Last Friday afternoon Bernie Kosar tested the lush sod of Cleveland Stadium with the toe of his shoe, officially setting foot for the first time where the storied Otto Graham performed. "I can hardly wait to play here," Kosar said. (Bernie had once run onto the field during a rain delay in an Indians baseball game and was promptly chased.) With that, a smile spread across his face. It seemed larger than the Sohio building, grander than Terminal Tower and more spectacular than shimmering Lake Erie on a perfect day. Kosar knew he was right where he belonged, and nothing could have made him happier.
Things are not always so idyllic in Cleveland, as you may know. Indeed, a case can be made that things are never idyllic in Cleveland. We are talking about a town that a Miami reporter says escaped being the most boring city in the NFL only because they let Indianapolis in. But stop it. The Mistake on the Lake. Stop it. A place where the river caught on fire. Stop it. A city that has the Indians. Stop it. Those were the bad old days B.B.—Before Bernie.
It's all upbeat and wonderful now. That's because Kosar, who helped the University of Miami win a national championship in '83 and had another outstanding year in '84, wasn't just willing to play in Cleveland; he had desperately sought the opportunity. There were a lot of shenanigans involving his quest to come to Cleveland, and all-out efforts by Houston and Minnesota to keep it from happening. But please, this is a 21-year-old wunderkind who was willing to dream, hope, yes, pray to get the chance to play in Cleveland. This is not a typo. Never have a player and a team and a city lusted after one another so shamelessly.
Browns owner Art Modell, like the rest of the citizenry, doesn't know quite what to make of it all. "It's not an everyday occurrence that somebody wants to play in Cleveland," he said. "This has lent such an aura to Bernie." His eyes misted at the telling.
August 25, 1985
It gets even better. For Kosar didn't want to come just for the money ($5 million over five years), and in fact, there likely would have been more dollars elsewhere. He just wanted to come back home and play pro football. He's from Boardman, 60 miles to the southeast; his family is there, and he wants to work in the neighborhood. One of Kosar's best friends on the team, linebacker Tom Cousineau, says it's easy to understand Kosar's attitude: "Success without people to share it with is a pretty empty feeling." It's all right out of the '50s. Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. Hi, David. Hi, Ricky.
So it was in this friendly atmosphere that Bernie Kosar, who need only turn around a 5-11 team that couldn't block and couldn't catch and couldn't come close to filling its stadium (the average attendance in '84 was 57,304; capacity is 80,098), made his first pro start last Saturday night in a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. On the turf he had first inspected just a day previous. On Jim Brown's turf. On the turf where Graham quarterbacked the Browns to 10 straight championship games before his retirement in 1955. Since then, Cleveland has won only one NFL title.
On a splendid summer evening, Kosar had flashes of brilliance against the Eagles in the one half he played—most notably when he completed back-to-back passes at the beginning of the second quarter, one for 25 yards, the other for 21. Ecstasy. Three plays later, Kosar tried to scramble and fumbled. Groans. There was more grumbling when, two series later, Kosar threw an interception, but it was not all his fault. A receiver read blitz and adjusted his route, but there was no blitz, thus the misconnection.
Kosar ended his stint with only 6 of 22 for 97 yards, the incompletions including a gaggle of dropped balls that kept bouncing off shoulder pads, heads and hands. But what coach Marty Schottenheimer liked was "his presence. You can tell he's going to be an outstanding player in this league. The game tonight illustrates the difference between collegiate football and the NFL." Kosar knows: "There's obviously a lot of room for improvement," he said. And a lot of talent to use as a base.
When Gary Danielson took over at quarterback in the second half as planned, he shot out the lights. This was a crafty old pro at his flinty best. With style and flair, he threw touchdown passes of 30, five and 25 yards, and handed off for a fourth. No wonder that Kosar walked into a news conference Danielson was holding afterwards and hollered, "Danielson for President." Indeed Danielson—acquired this year in a trade with Detroit—was good beyond scary as he directed the Browns to the 28-14 victory.
Oh, did we get ahead of the story? Kosar may not be the starting quarterback for a while. That's mostly because Schottenheimer is trying not to make some of the same mistakes the Denver Broncos made with John Elway, who arrived in a similar flurry of excitement two years ago. Some thought he was thrust into the fray too soon, and Denver coach Dan Reeves says Elway memorized the offense but didn't understand it. The Browns are trying to be patient; of course, if they honestly wanted to be patient they never would have started Kosar in his second pro game. Modell insists he can wait. He says so just before he asserts, "Football people tell me he's the next Namath." Browns executive vice-president Ernie Accorsi says, "We needed a guy to compete with Montana and Marino. Now we've got him." Not a lot of wait-and-see in those statements.
