The Cleveland Browns are 3-0 with Bernie Kosar at quarterback and 3-3 without him. That's part of the story of their 23-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, but not the whole story.
Oh sure, Kosar is the catalyst of these Browns. You couldn't go anywhere in the Cleveland area last week without seeing the BERNIE'S BACK signs. He hurt his right elbow, his throwing elbow, in the opener against the K.C. Chiefs, and the six games he missed were a nightmare for the Browns, who saw another two quarterbacks wind up on the injured reserve list. Gary Danielson, Kosar's backup, broke his ankle in Game 2. Mike Pagel, the third-stringer, lasted three games, until he separated his shoulder in Game 6. Cleveland was down to 37-year-old Don Strock, who had been cut by the Miami Dolphins in the preseason and was leading a nice, peaceful life as a "golf host" at the Doral Country Club in Miami when he got a call from the Browns.
"First Bernie gets hurt, and we're saying, O.K., that's going to happen; let's pick it up, let's keep moving," says offensive tackle Paul Farren. "Then Gary goes down, then Mike, and pretty soon we're scratching our heads. I mean, are we jinxed, or what?"
Strock won the only complete game he worked—19-3 against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7, the week before Kosar returned to face the Phoenix Cardinals. Strock had 55 plays taped to his wrist when he played against Philly. At least he was in better shape than he had been the week before, when he came in cold to relieve Pagel.
November 7, 1988
"He tried to call the 36 Tag play, but he didn't know the footwork," says wideout Reggie Langhorne. "So he said, 'Just run it to the right.' "
"It's a good thing Don has the kind of personality he does," says center Gregg Rakoczy. "You know, the loose old pro. I said to him, 'Hey, you've been in the league 15 years, you've seen everything.' He said, 'Well, I've never seen three quarterbacks go down.'
"In that first game, when he came in for Pagel, he tried some kind of Miami Dolphin deal I'd never seen. He got behind me and slapped me on the side of the butt. I guess in Miami that must have meant snap the ball, so I did and I guessed right. Later I asked some of the offensive linemen, 'Did you hear a snap count?' They didn't hear one, either. I thought maybe I'd missed something."
According to wideout Brian Brennan, when Kosar returned against the Cardinals in 110° heat in Phoenix, "he had fire in his eyes—you could tell things were going to happen." The Cards blitzed him like crazy in the first half. Well, why not? He was coming off injured reserve: Let's see if he can finish. The problem is that Kosar, with his almost mystical feel for open receivers, is the best quarterback in football at blitz control, one of the best ever.
"He knows the game." says Phoenix guard Joe Bostic. "He knows what's going on. He says, 'Ball, go here.' "
"How good was Bernie in that game?" said Cleveland's coach, Marty Schottenheimer, on Friday. "Look, I'll show you." He put on the offensive reel from the game against the Cardinals. "First half he goes 20 for 28 against a team that's storming the castle and blitzing all out. Here, look at this one," he said, pointing to a fourth-quarter. 25-yard touchdown pass Kosar threw to Langhorne just as he was being hit by tackle Steve Alvord.
"Watch this one, this is my favorite," continued Schottenheimer. "See, number 51 and number 54 have read his audible—they're both yelling and pointing to their right. Bernie sees them. Screw you, he says, and he dumps the ball off to Herman Fontenot the other way and gets a big gain."
Now the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals were coming to town. They were leading the AFC Central with a 7-1 record, which tied them for the best record in pro football and put them two games up on 5-3 Cleveland. They were bringing in the AFC's best offense; the Browns would counter with the No. 1 defense. When Cincinnati beat Cleveland by a TD in September, the Bengals got a hefty 213 yards on the ground, and their quarterback. Boomer Esiason, completed only one pass in the second half.
On Friday things weren't looking up for the Browns. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds were whipping across their practice field, causing Kosar's passes to flutter. After the workout, Schottenheimer announced that fullback Kevin Mack, Cleveland's top rusher, its big thumper, would miss the game with a pinched nerve in his neck. His place would be taken by Tim Manoa, who's primarily a blocker and short-yardage guy.
"If there's wind like this on Sunday—well, I don't know," Kosar said, shaking his head. "Of course, it won't be too good for Boomer, either. Against Phoenix I threw everything I wanted to, but my arm still isn't 100 percent."
Sunday dawned sunny and cool in Cleveland with minimal wind. Still, Kosar got off to a shaky start. The Browns' first series ended with an interception. In the second quarter, with Cleveland leading 3-0, David Fulcher, Cincinnati's strong safety, put on a rush. Kosar tried to dump the ball over him to Manoa, but Fulcher grabbed it and ran 16 yards for a TD. After that, the Browns' special teams, which came up with three big plays, took over.
