This may be hard to fathom, but there was a time when the Cleveland Browns did not suck. In fact, for a handful of years, the Browns were quite good. Most recently, that time was the 1980s and things were weird.
So weird that during one stretch the Browns made it to three AFC Championship games in four years. The Browns were nearly neck-and-neck with Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers, Lawrence Taylor's New York Giants and the other iconic stalwarts of the 80s.
Cleveland’s success came primarily because of a single player who rallied both the team and the fan base. He was a local player who found fame in Miami before wanting to come home and play for Cleveland. His return would spurn an economic boom and help make his team a contender.
Long before LeBron James wanted to return to northeast Ohio, Bernie Kosar did. Like many Ohio cities, Kosar's hometown of Boardman is a rundown industrial place where people are passionate about sports. For Kosar, the draw of playing for his childhood team was strong.
A star for the Miami Hurricanes, Kosar completed a double major with two years of college eligibility remaining. At the time, only seniors and graduate students could enter the NFL Draft. Still, Kosar announced his intentions to enter the 1985 draft and that he wanted to play for the Browns. To become eligible in 1985, Kosar had to file paperwork with the NFL by April 15 that year.
In anticipation of Kosar being in the draft, the Minnesota Vikings traded up to the No. 2 pick. The Buffalo Bills had previously agreed to a contract with No. 1 pick Bruce Smith. As Minnesota moved up to No. 2, Cleveland made a move. The Browns traded two first-round picks and a third-round pick to Buffalo for the Bills’ first-round pick in 1986.
Because of how the supplemental draft was designed at the time, that gave the Browns the first choice in the 1985 supplemental draft. Kosar eventually declined the standard draft and was put into the supplemental draft where Cleveland selected him.
Kosar’s declaration of wanting to come to Cleveland made him a fan favorite. It didn’t hurt that he seemed like just a regular guy. He could have been a steelworker from Cleveland or a rubber worker from Akron, albeit one who played football at Miami and finished a double-degree in two years.
He was the antithesis of an athlete. He was awkward and uncoordinated. When Kosar scrambled, he looked like an uncertain infant learning to walk. Kosar threw with a unconventional sidearm motion more severe than Philip Rivers'. He made plays because of his brain, not his arm. He was uniquely perfect for Cleveland.
It wasn’t just Kosar who made the Browns matter. The mid- to late-80s Browns had a trio of very good wide receivers in Brian Brennan, Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter. Eventual hall of fame tight end Ozzie Newsome was still on the roster. The team had a pair of running backs in Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack who both topped 1,000 rushing in 1985.
Enter the Dawgs
Even with that talent, the Cleveland Browns were perceived as boring nationally. The orange and brown color combination is drab. They don't even have a logo.
If you’ve ever wondered why the Browns have the Dawg Pound, thank those teams of the 80s. Specifically, thank cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. Whatever you think about the play of the Seattle Seahawks secondary now – from the excellence to the swagger – affix that opinion to Dixon and Minnifield. For those four seasons from 1986 to 1989, they were the best secondary tandem in the NFL.
The "Dawg" thing caught on because Dixon and Minnifield barked during practices. Other teammates started doing it too and it quickly spread to the fans. Before one preseason game, Dixon and Minnifield hung a sign reading "Dawg Pound" in front of the bleacher seats in the end zone. As they typically are, the bleacher seats are filled with the loudest and most boisterous fans. The fans took to the moniker straight away. The blue collar Browns fan base was now covered in dog masks and people starting bringing Milk-Bones to rain down upon visiting teams (with the occasional battery thrown in as well).
'Bernie, Bernie, how you can throw'
The 1986 Browns were the most thrilling group of the any Browns team that decade. That team was a combination of talent and ignorance of losing. The best pieces on the team – Kosar, the cornerbacks and head coach Marty Schottenheimer – were all relatively new. Kosar threw for 3,854 yards that year. Mack scored 10 touchdowns. A balanced passing offense had three players with more than 575 yards receiving.
That team was so good it inspired song. Cleveland airwaves were awash in Browns fever playing "Bernie, Bernie," a riff off the classic "Louie Louie."
That year, the Browns won their final five games of the season and finished with a 12-4 mark, the team’s best record of the '80s. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Browns faced the New York Jets. In an exciting double overtime win, Kosar threw for 489 yards, still the most in NFL history.
The next week, the Browns hosted the Denver Broncos and budding superstar quarterback John Elway. The Browns controlled things early, but turnovers kept the Broncos in the game. Tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter, Kosar connected with Brennan to put the Browns up 20-13. Denver misplayed the ensuing kickoff and had the ball at their own two-yard line with 5:34 left in the game.
