldn’t be the 1988 Cleveland Browns if we didn’t have one more quarterback injury. Strock was knocked out in the playoff game and Pagel came in. It was a sloppy game with 22 combined penalties. The record book tells you Cleveland lost 24-23, and you might think it was another playoff heartbreak. In reality, the Browns were down 24-16 and got a touchdown with 31 seconds left. With no two-point option, the only drama surrounded the onside kick. When that didn’t pan out, Cleveland’s season was over.
Schottenheimer had done his most impressive coaching job yet in making the playoffs, but it wasn’t enough for owner Art Modell. Marty was fired. Even though Cleveland made it back to the AFC Championship Game in 1989 with a healthy Kosar, the end for this franchise was near. From 1990-2016, they’ve made the playoffs twice and posted three winning seasons. 1988 could have just been an unfortunate blip on the radar because of injuries. The poor reaction by ownership turned it into a long-term disaster.
The 1987 Cleveland Browns came into the season off consecutive playoff appearances, but with each one ending in heartbreak. In 1985, they lost an AFC divisional round game in Miami after leading 21-3. In 1986, they lost an AFC Championship Game at home to Denver when the Broncos drove 98 yards in the final five minutes for the tying touchdown. 1987, for good and bad, was more of the same. The Browns were an excellent team, complete and well-coached. And come January, there was heartbreak in Cleveland.
It was the third year in the league for quarterback Bernie Kosar, who was coming into his own as a star. Kosar completed 62% of his passes for 7.8 yards-per-pass, both near the top of the NFL. His TD-INT ratio was 22/9. He spread the ball around to a group of receivers led by big-play threat Webster Slaughter and possession receiver Brian Brennan. Tight end Ozzie Newsome was nearing the end of the line, but still caught 34 passes.
Kosar also made good use of his backs in the passing game. Earnest Byner’s 52 catches led the team and big Kevin Mack caught 32 more. Mack added 735 yards rushing and made the Pro Bowl. Cody Risien anchored the offensive line with a Pro Bowl year at right tackle and with a brilliant coordinator in Lindy Infante, the Browns ranked third in the NFL in points scored.
Marty Schottenheimer’s defense was loaded with talent. Pro Bowl players included nose tackle Bob Golic (brother of current ESPN radio personality Mike Golic) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (whose son, Clay Jr., now plays in Green Bay). The Browns also had the best cornerback tandem in the league with Pro Bowler Frank Minnifield and 1st-team All-Pro Hanford Dixon.
Cleveland’s D was stingy against both the run and the pass and they ranked second in the league in points allowed. When you add the special teams boost they got from Pro Bowl return man Gerald McNeil, there was nothing this team didn’t do well.
But they didn’t do it well in a season opener at New Orleans. They were beaten in the trenches, being outrushed 191-93 and allowing four sacks. In a 21-21 game in the fourth quarter, two of these sacks were for safeties. It turned out this Saints’ team was much better than anyone thought and went on to win 12 games. At the time, with New Orleans having never made the postseason in two decades, it looked like a pretty big disappointment.
A home game with Pittsburgh was tied 10-10 in the third quarter when Cleveland finally got clicking. Kosar threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to McNeill. Matthews took an interception 26 yards to the house, one of five picks the Browns defense got on this day. The final was 34-10 and in a normal year the stage was set for a big Monday Night battle against Denver.
But 1987 was anything but normal. The players went on strike. All Week 3 games were canceled and replacement players were summoned. For three weeks, these replacements would take the field and the games would count in the final standings. For the Browns, this stretch included two divisional games that would end up being important in a tight AFC Central race.
The first game was a non-division battle in New England and running back Larry Mason, a 26-year-old from Southern Miss, became the latest runner for Schottenheimer to make into a star. He pounded the Pats for 133 yards on 32 carries and the Browns won 23-10.
Cleveland’s quarterback was Jeff Christensen. He came from Eastern Illinois, a school whose quarterback legacy includes Tony Romo, Mike Shanahan and Sean Payton. Christensen didn’t work out in a home date with the Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans, who joined the Browns, Steelers and Bengals in the old AFC Central). Christensen threw three interceptions in a 15-10 loss.
