When it comes to talking about Super Bowl Rings of NFL champions gone by, we think of great teams. Yet within each team, there are individuals who have their own story to tell. If becoming a champion is the crowning jewel for a lifetime achievement then how monumental is the chase itself?? Enter Marty Schottenheimer and the 1987 Browns.
It all began on a dark foreboding afternoon on January 11, 1987 in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. After holding the Denver Broncos to only 216 yards of offense and 13 points in the first 55 minutes of the game, scored to take a 20-13 lead, then pinned the Broncos to their own 2 yard line after the kick. The crowd was rocking as Browns fans were throwing confetti and were just a series or two away from Super Bowl XXI. Decades of NFL futility were about to come to a close as John Elway and the Bronco offense took the field.
Yet in one of the NFL’s greatest ever playoff drives, John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards to the tying touchdown. Then the game winner in overtime. The 23-20 thriller ended a season that had been the most accomplished in the modern history of the franchise.
In 1985, the Browns were a limited team that was easing their prized rookie quarterback, Bernie Kosar, into the game plan. This earthbound run oriented outfit was the first division winner in NFL history with a .500 record. Both Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack rushed for 1,000 yards during the season. These shortcomings came back to haunt them in a 24-21 loss to Miami in the playoffs. A game in which Cleveland was up 21-3 at one point. Once the Dolphins focused on the ground game, Kosar was ineffective in his first road playoff game.
So in 1986, third year Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer brought in passing guru Lindy Infante to open up the offense and personally develop Cleveland’s kid quarterback. Kosar developed into an upper level quarterback throwing for 3,500 yards and 17 touchdowns. Along with the Dawg defense they paced the conference and wrapped up home-field advantage with a 12-4 record. As the playoffs neared, pundits were mixed with what they expected of Bernie. Although he finished with the NFL’s lowest interception ratio per pass attempt, many felt a 23 year old quarterback would fold under pressure.
In the AFC divisional playoff contest with the New York Jets, Kosar completed 33 of 64 for an NFL playoff record 489 yards in a come from behind 23-20 win. The game went to double overtime before Mark Moseley kicked the Browns to a victory. Then came the loss to Denver and depression set in state wide. It wasn’t the fact the Browns lost, it was the heartbreaking way they lost it. Yet with a developing quarterback and one of the AFC’s best defenses, they vowed to make amends the following season.
Going into 1987, Cleveland started tinkering with their defense. They parted ways with high profile linebacker Chip Banks and altered their 3-4 defense in the early portion of the season. With two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, the Browns could go man to man against anyone. Results were mixed as Cleveland had issues rushing the passer. Minnifield and Dixon started in the Pro Bowl for the 2nd straight year, so coverage wasn’t the issue.
The offense continued to diversify as Kosar elevated his game to a higher degree. In 1987 he had the second lowest interception percentage of all NFL quarterbacks (2.3%) as he threw for 3,033 yards, 22 TDs with only 9 interceptions. His 62% completion percentage (241 of 389) was among the best in pro football. Although he was a bit awkward as a quarterback he started to win some acclaim. He made the Pro Bowl and was voted the People’s Choice MVP that year. Keep in mind these numbers came from only 12 games thanks to the players strike that year.
He still had future Hall of Fame TE Ozzie Newsome to go with his receivers Webster Slaughter (47 rec./ 806yds / 7 TDs) and Reggie Langhorne. However third receiver Brian Brennan (43 rec/ 607 yds / 6TDs) out of the slot was Wes Welker before Wes Welker. Running backs Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were no longer the 1000/1000 tandem. Mack was the straight ahead freight train and Byner became a combination runner and receiver out of the backfield.
To the casual football fan this team was put together in a hodge-podge sort of way. Very few of the Cleveland Browns were blue chip players. Kosar and Mack were supplemental selections. Inside Linebacker Mike Johnson and All Pro Cornerback Frank Minnifield came from the USFL. Spot time starter Felix Wright #22, came from playing several years in the Canadian Football League. The year before, the Browns brought in former Ohio St alums LB Anthony Griggs and SS Ray Ellis. Each of which were let go by the Philadelphia Eagles when Buddy Ryan took over. Starting DEs Al “Bubba Baker” was a former Cardinal and Carl “Big Daddy” Hairston was in his 12th year was a former Philadephia Eagle from an even earlier regime than Ellis and Griggs.
Now Pro Bowl Cornerback Hanford Dixon and Pro Bowl Linebacker Clay Matthews were 1st round selections fully entrenched as starters.Yet it was this unlikely group that fought as a unit to bring prestige and respectability to Cleveland. Their stadium was ancient and unattractive when you compared it to other teams around the league. Yet all of this fueled the furnace that was the spirit of those 1987 Browns. It fueled the fans as well. Hanford Dixon coined the “Dawg Defense” and the bleacher zone the “Dawg Pound” and that took on a league of it’s own. People dressed in dog masks, chewing on dog biscuits, throwing them on the field. In fact, in 1989 playing the Denver Broncos, the fans were so rowdy throwing biscuits on the Broncos huddled in the endzone, the referees switched sides. It was the first time in NFL history that had happened.
