Is this really Bud Carson football, the weird 16-13 victory that his Cleveland Browns registered over the Denver Broncos on Sunday? How weird? Well, it was a game the Browns had at least three chances to put away in the fourth quarter, and failed. Then at the end the Broncos could have gone ahead—and failed.
It was an afternoon in which Tom Dooley, the referee, moved the visiting Broncos 92 yards down the field early in the fourth quarter—their longest march of the day—to get them away from the eggs and rocks and dog biscuits and double-A batteries that were flying out of the Lake Erie end of the stands, a.k.a. the Dawg Pound. As a result, the Browns had the wind at their backs instead of in their faces—just enough wind to nudge Matt Bahr's 48-yard field goal over the bar at the final gun.
We don't know if this is really Bud Carson football, because it was only his fourth game as an NFL head coach. But we do know that his Browns are one of the four 3-1 teams in the AFC. And we know that his whole history as an assistant is of crafting superior defenses; on Sunday, Cleveland played terrific defense. Denver quarterback John El way was held to six completions (in 19 attempts), the fewest he's had in a pro game in which he has gone the whole way. What's more, when things looked bad for the Browns, with Denver on the Cleveland eight, the score tied 13-13, 1:49 to go and the Browns needing a big defensive play, they got it—from middle linebacker Mike Johnson, who stripped the ball from running back Sammy Winder. Then they got the winning drive from their offense.
Afterward, sitting in his little office in the depths of Cleveland Stadium, shooting the breeze with his brother, Guy, and a few friends, Carson was asked if every Sunday was going to be like this. He let out his breath and said, "If it is, I'm not going to last long."
October 8, 1989
In the players' locker room next door, though, the Browns were telling a different story. They were talking about a triumph of the mind, of a concept, of an intellectual approach to defensive football: the intricate world of prereads, instant adjustments and an audible system so carefully developed that it can match the offense's, call for call. "Stick with me," Carson had told his defensive players when he got them together in camp. "You're not going to get everything right away. It's going to take awhile, but it's sound, and when you catch on you'll be playing at an entirely new level of defensive football."
"Each week we keep putting in new things," said strong safety Felix Wright. "We thought we had a pretty good audible system last week against Cincinnati, but when we shifted, we didn't do a good enough job disguising it, and [quarterback] Boomer [Esiason] read us. So that's what we worked on this week. This week I think we were one step ahead of Elway."
Elway said the toughest thing about his reads was "the pressure they put on me. The key thing was what they did up front."
But by the fourth quarter some of the edge was off Cleveland's pass rush; it was tiring. Elway was getting time, but the coverage was still giving him trouble. "We're now doing the kind of things you usually expect from a smarter team, a more mature team," said Johnson. "We're starting to understand what Bud wants from us."
Some people will tell you that pro football isn't such a complicated game. You line up. He hits you in the mouth; you hit him in the mouth. The tougher guy wins. It's the people, the athletes, who make the difference. There's some truth in that view, but there's a lot more to playing in the NFL.
"We probably had the greatest collection of defensive talent ever put on the field," says Andy Russell, the All-Pro linebacker on the Pittsburgh Steelers' early Super Bowl teams. "But we also had a great defensive coach, Bud Carson, who gave us a system that was years ahead of its time. He got us to where we could change our calls so quickly that we always had the last word. It really worked against a team like the Cowboys, with all the shifts and changes and formations they used. We could always stay one jump ahead of them."
That has been the legacy of the 58-year-old Carson, who was in charge of the defense on four teams before taking over in Cleveland. He knew his system was sound, but he knew it would take time to perfect. Head coaches weren't always that patient. In addition, there was the political game to be played. Carson always has been outspoken. Sometimes other factors worked against him. He found that out in 1972, when he started applying for NFL jobs, after a five-year stint as head coach at Georgia Tech.
"I wanted to work in Dallas," says Carson. "I had what I thought was a good interview with the Cowboys. I was waiting for the phone call. It came two days later. The guy who called me was some kind of team psychologist. He said, 'Bud, your presentation was really first-rate, the people here really like your ideas and they'd love to hire you—but you have been divorced."
So he coached Pittsburgh's secondary in 1972 and was defensive coordinator from 1973 through '77. The next year he joined the Rams, and a year later they were in the Super Bowl. He left after the '81 season when coach Ray Malavasi saved his job by firing his assistants. "Ray was trapped," says Carson. "He did what he could to survive."
