Late Sunday afternoon in the Cleveland Browns' locker room, quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who had just completed 20 of 30 passes for 268 yards, one touchdown and, best of all, no interceptions in a 20-13 victory over the New England Patriots, was asked, "What was the best pass you threw today?"
Was it the five-yard touchdown toss to Mark Carrier midway through the second quarter, when Testaverde scrambled and lobbed the ball over the outstretched arms of free safety Harlon Barnett? Or the 36-yarder up to Michael Jackson at the end of the first half against the Patriots' best cover guy, Maurice Hurst? How about the 25-yard pass to Leroy Hoard in the third quarter, with Testaverde rolling to his right and throwing across the field to his left?
None of the above. "The best pass I threw," Testaverde said, "was a throw-away in the fourth quarter."
How's that again?
"I was scrambling, and I avoided the sack and threw the ball out of bounds," Testaverde explained. "No sack, no interception. Avoid the bad play, punt and then get the ball back again."
Call it excessive modesty born of eight years of frustration. Testaverde was seen as the savior of the Tampa Bay franchise when the Bucs made him the first pick of the '87 draft. After seven seasons in which he threw 112 interceptions, he escaped last season to Cleveland to play second fiddle to Bernie Kosar. Midway through the '93 season, Testaverde became a starter again, when the Browns cut Kosar.
Though Testaverde guided the Browns to an 11-5 record this season and their first playoff appearance since 1989, the Cleveland faithful remain skeptical about the Browns' chances with him at quarterback. His teammates, though, feel differently. "[Safety] Eric Turner came over to me in the locker room last week," Testaverde said, "and told me, Tm behind you, and the team's behind you. We'll go only as far as you can take us.' No one has ever told me that before."
Still, even after Testaverde had taken the Browns to the next level—a second-round game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh this Saturday—right guard Bob Dahl's praise was carefully restrained. "Vinny did what he had to do, and that was not to create any turnovers," said Dahl.
By disguising coverages and constantly shifting their defensive formations, the Patriots had hoped to reveal the Testaverde of turnover fame. But he has learned to take the sack or throw out of bounds rather than aim and hope for the best.
While Testaverde was completing 10 straight passes during the second half, Pat quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, the second of which led to a Matt Stover field goal that all but put the game out of reach.
After he kneeled to kill the clock, Testaverde picked up the ball and carried it into the locker room. "I awarded myself a game ball," he said.
And what was he thinking about on that last play?
"Pittsburgh," he said. "Honest to God."