The resolves of the regular players was starting to wilt and some were crossing the picket line to resume playing. One of them for Cleveland was backup quarterback Gary Danielson, a former starter on a playoff team with the Detroit Lions and current CBS college football analyst. Brennan was another one to cross. The Danielson-to-Brennan combo ate up the replacement Cincinnati roster. Danielson went 25/31 for 281 yards and four touchdowns. Brennan caught ten balls for 139 yards and the result was a 34-0 rout.
With the strike settled, the NFL was back to normal for Cleveland’s Monday Night home game with the Los Angeles Rams on October 26. Browns’ defensive back Felix Wright returned an interception 40 yards for a score to key a 20-0 lead. It was one of four turnovers the D produced in a 30-17 win
Cleveland went to San Diego, who ended the season in mediocrity, but got off to a quick start and was in first place deep into November. The Browns led 24-14 after three quarters, but did not run the ball and allowed Charger quarterback Dan Fouts to tie the game and ultimately lost it in overtime, 27-24. Cleveland came back blazing against woeful Atlanta. Kosar threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Slaughter to get it started and a balanced running game led by rookie fullback Tim Manoa keyed a 38-3 rout for the home fans.
Buffalo was a mediocre, but improving team with a young Jim Kelly at quarterback. Each team returned a fumble for a touchdown and neither one ran the ball all that well. But Kosar was further along in his development than Kelly at this stage, and also had more help. Kosar went 24/34 for 346 yards, spread the ball out to nine different receivers and led a 27-21 win.
A big game at Houston was up on November 22 and Cleveland was in a hole to the Oilers due to a head-to-head loss with the replacement players. The Browns made up for it in spades in the Astrodome. Minnifield intercepted three passes, the defense forced six turnovers in all and the result was a 40-7 romp.
Cleveland was rolling, but a trip to red-hot San Francisco, who finished with the best regular season record in the league was next. Kosar played well, going 26/37 for 275 yards and they were within 21-17 at the half. But Joe Montana was too much for the defense, throwing for four touchdowns and the Browns lost 38-24.
There were four games left and with a 7-4 record, Cleveland was in first place in the AFC Central, but Houston and Pittsburgh were just a game back. A 9-7 home loss to Indianapolis where Kosar was erratic and the running game non-existent was a big blow. The Oilers and Steelers both won and there was a three-way tie atop the division.
Cincinnati came in next. Not only was this a rivalry game, but the Bengals had the makings of a good team, one that had a winning record in 1986 and would go to the Super Bowl in 1988. But the strike had messed them up and 1987 was proving a lost season. Kosar threw an early 22-yard touchdown pass to Slaughter, one of three TD passes before halftime. It was 35-10 after three quarters and the final score was deceptively respectively, 38-24.
The Steelers also won, but the Oilers lost. The Browns made their position stronger with a 24-17 road win over the Los Angeles Raiders. Kosar’s receivers dominated, with Slaughter and Brennan combining for 13 catches and 194 yards. Pittsburgh lost and Cleveland was able to clinch a playoff berth. But the AFC Central was not assured—they were a game up on both rivals and Houston would win a three-way tiebreaker. Moreover, with the Browns having to finish the year in Pittsburgh, a loss meant that the Oilers would need only to defeat the collapsing Bengals to take the division.
The Browns-Steelers game in old Three Rivers Stadium was in the early afternoon on Saturday. Neither team got much of a running game going, but Kosar played well, going 21/36 for 241 yards. And the proud veteran Newsome was clutch, catching six balls for 94 yards. Cleveland’s 19-13 win assured them of the division and at least the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs. They still had hope of the top spot, but that ended late Sunday afternoon when Denver beat San Diego.
After a week off, Cleveland began the divisional round of the playoffs with the early afternoon kick on Saturday. The offense would have a chance to make amends for its worst performance of the season with Indianapolis in Municipal Stadium on a 16-degree afternoon.
Oddsmakers were bullish on the Browns, installing them as a decisive eight-point favorite in spite of the earlier head-to-head result and the Colts having pulled off a blockbuster midseason trade for Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. Cleveland started strong, with a 15-play/86-yard drive to begin the game, ending with Kosar’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Byner.
After Indy answered with a touchdown of their own, the Browns marched right back to the Colts 2-yard line. Kosar threw an interception in the end zone. He was able to make some amends with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Langhorne in the second quarter, but Indianapolis answered again and the game went to the locker room tied 14-all.