Fontenot returned the ensuing kickoff 84 yards, to the Cincinnati nine, and a penalty on the play moved the ball down to the five. Manoa, who gained a career-high 89 yards on 23 carries, rammed for three yards and then two to get the score. The Bengals responded with a 73-yard drive that ended in a field goal. The score was 10-10 at the half, and Cleveland was in trouble.
"They knew what we were doing," said Kosar, who had directed only one decent drive in the first half. "Their third-string quarterback, Mike Norseth, was with us in 1986, and he did an excellent job of briefing them on our offense. They were tuned in to our cadence and audibles and our whole package."
Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche's no-huddle offense, which has been both praised and maligned, didn't figure much in the first meeting between these teams. Who needed it, with all that ground power? But in the first half of Sunday's game, Cincinnati's no-huddle attack gave Cleveland problems. In the second quarter, the Bengals drove 74 yards to the Browns' 12, where they were stopped on fourth-and-one. Two plays earlier the Browns couldn't get their nickel defense on the field in time and were penalized for using 12 men.
Then, on Cincinnati's 72-yard field-goal drive, the Bengals drove Cleveland crazy with their no-huddling. They completed a third-down pass for a first down before the Browns could get their nickel people in, and they picked up a couple of other first downs by using their regular offense and running the ball against the less sturdy nickel defenders. It was an orgy of strategy, and Cleveland was coming out second-best.
"At halftime we decided that they're better at this kind of stuff than we are," said Browns noseguard Bob Golic after the game. "So we figured whatever defense we had on the field, let's just play it. Plus you get tired from all that running on and off the field."
"Half the time I didn't even know who we had out there," said linebacker Clay Matthews. "I felt, the hell with it: When they run that no-huddle stuff, just leave the same people on the field. The Bengals are hard enough to deal with when you know what you're doing."
The game turned on Cleveland's second big special-teams play of the day. Trailing 13-10 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Cincinnati was punting from its own 23. Fontenot and Frank Minnifield, the Browns' 5'9", 185-pound cornerback, abandoned their normal wide-rush positions and lined up over the middle, where the guys with the 60's and 70's on their jerseys live. Fontenot drew his man with him, opening up a small gap, and Minnifield slipped through it and blocked the punt. Fontenot recovered the ball on the one and scored. "Those big guys usually can take one step and that's it," Minnifield said. "They're not used to chasing me."
Cleveland now led by 10 and could allow field goals but not TDs. The Bengals, who had run for 108 yards in the first half, abandoned the rush and tried to catch up with Esiason passes. Late in the third quarter they reached the Browns' 14, where they faced a third-and-10. It was here that Cleveland's leave-'em-on-the-field strategy paid off.
The Bengals got tricky and ran a trap play against what they thought would be nickel defenders. But the Browns' big guys were on the field, and Matthews and inside linebacker Eddie Johnson stuffed the play after a yard gain. Result: a field goal, which Cleveland matched on its next series. "I don't think Boomer really was aware of who was on the field," said Johnson. "Bernie would have picked that up and changed the play."
Cincinnati launched one more serious drive. It reached the Cleveland four, where on third-and-goal it tried a power run from the I formation. The Browns gang-tackled Stanley Wilson for no gain, and the Bengals' chippie field goal on the next play closed out the scoring.
Cleveland had one more good special-teams play left—a 32-yard kickoff return by Glen Young with 5:15 left, after which the Browns were able to kill the clock. Teams often blow leads by trying to sit on the ball at the end, but Schottenheimer, who calls the offensive plays, and Kosar, who changes about 40% of them, don't operate that way. "I've seen too many games lost by doing that," Schottenheimer says. So Kosar threw on second-and-seven, and again on third-and-two. Both passes were on target, and when the Bengals took over with seven seconds to go, they were on their own 17 and the hunt was over.
Kosar had his ups and downs, but in the second half he did what he does best—work the game in a precise way and move the yardsticks. Cleveland had only three possessions after the intermission—two long drives for field goals and the one that secured the win at the end. The Browns never punted in the second half.
The defense gave what Schottenheimer termed "the finest performance we've ever had in my nine years here." It allowed long drives and field goals but no TDs by Cincinnati's high-powered offense. It held the Bengals to 281 yards, their lowest output of the year. Finally, the Browns' special teams were terrific.
At 7-2, Cincinnati is a game ahead of the Browns and Houston Oilers in the AFC Central. But Kosar's back, and things are getting interesting.
"Half the time I did not even know what defensive players we had out there."