On Oct. 10, just before 7 p.m., one player remained at the Cleveland Browns' training facility in Berea, Ohio. Quarterback Bernie Kosar was upstairs watching film of the Minnesota Vikings beating the Browns' next opponent, the New Orleans Saints, and on the conference table in front of him sat a 10-gallon tub filled with melting ice. He sticks his right elbow, injured in the 1988 season opener, into the tub after every practice as a precaution against swelling.
Kosar studied the Saints' pass defense, but he couldn't help but notice the protection Viking quarterback Wade Wilson got on one play. "Look at that," Kosar said softly, marveling at what he was seeing on the screen. Wilson took a five-step drop and looked downfield. Then he looked some more; no New Orleans player was getting to Wilson. Finally, after about four seconds, Wilson completed a long pass down the right sideline. "Unbelievable," said Kosar, who sees a sturdy passing pocket much more often when he's watching film than when he's on the field.
While the Browns were stumbling to a 1-3 start this season, Kosar was being sacked 14 times and knocked down on 21 other occasions after he had gotten rid of the ball. He had one touchdown pass, three interceptions and a paltry quarterback rating of 57.9. It was open season on Kosar, giving coach Bud Carson reason to consider replacing him with Mike Pagel—for Kosar's own good health. "You're taking as many big hits as I've ever seen a quarterback take," said Carson.
Even though the 6'5", 215-pound Kosar dons extra armor—a skateboarder's elbow pad, a brace to protect his right knee and a flak jacket for his ribs—the next hit he takes could bring a premature end to his career. All quarterbacks are in the same position to some degree, but in this era of tremendously athletic pass rushers and mobile quarterbacks, Kosar, still a month shy of his 27th birthday, has three strikes against him before the first snap of every game: His inexperienced line leaks, he runs like a duck, and the offense is adjusting to a new play-calling system for the fifth time in six years.
October 21, 1990
Kosar quarterbacked Miami to the national championship in 1983. He took the Browns to the AFC Championship Game in 1986, '87 and '89. Before last season he was rewarded with a six-year, $15.3 million contract extension. Still, you've got to wonder how great the '90s will be for him and his battered body. In a generation, will we look back at Kosar and compare him with John Unitas? Or with Neil Lo-max, whose career was ended early by constant punishment?
"How many times in a fight can a guy take a knockdown before he can't get up anymore?" says former Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano, now the coach at Liberty University. "Bernie's the type of quarterback that you've got to build a barbed-wire fence around. The moment you take it down, he's in trouble."
"I'm very worried about Bernie," says Archie Manning, who as quarterback for the Saints, Houston Oilers and Vikings from 1971 to '84 was sacked 396 times. "The pass rushers are so much bigger and more mobile now than when I played. He's taking worse hits than I ever did."
Bernie knows. Bernie shrugs. "I don't think about my future," he says. "I think it's best to think week to week."
One thing you should know about the Browns: Not all of them believe in the Kosar-as-endangered-species theory. Owner Art Modell points to the Oct. 8 Monday night game in Denver, in which Kosar—24 completions in 38 attempts for 318 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions—made quick and correct decisions, stepped up in the pocket to find second and third receivers, passed on the run and threw without pain or obstruction. "He was vintage Kosar," Modell says. "It's the closest he's played to the greatness he had in 1986 and '87."
Against Denver, the Browns made changes in their offensive line and altered their blocking schemes, and for the first time this season Kosar was able to show how superb a passer he can be when he has time to throw. Cleveland, a team riddled by rumors that had Kosar going to the bench and Carson being fired or quitting, won a huge game, with Kosar bringing the Browns from nine points down on drives of 80 and 64 yards in the final 7:21 to beat the Broncos 30-29.
That game turned out to be a Rocky Mountain high for Kosar and Cleveland (2-4). In a 25-20 loss to the Saints on Sunday, Kosar was sacked twice and flattened six times. If you're counting, that's 16 sacks and 31 knockdowns in six games. Until Kosar strained ligaments in his right elbow in the '88 opener, he had thrown at least one touchdown pass in 21 straight games. He has failed to throw one in 14 of the 33 games he has played since.
It's hard to believe that Kosar, a home state boy—he grew up in Boardman, 90 miles from Cleveland—who took the Browns to the playoffs in each of his first five years in the NFL, would hear chants of "Pagel! Pagel! Pagel!" from the home crowd three games into his sixth season. But he did, during Cleveland's 24-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
Mechanically, Kosar is the same quarterback as ever. A comparison of the films of the '87 AFC title game against the Broncos with those from the Monday night game shows that he threw three-quarters and sidearm consistently, with good velocity in each. He was on the run a little more in the Monday night game, but on four or five passes, Kosar put the ball in a Cleveland player's stomach with a Bronco all over the receiver. He hasn't lost his flair for clutch completions.
"Sometimes I worry about his lack of mobility," Modell says. "But Johnny Unitas wasn't a scrambler. Dan Marino doesn't move around. Look at what Bernie does well. He diagnoses defenses and sees downfield better than anyone we've had since I've been here."