From the perspective of history, we know that Marty Schottenheimer, an excellent coach though he was, had his problems in the postseason. Even from the perspective of 1987, we know the Browns had underperformed in this spot last year, needing a miracle to pull out a win over the Jets in the divisional round. And we certainly know the heartbreak history that has been Cleveland sports in general. So when the Colts opened the second half by driving to the Browns 20-yard line, Cleveland fans couldn’t be faulted if they reached for the panic button.
But this was going to be a different day. The Brown defense pressured Colt quarterback Jack Trudeau, hit him as he released the ball and it landed in the hands of Felix Wright. It would be Cleveland that drove for the go-ahead touchdown to make it 21-14.
The Browns’ ground game was starting to take over. Byner rushed for 122 yards and on the flip side, they held Dickerson to 50 yards on 15 carries. A short field goal early in the fourth quarter gave Cleveland some breathing room at 24-14 and Kosar later flipped a two-yard TD pass to Brennan.
That all but sealed it, although Indy scored with 1:07 left and then recovered an onside kick. Minnifield finished it off by intercepting a pass and going 48 yards to the house to finish the 38-21 win. Kosar had gone 20/31 for 229 yards and again spread the football around, again using nine different receivers with no one catching more than four balls.
The stage was set for the rematch. Cleveland and Denver in the AFC Championship Game. The teams were seen as dead even, with the Broncos status as a three-point favorite attributable only to the game being played at Mile High Stadium.
Turnovers marred the opening of the game. Kosar threw a pass to Slaughter that was right in his arms, but it bounced up and ended as an interception, resulting in a quickie Bronco touchdown. Mack fumbled near midfield. The Brown defense appeared to have held on 3rd-and-goal, but Minnifield was flagged for defensive holding. It set up another touchdown.
By halftime, Cleveland was down 21-3. They got a turnover of their own with a Wright interception and cut it to 21-10, but quickly let Bronco receiver Mark Jackson turn a short slant into an 80-yard touchdown play. Down 28-10, there was no reason to think the Browns would make it a game.
But that’s what happened. Kosar got locked in and he led three straight touchdown drives. Denver had a field goal mixed in there and the game was tied 31-31. The Broncos reclaimed the lead at 38-31 with four minutes left. Kosar, who finished this game 26/41 for 356 yards and only the fluke interception as a mistake, was as hot as hot could be. He led the Browns right back inside the 10-yard line. It was apparent only two things could stop the Cleveland offense—a turnover, or if they failed to get the ball in overtime.
In the tough history of Cleveland sports, this play is one that lives in infamy. Byner took the ball and looked headed for the end zone. Watching the game as a 17-year-old, me and my dad were pulling for the Browns and had already started to cheer as Byner lunged toward the end zone. Only Denver safety Jeremiah Castille had come from behind and stripped the football. Castille recovered it with little more than a minute remaining. The game was all over, save for a token safety the Broncos took to avoid punting from their own end zone. It ended 38-33.
As tough as the 1986 loss to Denver—which took place in Cleveland—had been, this one seemed worse at the time. The year before, everyone saw the eventual champion New York Giants as close to unbeatable and they were. This time around, the 1987 edition of the Washington Redskins was the least imposing of any of the great teams produced in the Joe Gibbs era. There was a feeling the Browns had fumbled away a Lombardi Trophy. The fact the Redskins trounced the Broncos 42-10 might have alleviated a bit of the pain, but surely not much. .
The 1987 Cleveland Browns were an outstanding football team. Whenever this franchise finally gets over the hump and at least reaches a Super Bowl, perhaps we can get on with remembering them for that.
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.
The football-crazed city of Cleveland was hungry in 1980—maybe not starving, as is the case today—but the Browns were on a bit of a dry spell. After making the playoffs in 1971-72, Cleveland had been out of the money, while the rival Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in that same timeframe. The 1980 Cleveland Browns returned to the playoffs and in memorable fashion, with a series of exciting wins that gave them the nickname “The Kardiac Kids”.
Sam Rutigliano had taken over as head coach in 1978, and first two seasons ended with records of 8-8 and 9-7, so Cleveland was on the brink of a breakthrough. No player broke through with more force than quarterback Brian Sipe—he threw for over 4,100 yards, tossed 30 touchdown passes and won the MVP award, spreading the ball around to Dave Logan, Reggie Rucker, future Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome and versatile running back Mike Pruitt.