The other quarterbacks understand the gravity of their situations. Paul McDonald, last year's starter, is all but gone, paying the price for a lousy '84 season.
That leaves Danielson, who is probably first in Schottenheimer's heart—but not in the fans'. Danielson laughs now about the adversity he knows will come if he plays and Kosar sits: "It will be like 60,000 people being here to see Bruce Springsteen and having Andy Williams show up instead," he says. The point is, Kosar almost certainly won't sit. Saviors require immediate employment. Says Danielson, "I may be the best quarterback and not start, or I may be the second-best quarterback and start. I can handle it either way."
Oddly, Kosar is nobody's prototype quarterback. Jenny Kellner, a columnist for The Miami News, wrote that Kosar "scrambles with the grace and speed of a giraffe on Quaaludes." Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but Kosar will not remind anyone of Fran Tarkenton—witness his futile Saturday night attempt at scrambling. But that is offset by his ability to handle pressure, making him more of a Dan Fouts type, which is not all bad. As for speed, he has none. "When I run," he explains, "I'm not in a hurry."
Kosar doesn't have the strong arm of the Bert Jones, Terry Bradshaw or Elway variety, but he says, "I can make all the throws asked of me." Just like a guy named Johnny Unitas. In fact, Accorsi, who used to be general manager at Baltimore, assigned Bernie No. 19, Johnny U's old number.
It was Accorsi who contrived to get Kosar—after the Browns learned that, lo and behold, Bernie wanted them—via a trade with Buffalo for the first pick in the June 2 supplemental draft. Kosar, scheduled to graduate in June, had decided to give up his remaining two years of college eligibility. Houston wanted him for trade purposes, Minnesota wanted him, period, and those two clubs argued that he should go through the regular April draft because he had an agent and thus was already a pro. But NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ruled that Kosar could wait and go through the supplemental draft if he so chose. Which he did. The Browns wound up giving Buffalo four draft choices, including two No. 1s, and Kosar was back home in Ohio.
"Bernie beat the system," says one Browns official, "by going to school and passing his classes. Maybe there's a lesson there."
And maybe there's a lesson in the way Kosar plays football. He can look real funny trying to get the job done. Coaches prefer that quarterbacks throw directly overhand. Kosar can do that, but more often he throws three-quarters. When he's on the run, he generally throws sidearm, a technique with even fewer advocates. Oh yes, did we mention the underhand tosses and the backhand flips? Schottenheimer has a reasonable attitude on this: "If a player does things wrong but the play works, that's fine with me. It shows a certain resourcefulness." Yes. Kosar is a winner with that glorious knack of doing things wrong—if you're hung up on mechanics—but making them work out right. "It may not look pretty, but you know me," he says. "Whatever it takes. Mainly, it's unbelievable to me how mental this game is."
And that is where Kosar truly excels. Modell says, gushingly, "Here is a guy with a 3.8 grade average and a double major in political science and the International Monetary Fund." Well, no. He had a 3.27 average with a major in finance and a minor in economics. That's O.K., Art. Everyone knows how it is when you're in love. "It's not that I'm smart," says Kosar. "I just do what comes naturally. And fortunately, that seems to have been working out O.K., so far."
Yes, sir. Tight end Ozzie Newsome, the team's best receiver, likes the idea that "When [Kosar] can't make the prototype pass, he can fling one. That's just another advantage he has."
One of the hardest things for Kosar will be the comparisons with Miami's Dan Marino—who didn't start until the sixth regular season game of his rookie year. Cousineau cautions wisely, "Everybody has his own timetable, and it's extremely dangerous to put Bernie on Danny's. Bernie will evolve at Bernie's pace. But I'll tell you this, once he makes a decision, he doesn't hesitate." True. Visiting not long ago in Cousineau's condo, Kosar mentioned he liked the place. Bingo, sold.
On the same visit, as Kosar was rhapsodizing about the lake view and city lights, Cousineau said, slyly, "How are you at throwing off your back?" That's not entirely a flip question. The Browns' offensive line gave up 55 sacks, a Cleveland record, in '84—including 11 in one inglorious afternoon against the Chiefs. Since then, the team's best pass blocker, left tackle Doug Dieken, has retired. Obviously, the offensive line is a huge question. There were also so many dropped passes that the Browns refuse to say how many; they just grimace. "The solution," says Schottenheimer, "is either catch the ball or get new players."
Meanwhile, Kosar is concentrating on Kosar: "Each day you get better or worse. You never stay the same, and I have no intention of getting worse. A quarterback has to always try to be perfect. If he doesn't do that, he's selling his team short. I'll never sell the Browns short." Spoken like a man in love to a city that can hardly wait to be seduced.