Right—when he has the chance. But how often is Kosar going to have a clear pocket and an opportunity to throw under the conditions that existed against Denver, which hardly has a fearsome pass rush? "They're basic," Pittsburgh Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson says of the Browns on offense. "He [Kosar] is not mobile at all. Now, when you look at them on your schedule, you're putting a W down before you play, because you think their offense isn't that mobile either."
"I don't think Bernie's changed much," says one defensive assistant whose team faced the Browns this fall. "But they probably do only about 25 percent of the things you see other teams do."
"Maybe Bernie's getting gun-shy back there," says Bronco quarterback John Elway. "It'd be a natural reaction to getting hit in the face on every play."
Factors that threaten Kosar's longevity:
•His health and mobility. In 1988, he missed eight games because of knee-and elbow-ligament injuries, and last season he played through more right-elbow pain. He also had dislocated right index and middle fingers, a strained right shoulder and, during the playoffs, a staph infection that swelled his right arm to almost double its normal size. By the end of last year, after being sacked 34 times, he couldn't lift his throwing arm over his head. "With injuries, a lot of it is whether you think you're hurt," says Kosar. "I just don't think about injuries."
•His offensive line. The Browns had a veteran line in 1987, yet they drafted no linemen in '88 or '90, and their two choices in 1989—seventh-and 10th-round picks—are not on the team. In fairness to Cleveland, starting tackle Cody Risien and tackle-guard Rickey Bolden both retired during training camp, and guards Ted Banker and Dan Fike remain sidelined with knee injuries suffered last season. Kosar was hesitant to call audibles in September because of the line's lack of experience.
Left tackle Paul Farren is the only interior lineman starting at the same position he played a year ago. The season opener was the first NFL start for guards Kevin Robbins and Ben Jefferson, both of whom spent all or most of 1989 on the developmental squad, and the first game that former guard Tony Jones started at tackle. Veterans Ralph Tamm and Gregg Rakoczy moved into the starting lineup at guard against Denver. However, these are stopgap measures. The long-term solution has to come through the draft. Until then? "If we can keep Bernie clean, we'll win the game," says center Mike Baab, whom Cleveland traded two years ago but reacquired through Plan B.
•His offensive scheme. Whatever happens to Carson, the second-year coach whose job status is the hottest topic in town since the Cuyahoga River caught fire, the Browns must stay the course under the system installed by new offensive coordinator Jim Shofner. Kosar is working with his fifth coordinator—and that doesn't include Marty Schottenheimer's involvement in the play-calling when he was the head coach. "People can't grasp how tough this is on a quarterback," Rutigliano says. "But it's like going to college and changing your major every six months."
Kosar's tutors and their play-calling systems: In 1985, Greg Landry used compass directions to name plays, and he told Kosar to look first at his outside receivers, and then inside. The next two seasons, Lindy Infante denoted his plays with numbers and had Kosar looking at the inside receivers before looking outside. Schottenheimer and Joe Pendry used names and numbers in '88, but last season Marc Trestman had a numbering system and urged Kosar to go for the big play. Now Shofner tells Kosar to go with his gut feeling and play the situation. "Nobody knows how great a quarterback Bernie is," says Carson, "because he hasn't had great protection since he's been here."
The offensive line is not the sole protector of the quarterback. Kosar needs a potent ground game to keep the defense from keying on him, and he needs blocking from his backs and tight end. After six games this season, the Browns ranked 27th in the league in rushing. They haven't had a back run for as much as 750 yards in a season since 1985, when Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack gained more than 1,000 yards apiece. Kosar was at his best when he had Byner and Mack in the same backfield, but Byner was traded after the '88 season, and Mack has missed parts of the last two seasons and this year because of injuries and drug abuse.
Bernie knows. Bernie shrugs. "It's hardest when your friends say things about you that you know are wrong," he says. "But what are you going to say? You just have to take it. Sometimes you have to say nothing, for the good of the team. But about being gun-shy, I honestly don't think I am."
"Here's the best story I have about getting hit," says Manning, now a broadcaster on the Saints' radio network. "When I was with the Vikings in my last year, 1984, my first start was against the Bears at Soldier Field. Our line was awful, and I got sacked 11 times. On the last one, I think [Chicago tackle] Dan Hampton kind of felt sorry for me. He just kind of stood me up and held me. But their linebackers were ferocious, and here comes Otis Wilson—wham!—helmet right to my chin strap. He splits my chin, rattles my teeth and throws me to the ground. There's blood everywhere, and Otis is lying there on top of me and he says, 'Arch, these guys ain't blocking for you. You ought to just lie here and play like you're hurt.' I say to him, 'I'm thinking about it.' "
Manning watches Kosar on TV when he can. "Bernie's got to have protection for Cleveland to win," he says. "It's not really the sacks that get you; it's the hits after the throw and the knockdowns. I had Deacon Jones, Bob Lilly and Mean Joe Greene in my time. Alan Page broke my nose; he put it on the other side of my face. Wally Chambers tore up my knee. The Falcons broke my jaw. But today, you can get hit like that on every play. All the linebackers and ends are so quick and strong."
Bernie knows. Bernie shrugs. "Right now," he says, "I feel good. And that's about as far as I ever look down the road."
One other thing. "You can't play an NFL game scared," he says.