The Browns also had offensive balance. Three Pro Bowlers were on the offensive line, Doug Dieken, Tom DeLeone and new right guard Joe DeLamielleure, a future Hall of Famer. This front five cleared the way for Pruitt to gain over 1,000 yards. The running back also led the team with 63 catches and punched a ticket to the Pro Bowl.
It added up to a team that finished eighth in the NFL in scoring in spite of playing in a division—the old AFC Central—that included the Steelersand the Houston Oilers, the runner-up in the AFC each of the past two years.
The defense was more about a team effort, with only 31-year-old defensive end Lyle Alzado making the Pro Bowl, but they were still pretty good and finished 12th in the NFL. The Browns would be tested quickly, with a road game at New England, where the Patriots had been a consistent winner in the late 1970s and then a Monday Night home date with the Oilers.
Nothing happened in Foxboro on September 7 to suggest a special season. In fact the opposite was suggested—Cleveland only rushed for 48 yards and fell behind 34-3 in the fourth quarter before scoring a couple meaningless touchdowns.
The Browns played better at home for the national audience but again could not run the ball in a 16-7 loss. They were in a quick 0-2 hole in what was the NFL’s toughest division.
Rookie running back Charles White, fresh off a Heisman Trophy season at USC in 1979, stepped up at home against the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs. With the scored tied 13-13, White ran for one touchdown, caught another and came out of the backfield for seven catches in all in a 27-13 win.
Sipe had his first big game of the year at Tampa Bay, throwing for 318 yards in a 34-27 win that got the Browns off the mat as September ended.
If we peek ahead six years, the Denver Broncos would become the ultimate nemesis of Cleveland. This Broncos team was average and John Elway was just a sophomore in college, but it didn’t stop Denver from coming to the shores of Lake Erie and stealing a win. Cleveland led 10-6 in the first half and was driving for a touchdown to put them in control when Sipe threw an interception that ended up in the opposing end zone. The Browns lost 19-16 and slipped back under. 500.
The quarterback cleaned up the mistakes the following week in Seattle and Pruitt was able to run over a poor Seahawks team for 116 yards, leading a decisive 27-3 win.
Cleveland was hanging in contention, and now was when The Kardiac Kids started to show. They trailed 21-13 at home against a subpar Green Bay Packers team. There was no two-point conversion in effect, so this was a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter. Sipe threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Newsome and then found Logan on a 46-yard strike. Sipe finished with 391 yards on the day.
The hated Steelers were in town next, struggling to find their footing. Terry Bradshaw was out for this game and backup Cliff Stout appeared ready to break Cleveland’s heart. The Steelers led the Browns 26-14 in the fourth quarter. Sipe flipped a short TD pass to Pruitt and then found Newsome over the top on an 18-yard touchdown pass to steal another victory.
A Monday Night home date with the Bears wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it was still close. Pruitt ran for 129 yards, while the defense held the great Walter Payton to 30 yards in a 27-21 win. Cleveland won its fifth straight game in Baltimore (where the Colts were in the AFC East, and not a division rival).
Pruitt and White combined for 180 yards on the ground and Sipe was calmly efficient, 22/29 for 212 yards and no interceptions. The final was 28-27, but Cleveland led by 15 points in the fourth quarter.
The Browns were now 7-3 and tied with the Oilers for first place in what was then a four-team division where only the Bengals were a non-contender. The Steelers were 6-4, and it served to heighten the drama for Cleveland’s visit to Pittsburgh on November 16. The Browns had a chance to put a stake in the heart of their rival and with the Steelers hoping to win a third straight Super Bowl, this game had the attention of the nation, even if was an early afternoon kickoff.
For three quarters and change it looked like Cleveland would do just that. They intercepted Bradshaw times and led much of the way. But the Browns weren’t running the ball and Sipe only went 15/34 for 178 yards. The lead was still 13-9 late in the game when a touchdown pass by Bradshaw with 11 seconds left cost Cleveland the game. They slipped into a second-place tie with Pittsburgh.
The good news was, that was the last high point for the Steelers and the Browns were able to respond well at home against Cincinnati. Sipe threw four touchdown passes and for 310 yards on the day in a 31-7 win. Both of their division rivals lost, so Cleveland was back in a first-place tie when they went to Houston for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff.
Houston’s running game, with Earl Campbell, was the most feared in the NFL, but it was Cleveland who won the battle of the trenches. Little-known Cleo Miller ran for two early touchdowns and the Browns outgained the Oilers on the ground 121-114. Even though Sipe only threw for 93 yards, he took care of the football and Cleveland’s 5-1 edge in turnovers led to a 17-14 win.