In 1982, Carson was with Frank Kush in Baltimore: new coach, young players, nine-game strike schedule. "I never knew who my players were," says Carson. "Frank would run a guy off in a minute. He'd pull a guy out of a game if he missed a tackle. I'd say, 'Frank, that's all we've got.' I mean, if you've a 90-man squad, well, O.K. I had to keep it simple. To try to do anything sophisticated there would have been suicide."
The next year he was in Kansas City with John Mackovic, a rookie coach with young assistants. A personality clash between the two deepened when Mackovic traded Gary Green, the team's best cornerback, without consulting Carson. "John was a sensitive guy," says Carson. "I should have been more careful. Instead I was blunt."
Carson was out of the pro game in '84. "Mostly I'd tape all the football games," he says. "I'd stay up late running stuff in slo-mo, frame by frame."
He was outside the NFL fraternity, a pariah. The word was out that he knew his stuff but was hard to get along with. Jet coach Joe Walton saved him in 1985. He brought him to New York to run the defense. In a year Carson chopped 100 points off the Jets' defensive total, and they made the playoffs. The defense struggled at times, largely because it suffered some devastating injuries. But the things Carson was doing—his unpredictability, his attacking concepts—drew attention around the league. In January, Cleveland owner Art Modell hired Carson to replace Marty Schottenheimer, a defense-oriented coach who had also taken charge of the offense last season. When he refused to give it up, he was forced out. He's now coaching Kansas City.
The team Carson inherited had sound defensive personnel, but the offense was strange—Bernie Kosar running a controlled passing game, which is fine in September and October. But come November and December in Cleveland, when the wind and sleet come howling in off the lake, you've got to be able to run the ball, and the Browns are still groping on the ground. The offensive line has been crippled. Kevin Mack, the heavy-duty runner, sat out a 30-day drug suspension and then had knee cartilage surgery. He's not expected back until Oct. 15. The No. 1 draft choice, Eric Metcalf of Texas, is a dazzling little runner. His five-yard touchdown catch against Cincinnati on Sept. 25—two lightning cuts, two Bengals grabbing air—probably will be the best five-yard run of the season.
For all his flash, though, Metcalf was on the bench most of the fourth quarter. The Browns, and their offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, who was Kosar's quarterback coach at Miami, still don't seem committed to a serious rushing attack. Carson insists that will be taken care of soon. "It has to," he says.
Cleveland can still pull out games with Kosar's arm—and his head. With 1:42 remaining, the score tied and the ball on his own 16, Kosar turned a chaotic fourth quarter into his showcase. The strangest happening was Dooley's long march with the Broncos' offense—from the four-yard line at the Dawg Pound end of the stadium to the four-yard line at the closed end. Old-timers can remember that happening only once before, in a blizzard, when the barrage of snowballs from the end-zone stands became impossible to bear.
"They were throwing dog biscuits today," said Dooley. "They threw an egg and hit number 54 [Bronco guard Keith Bishop] in the eye. They threw a double-A battery that hit me in the head. After I got them calmed down and got behind the huddle and got the players ready, they threw a rock. How big was it, Bernie [Kukar, the field judge]? Thanks. It was two-and-a-half inches in diameter. Then another egg hit 54, then another egg landed in the middle of the Denver huddle, then another double-A battery, then I stopped it and went to the other end."
When the Browns took over on their 16 after Johnson stripped the ball from Winder, their offense had contributed one yard and one interception in the fourth quarter, but in seven plays Kosar had Cleveland on the Denver 30 with five seconds left and the kicking team on the field. The snap from center Gregg Rakoczy, who was subbing for the injured Tom Baugh, was a short hopper. "Out of breath, sweaty, first time doing it in a game," said Rakoczy afterward. Holder Mike Pagel did a great job fielding the grounder, Bahr swung his 175 pounds into the ball, and the Browns were 3-1 and had snapped a 10-game Bronco winning streak against them.
By December, Cleveland could be a great defensive team. Defensive teams make the playoffs. Defensive teams that throw well can make the Super Bowl. But to go all the way you've got to be able to run the ball too. So right now let's call the Browns a definite "we'll see."