Did I just mention the Broncos?? Well back to 1987…
After posting a 10-5 record and winning the AFC Central, the Browns beat Eric Dickerson’s Indianapolis Colts 38-21 to set up the rematch they had waited for all year with Denver. This time the AFC Championship would be held in Mile High Stadium. Yet the Browns didn’t care. They had to exorcise the demons from “The Drive” and losing the AFC Championship the year before to the Broncos. When in fact it was a morality play when you thought of the two cities and the two teams. Cleveland was the unattractive “Mistake By the Lake” and Denver was the sprawling western urban city with mountains to ski off in the distance.
Even the quarterbacks took on the embodiment of their towns. John Elway was the prototypical glamour quarterback. First round draft pick with a rocket right arm who was on the cover of magazines and gained much of his fanfare from the previous year’s championship game. Where Kosar was the physically awkward antithesis to Elway’s athleticism, he didn’t have John’s polished ready for television demeanor and looks either. However there was an assassin beneath the surface. This was the kid who won the 1983 National Championship at the University of Miami (The [[_]]) as a redshirt freshman. The 31-30 upset of the #1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers that were averaging 52 points a game. So Kosar didn’t shrink under intense pressure.
How about the Head Coaches??
Well in one you had the polished, always in a shirt and tie Dan Reeves v. the bland “V-Necked”sweater or brown overcoat wearing Marty Schottenheimer. Reeves came up as a golden child on one of the NFL’s glamour teams playing for Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys. Then coming up through the coaching ranks and winning a ring as a coach (Super Bowl XII) just as he had as a player in Super Bowl VI. He was a highly sought coaching commodity when Denver hired him in 1981.
Schottenheimer?? He had been a back-up linebacker and special teams player for the Buffalo Bills over in the “other league” known as the AFL. He had been a mid-season replacement for embattled coach Sam Rutigliano for whom he coached the defensive backs in 1984. In ignominious fashion it was his secondary who gave up one of the Browns biggest gaffes ever in 1980 when they allowed a Hail Mary to Ahmad Rashad in the final seconds to the Minnesota Vikings.
In short Cleveland was the antithesis of everything they felt the Broncos were not. Gritty, tough, fighting for respect from the establishment. It tapped into the inferiority complex of the Browns fans and together they lived with the pain of “The Drive” from 1986 ripping at their souls. As for the ’87 AFC Championship??
The largest come from behind game in NFL postseason history was the 20 point comeback by the 1957 Detroit Lions in a 31-27 win over the 49ers. At least up until that time. That was against a 49er team that couldn’t win the big game. This comeback by Cleveland, down 18 twice, was performed against the team with the best home record of any NFL team (75% 1960-1987) during those years. Against the backdrop of the emotion from the previous year?? It was the epitome of a never say die attitude that should be taught to kids everywhere.
To have such a monumental performance come up short like that doesn’t take away from it’s brilliance. Earnest Byner had rushed for 67 yards and caught 7 passes for an additional 120 and 2 touchdowns. Did you know this was only the 2nd time a team scored 30 points in any NFL championship game and lost?? The Browns scored 30 in just the second half!! They were down 21-3 at the half and lost 38-33. We’re talking 178 games of AFC /AFL Championships, NFC / NFL Championships and Super Bowls. The only other time was when Dallas lost Super Bowl XIII to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yet the overwhelming feeling after Byner’s fumble was the best team didn’t win that day. All the media talked about was John Elway who passed for 14 of 26 for 281 yards 3 TDs and 1interception. When the best player on the field that day was Bernie Kosar who threw for 361 yards (26 of 41) for 3 TDs and 1 pick. Which was the record for any championship quarterback playing on the road.
Browns fans had to watch in disbelief when Washington blew out the Broncos 42-10 in Super Bowl XXII knowing their team was better. In fact the following year Cleveland won in Washington 16-10 on the road to knock them out of playoff contention in 1988. So could they have beaten them in a Super Bowl?? Probably. The year before when they lost “The Drive” to the Broncos, they had to watch the Giants pull away from the Broncos 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI. In 1985, the Browns beat the Giants 35-33 in the Meadowlands in the 13th week. Are we sure the Giants would have won at a neutral site Super Bowl?? Remember we’re talking about a pre- free agency NFL back then.
However for one magnificent evening, Marty Schottenheimer and the Cleveland Browns taught fans everywhere a lesson in not giving up. Working your way out of a hole borne from self induced mistakes and putting on a Herculean effort that shouldn’t be forgotten.
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