There was a bit of a letdown against the lowly Jets the following week at home, where Cleveland trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter, a game they were a (-9) favorite. The running game was non-existent. But Sipe stepped it up, threw for 340 yards on the day and a short TD pass to Pruitt pulled out a 17-14 win. Cleveland was now 10-4, one game up on Houston and two games up on Pittsburgh.
The Browns owned the tiebreaker on the Steelers, so that race was over, and also on the Oilers. Therefore a win in Minnesota would clinch the division. But now the comeback script turned on Cleveland. They led 23-9 in the fourth quarter, but gave up two consecutive touchdown passes. A missed extra point looked ready to bail out the Browns, but the Vikings had time for one more play with the score 23-22.
Minnesota had the ball on the Cleveland 46-yard line and wide receiver Ahmad Rashad ran down the sideline. The defenders were with him, but the ball kept getting batted around, never knocked to the ground. Rashad finally grabbed it and stepped into the end zone. The Browns had lost a 28-23 stunner. The Oilers won in Green Bay, so the AFC Central remained up for grabs.
What’s more, a playoff berth was not yet secure. In this era of three divisions with two wild-cards, the AFC West already had one wild-card secured, with the Raiders and Chargers both in. The Oilers had also clinched at least a wild-card. The reason the Browns had not was that the Patriots were in hot pursuit at 9-6. If Cleveland lost in Cincinnati, Houston could win and take the AFC Central outright, while New England could win and steal the last playoff spot on the head-to-head tiebreaker at 10-6.
The Bengals were 6-9, but this was a team just a year away from going to the Super Bowl. They also wanted badly to wreck the Browns’ season and they nearly pulled it off. Cleveland trailed 17-10 before scoring two consecutive touchdowns to get the lead. Cincinnati tied it back up 24-24.
But Sipe solidified his MVP case, throwing for 308 yards, spreading the ball to nine different receivers and ultimately setting up a field goal with 1:25 to play. Cincinnati’s last desperate drive got them to the Cleveland 31-yard line, but out of timeouts, the Bengals were unable to set up a field goal try. The Browns were AFC Central champs.
All five playoff teams in the AFC finished 11-5, and Cleveland ended up as the #2 seed behind San Diego. Oakland won the wild-card game, but the rules prior to 1990 prevented teams from the same division playing each other in the second round. The Browns would host the Raiders in the early Sunday afternoon game of divisional round weekend.
Temperatures were brutally cold and a 21 mph wind created conditions that were (-20) degrees with the wind chill. The field itself was frozen, and Browns’ kicker Don Cockroft missed two field goals, and another was messed up with a bad snap. All that factored into Rutigliano’s thinking on the fateful final drive.
Cleveland trailed 14-12 and reached the Oakland 14-yard line with 14 seconds left. Rutigliano decided to have Sipe throw the ball in the end zone, not trusting Cockroft enough to simply set up a field goal. Sipe thought he had Newsome in the back of the end zone. But the quarterback didn’t see defensive back Mike Davis in front and the interception ended Cleveland’s season in heartbreaking fashion.
I think Rutigliano overreacted to the field conditions. Yes, Cockroft had missed the two field goals, along with an extra point. But he had also made two field goals of 30 yards, about the same distance he would have been lining up for here. Throwing the ball in these conditions—particularly against a Raider secondary that had a deserved reputation for ballhawking—carried its own set of risks.
In fairness, the coach did clearly instruct Sipe that if no one was wide open, to just throw it away. Sipe also took a risk not really necessary. The unfortunate result was a playoff heartbreak for a city that’s had too many.
But the tough ending in the bitter cold can’t obscure how much fun the 1980 Cleveland Browns were. The dethroned a Super Bowl champ in their division, produced an MVP and rattled off a series of exciting wins on their way to the playoffs. That’s the more important legacy of this team.
Read the story of the 1980 NFL season as told from the perspective of the 11 most consequential teams. Each section consists of a discussion of each team’s key players and then a game-by-game narrative of their drive through the season.
No wild-card team had ever won the Super Bowl prior to the 1980 NFL season, and three years earlier the league had made it even more difficult. They expanded the playoffs to five teams per conference, but with a three-divisional alignment similar to what major league baseball uses today, the wild-cards would now have to win an extra game for the first time. In spite of these obstacles, the Oakland Raiders pulled it off and went the distance.