That was it. It would be impossible for Elway to drive his team 98 yards down the field.
But he did. To that point, Elway’s NFL career was much more flash than substance. His ability was apparent, but he was inconsistent. What people think of Matthew Stafford now, they thought of Elway in 1986.
That drive. The Drive. It changed everything.
Elway marched Denver down the field. Schottenheimer’s defense was no longer blitzing. Instead, it played prevent with only three defenders rushing upfield. It would be easy to say Elway carved up the Browns defense, but that isn’t exactly true. He blew through three minutes on two first downs to get Denver moving away from their own end zone. Then there was a 22-yard strike in the middle of the field to wide receiver Steve Sewell. The Browns defense fought back and forced a third and 18 and then Elway found rookie receiver Mark Jackson for a 20-yard pass to secure a first down.
Slowly, methodically, the Browns and Cleveland were being broken by Elway. By the time Denver got to Cleveland’s five-yard line, Cleveland Stadium had gone nearly quiet. Elway found Jackson for a five-yard touchdown. The game was tied.
Denver went on to win with a field goal in an overtime that no one in Cleveland even remembers. After that game, Cleveland knew what it truly felt like to be systematically picked apart and embarrassed on national television. Elway became public enemy No. 1 in Cleveland.
Browns fans, though, were dangerously hopeful.
Byner fumbles away hope
For the Browns, much of that hope was due to running back Earnest Byner being injured for much of the 1986 season. He touched the ball just once in the AFC Championship game against Denver.
In the strike-shortened 1987 season, Byner was the team’s most versatile player on offense. He ran for 432 yards on 105 carries and caught 52 passes for 552 yards and had 10 touchdowns overall. His stablemate Mack made the Pro Bowl rushing for 735 yards and pulling in 32 catches of his own.
Dixon and Minnifield were both Pro Bowlers that year. Kosar, linebacker Clay Matthews, nose tackle Bob Golic and even return specialist Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil were as well.
The Browns scored more than any team in the AFC. They allowed the second fewest points in the league.
The Browns finished the season at 10-5, the second-best record in the AFC to Denver’s 10-4-1. Because of that, Denver hosted the AFC Championship rematch that season.
Cleveland struggled through the first half because of turnovers and were down 21-3 at halftime. But in the second half, the Browns scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions. Kosar was 11-of-13 passing for three touchdowns in those possessions. Three of those passes went to Byner for a combined 97 yards.
The Browns were able to tie the game at 31-31 with just under 11 minutes to play. Elway put Denver up 38-31 and the Browns got the ball back with under four minutes left.
This was it. Kosar, the local hero who wanted to be in Cleveland, was going to orchestrate a drive of his own. He did too.
First Byner ripped off a 17-yard run. Then Kosar found Brennan on consecutive plays totaling more than 30 yards. A Broncos penalty and another Byner run brought Cleveland to the eight-yard line with little more than a minute left to play.
Then it happened.
The play was "13-Trap." Byner took the delayed handoff and jutted to the left. He could have gone down on first contact at the four-yard line. He should have gone down. As Byner worked to the one-yard line, defensive back Jeremiah Castille crushed Cleveland. He stripped Byner of the ball. Denver recovered. The play is now simply known as The Fumble.
This was Cleveland’s best chance. It’s most talented team should have gone to the Super Bowl. The team’s second-ranked defense would have figured out how to stop Washington, Doug Williams and obscure running back Timmy Smith.
To close the 80s, the Browns made the playoffs the next two seasons. With Kosar injured, Cleveland never really got its footing in 1988 and lost in the wild card round of the playoffs. The Browns were back in the conference title game for the 1989 season, again facing Elway and the Broncos. Again the Browns had a team loaded with talent but stood little chance against Elway. They lost 37-21.
Kosar, still an icon in Cleveland, had just two more good seasons for the Browns. The team spiraled rapidly into its role as the butt of football jokes you now know. The Browns moved and won that elusive Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens. That drab brown and orange returned to Cleveland in 1999 and have burned through quarterback after quarterback looking for the next Kosar. Often, the Browns haven’t even quite bad enough to find him. Quarterbacks like Rivers, Eli Manning, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck have been just out of reach.
Those Kosar-led teams of the 80s still give Browns fans today that dangerous and often unquenchable feeling of hope. Because of that lingering notion, fans still talk about those teams close to 30 years later. Cleveland wasn’t generating buzz simply because of the return of a hometown superstar. It was because things were weird and the Browns were good.