This blog compilation contains the complete game-by-game narratives of every notable team in the 1980 NFL season, starting with…
*The Raiders and Houston Oilers pull off a big quarterbacks swap of Ken Stabler-for-Dan Pastorini, but it ends up being Jim Plunkett who makes the biggest mark of them all.
See how Oakland began to come together around the 1980 season’s midway point and how Houston seemed close to fulfilling their dream of a Super Bowl run behind powerful back Earl Campbell, but first lost tiebreakers and then lost a wild-card playoff game…ironically in Oakland.
*In the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys were both at the top of the NFL and jousted all season for the top. See the strange way the Eagles “beat” the Cowboys in the season’s final week. It proved to be a historic year for both franchises—Philadelphia made its first Super Bowl trip and Dallas began the post-Roger Staubach era.
*The Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns each had magical years, and both were in positions to win playoff games at home, against the more tradition-laden Cowboys and Raiders respectively. Each had their hearts ripped out. Read how their rises to prominence came about before the fall.
*The San Diego Chargers continued to be the league’s most exciting offense with Dan Fouts at quarterback, and went all-in to try and win in 1980. Read how they survived Oakland in the AFC West during the season before losing to the Raiders in the playoffs.
*The Buffalo Bills stepped up and won the AFC East. Read how an excellent head coach in Chuck Knox guided a team through the season even though they didn’t have the best talent.
*The Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, two powers of the 1970s, would fade briefly in this decade, but still had enough in the tank to reach the playoffs. Read how the Vikings crawled to the finish line in a weak NFC Central, aided by a miracle pass, and the Rams played their way into the postseason a year after making a Super Bowl run.
*And how can we forget the Pittsburgh Steelers? They didn’t make the playoffs, but this was the two-time defending Super Bowl champion, with four titles in the previous six years. “One For The Thumb” was the rallying cry. You’ll read how they came up short, as well as the moments at the early and mid-points when it seemed like they were still in position to make a championship run.
Each of these articles is published individually on TheSportsNotebook.com and editing has been done to eliminate obvious redundancies. Taken together, these eleven articles tell the story of the 1980 NFL season through the eyes of its most consequential teams. Download it from Amazon today.
The 2007 Cleveland Browns entered the season having not made the playoffs in five years, but worse was the fact they’d only gone postseason twice since 1990. Worse than that was both playoff years ended with losses to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers. Worse than that was those seasons were not the only playoff years, but the only years they won more than they lost. Worse than that was the fact they chased Bill Belichick out of town and watched him start a dynasty with the New England Patriots.
The organization that chased Marty Schottenheimer after the 1988 season because he only made the playoffs, but not the Super Bowl, was desperate for anything even resembling those excellent Brown teams of the late 1980s, coached by Schottenheimer and led by quarterback Bernie Kosar.
And there was zero evidence in late summer that 2007 was going to be a breakout year. Cleveland made a nice draft pick in adding offensive tackle Joe Thomas. But quarterback was up for grabs with rookie Brady Quinn and 24-year-old Derek Anderson, the running game was in the hands of veteran free-agent signing Jamal Lewis and the only receiver of note was Braylon Edwards.
The defense lacked playmakers and it would take all of head coach Romeo Crennel’s defensive knowledge to make this a competitive unit.
Defensive flaws were exposed quickly in a 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh to start the season at home and also in the following week’s home win, a 51-45 shootout. But Anderson had stepped up to claim the quarterback’s job and he was on his way to a sterling year, better than 3,700 yards passing, with Edwards as the chief beneficiary.
The team was on-again and off-again.in the early going. They lost 34-17 to the undefeated Patriots, but then Anderson put on a shoot-out display to beat the Miami Dolphins 41-34 and get their record to the aforementioned 3-3 as week off loomed.
A reasonable fan had to be pleased with the Browns’ staying at the .500 level and the best was just around the corner. They won in St. Louis to get a winning record for the first time all season. Then came three successive weeks of shootout thrillers.
A home game with Seattle saw the Browns fall behind 21-6, after a pair of Matt Hasselbeck touchdown passes and a 94-yard punt return by Nate Burleson. They still trailed 24-16 with a quarter to play, when Lewis ran in from two yards out. They missed the two-point play to tie, but after a Seahawk field goal, another Lewis TD was followed by a successful conversion.
Which proved to be necessary, because Seattle rallied with a field goal to tie it 30-30 and force overtime. Anderson, who would throw for 364 yards led the team into position and kicker Phil Dawson booted the game-winner. At 5-3, the Browns were halfway through the season and had the record of a contender.
Contender or not, Pittsburgh was still the nemesis and the following week was the reverse image of the Seattle game. This time it was Anderson throwing three first-half touchdowns and pushing his team to a 21-6 lead. But Cleveland couldn’t stop the run, nor could they contain Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns got a big special teams’ touchdown by Josh Cribbs, their dynamic return man, but not enough to hold off the Steelers by the Three Rivers as Pittsburgh won 31-28.
The following week was another AFC North road game, this one in Baltimore. 2007 was the last year of Brian Billick’s tenure, the successful run of the Ravens’ coach had dried out and this was not a good team. But they played like it on November 18 in an epic game that I can still remember watching at the home of my former in-laws in a Baltimore suburb.
Cleveland played well defensively in the first half, leading 13-7 and the only Ravens’ TD being a defensive one produced by Ray Lewis. The game opened up after intermission. The Browns led 20-14, and with the Ravens driving, Brodney Poole picked off a pass at the goal line and went 100 yards to the house the other way. At 27-14, the Browns were in command.
But the Ravens got two field goals from Matt Stover, a touchdown to tie the game, another field goal to take the lead and suddenly Cleveland was looking at a disheartening loss. Anderson drove the team to the 34-yard line to try a last field goal.
Dawson’s field goal bounced off the crossbar…and bounced off. But the officials went to instant replay. And as it happens, the ball caught the side goal post after the cross bar and had gotten far enough over to be good, even if the ball landed on the wrong side of the post. Got all that? The Baltimore crowd was furious, but Cleveland was grateful—and it was also the correct call. The Browns won in overtime 33-30.
Now they were 6-4, and three wins in their next four games, including an 8-0 win over Buffalo that I’m grateful I never watched. On December 23, the penultimate game of the season, Cleveland could clinch a playoff berth right on the turf of archrival Cincinnati.
True to their history in a big moment, the Browns did not play well. They dug themselves a 19-0 hole, and while Anderson hit Edwards on touchdown passes in the third and fourth quarters, it wasn’t enough. The 19-14 loss dropped the Browns out of control in the playoff push.
There was still plenty to play for. If Cleveland beat San Francisco, all it took was the Tennessee Titans losing at Indianapolis, the #2 seed in the conference and defending Super Bowl champ, to get the Browns in.
And if nothing else, a 10-win season would be something to hang your hat on. Cleveland took care of their business against the lowly 49ers. Cribbs ran a punt back 76 yards, Anderson hit Edwards from 45 yards out and the team coasted home to a 20-7 win.
Unfortunately, the Colts only played Peyton Manning for a half and they never put it in the end zone when he did play. The Titans trailed 10-7 in the third quarter, giving some brief hope to Cleveland, but three field goals gave them a 16-10 lead that left the Browns on the sideline for the playoffs.
Still, the 10-6 year had been a surprise and with Anderson looking like a quarterback of the future, brighter days were surely ahead. At least that’s how it seemed. The Browns haven’t had a winning season. The 2007 Cleveland Browns are what qualifies as a grand football success in their franchise’s recent history, even if they didn’t make the playoffs.
Editor’s Note: Isaac Huss concludes his Suffering Sports City series. After looking at the woes of his hometown in Minneapolis and sharing in the difficulties of Denver & Oakland, he goes for the longball and empathizes with the people of Cleveland.
LeBron James was smiling Saturday night. Sorry, Cleveland fans.
His Miami Heat had just eliminated the Boston Celtics in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, and he was the biggest reason. James was everything he’s supposed to be: an unstoppable force on the offensive end, a menacing defensive presence, and a man whose charisma and effortlessness in pretty much everything he does leaves you shaking your head.
For most of us, like him or hate him, that shaking of the head is out of respect and admiration at least. But for Cleveland fans… Oh, Cleveland fans.
When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote a letter to Cavs fans everywhere (no, it was not in Comic Sans). In it, he lamented along with them the loss, pain, and downright betrayal he felt in the wake of James’ exit.
Then he predicted that his newly LeBronless Cavaliers would win an NBA Championship even before James, Dewayne Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat. At the time, it was unthinkably unlikely, and even though the odds improved ever so slightly after the Cavs won the draft lottery, followed by the Heat’s meltdown in last year’s NBA Finals, LeBron and the Heat are now just four victories away from proving Gilbert dead wrong.
Forgive Gilbert, though, if he allowed his disappointment with his team and its fresh and gaping LeBron-sized hole to spill into irrational angst toward the Heat. But these are the things that happen in the sorriest sports city in America (with apologies to Buffalo).
How sorry is Cleveland? Let us count the ways. The aforementioned Cavaliers have never won an NBA Championship. In fact, before LeBron James showed up, the team had never made an NBA Finals.
It seemed that God Himself ordained the franchise would win the draft lottery in 2003, the year the most highly anticipated prospect in the history of American pro sports would emerge from nearby Akron. Things were looking up, and LeBron did end up restoring credibility to a team that hadn’t really recovered from Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” game in 1989.
Reaching the Finals in 2007 and then rattling off back-to-back 60-win seasons wasn’t enough to convince LeBron to stay when he became a free agent in 2010. Taking his “Decision” to national television, he, plaid shirt and all, announced—with a smile, no less—that he was essentially leaving Cleveland for dead. It would be safe to say that LeBron put the “Diss” in The Decision.
Fans of the local NFL team, the Cleveland Browns, are well acquainted with being left for dead, literally. For three years, after owner Art Modell took his players and personnel out of Cleveland to form the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, the Cleveland Browns were “deactivated”. In 1999, the Browns were reassembled, essentially as an expansion team, as a settlement between the city and Modell kept the franchise legacy in Cleveland.
Which also meant that the memory of football failure would be remain alive and well in the state of Cleveland. The Browns have never won a Super Bowl, never even played in one. However, they did lose three conference championships between 1986-1989, including “The Fumble” game in 1987.
And no conversation of tortured Cleveland fans can exclude The Fumble. Two yards away from scoring the tying touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, Broncos DB Jeremiah Castille stripped Browns running back Earnest Byner of the football and the Broncos recovered, game over. On the other hand, the Browns never recovered.
In the 23 years since The Fumble, the Browns have made the playoffs just twice, and only once since starting anew in 1999. But hey, at least they have the ugliest uniforms in football, not to mention fans who dress up like dogs. Like beaten-down dogs still loyal to their thankless master, you gotta be loyal to love a team like that.
But neither the Cavs nor the Browns can touch the longevity nor the so-close-yet-so-far-away losing of baseball’s Cleveland Indians. The storied franchise does not lack for legends, as a walk through the museum beyond Progressive Field’s left-center field fence proudly proclaims.
Yet the Indians last won a World Series in 1948, although they came so very close in 1995 and 1997 when they lost the World Series in six and seven games, respectively. In 1997’s game seven, they led 3-2 in the ninth inning over the Florida Marlins. But in true Cleveland fashion, the Indians were unable to stay out of their own way.
A potential insurance run, Robbie Alomar, was thrown out at home in the top of the ninth on a fielder’s choice. Then in the bottom of the ninth, still leading 3-2, two-time all-star closer Jose Mesa blew the save, allowing the Marlins to tie the game at three. Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, four-time gold glove winner Tony Fernandez’s fielding miscue allowed the eventual winning run on base, and the rest is history.
Since then, the Indians have lost twice in the American League Championship Series, but more recently have bottomed out. In 2009, the Indians lost 97 games, and another 93 in 2010, and promising starts to last season and this have been followed by cold spells.
And as loyal as Cleveland fans are, a beaten-down fan base can only take so much. The Indians sold out every game from 1995-2000, but this year they’re dead-last in attendance at a little over 17,000 fans a game. This in one of the nicest urban ballpark settings in America.
So there’s no joy in Cleveland these days. Gilbert’s prediction for a Cavs’ Championship before LeBron and the Heat get theirs might even be less likely at this point than Lebron’s prediction of fifteen championships or however many he promised Miami at his welcome party back in 2010.
Maybe LeBron will build upon his strong series against the Celtics and continue to silence his doubters. Maybe he’ll finally exorcise his demons and win the championship that eluded him in Cleveland and his first year in Miami. And maybe he’ll do it in such a dominant, effortless way leaving us to again shake our heads in amazement.
And when you do finish shaking your head, maybe just shake it one more time in honor of those suffering fans in the sorriest sports city in America, the City of Cleveland.