Cleveland Browns fans were ready to start winning again. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer’s title-contending team was aging. The annual tinkering of the roster with the intent to beat Denver Broncos’ QB John Elway had resulted in a last-place team by 1990. The architect of the offense, Lindy Infante, was long gone. As was Schottenheimer himself—and finally, his replacement, Bud Carson.
Two years earlier, team owner Art Modell had interviewed young head coach by the name of Bill Belichick before signing Carson. In 1991, he tabbed the Bill Parcells disciple—a man in his late 30s whom some said was the brains behind the powerhouse New York Giants’ defense led by linebacker LB Lawrence Taylor—as his head coach. Noteworthy were the referrals and compliments Modell received from such luminaries as Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach Bob Knight. Public validation was at the heart of Modell’s world. It was what he was all about.
Notable football men—including his father, a former coach and scout—proclaimed that Bill Belichick was ready to be a great NFL head coach. We fans seemed to barely notice the common rejoinder: “…if preparation and hard work are how you measure it…” What we fans knew was that we had a historically bad (up to then) team, and here was the smart young coach of the best defense in the league, coming to restore greatness to the shores of Lake Erie. Through his father, he had been steeped in the ways of football his entire life. He understood our winning history, and how deeply the Browns are woven into the fabric of Ohio.
Early on, we began to see our head coach begin to behave like an ass. The media hated it, but a lot of fans like me weren’t concerned about that.1 But it was odd, the way the new coach went out of his way to show people he couldn’t care less for them. At home against the Dallas Cowboys, injuries had decimated the Browns, and quarterback Troy Aikman carved them up. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones paced the Dallas sideline, clapping and cheering. There really was nothing to be ashamed of, losing to the up-and-coming Cowboys. Then again, shame was not a trait that one would ascribe to Belichick, anyway. In the post-game press conference- a time when NFL coaches hang in there for a good while and provide thoughts and quotes for the media—he tried to escape after the third question. He earned the nickname, “Mumbles,” on that very day.
Thereafter, he willfully dissed the press. He was known to hold press conferences while riding an exercise bicycle, or while eating lunch—and belching. A workaholic, he had his coach’s television show taped at 5:50 a.m. He’d step away from his brief night’s sleep on his office cot, and tape the show wearing an old sweatshirt, even though his wife would send him fresh sweaters, in vain. He’d mumble through the show while yawning. The clear message was that the media wasn’t worthy of his time. They weren’t smart enough to understand, anyway. Same went for the fans. He reportedly once said, “I don’t give a damn what the fans think.” The media would begin to turn on him, and he didn’t care.
After a 6-10 record in 1991, and a 7-9 mark in 1992, it was time for the team to take a step up and reach the playoffs. Prior to the season, veteran inside linebacker (and one-time Buckeye) Pepper Johnson was signed away from the Giants. Oversized defensive lineman Jerry Ball was lured from the Detroit Lions, and physical, yet mobile-as-a-guard Steve Everitt was drafted out of the University of Michigan in the first round to anchor the center position. These moves were to bolster the team up the middle, which is one of the tenets of a Bill Belichick football team. (Previous Belichick first-rounder picks were fullback Tommy Vardell and safety Eric Turner.)
Also garnering attention around the league was the Browns’ signing of six year veteran quarterback Vinnie Testaverde from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the embattled five year veteran of a bad Bucs team that was trying to lift itself out of its expansion-era doldrums (yes, very similar to the present-day Browns). The media and fans in Florida had turned on Vinnie, and the former No. 1 pick wore the label of ‘draft bust’. Vinnie was ostensibly signed to back up Bernie Kosar.
After an opening day win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns remained in Cleveland for Game 2, a Monday night affair vs. the Super Bowl-contending San Francisco 49ers. The Niners had played in the NFC Championship Game the previous season, and boasted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in QB Steve Young. His favorite target was future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, and stopping that offense was a tall task.
Monday Night Football in 1993 may not have been more hyped than it is today, but it arguably commanded the attention of a larger proportion of the sporting world. The media flocked to the games. Even Ohio media from towns such as Columbus and Dayton set up announcer tables outside Cleveland Stadium the evening of the Niners game, running their own pre-game analysis and advertising.
On football’s biggest stage, the Browns had a chance to prove to the world that they were back. They received the opening kickoff, and on the first play from scrimmage, Kosar took the snap and dropped back. They caught the Niners by surprise, as wide receiver Michael Jackson sprinted near the right sideline past the defense and was wide open. Kosar’s pass was on target- and shot right down though Jackson’s hands, at his midsection, falling harmlessly to the field. Viewers sat there, thinking: Jackson could have caught that ball with his elbows/Maybe he should have tried that/Oh well, that was our chance to catch them by surprise/We don’t have the kind of offense that can withstand blowing opportunities like that.
Incredibly, another first-quarter touchdown was negated by a penalty. But the Browns would move the ball well all night. In fact, other than those miscues, almost everything else went Cleveland’s way. They blocked a field goal try. Jackson redeemed himself by catching a 30 yard pass for a touchdown from Kosar. Young fullback Touchdown Tommy Vardell converted fourth down and short twice, out of the “Jumbo” formation2.
The Browns defense dominated the formidable Niners throughout. Rice was a non-factor, and Young was harassed throughout the game. Safety Eric Turner, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Selwyn Jones each had an interception. Jerry Ball sacked the 49ers quarterback in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble in Cleveland territory. Linebacker Michael Dixon recovered the ball at the Browns’ 33 yard line, snuffing out a San Francisco scoring threat. It all added up to a 23-13 Browns win that wasn’t really that close.
The Browns, six point underdogs entering the game, emerged with a 2-0 record to start the season. The fortunes of the team were looking up. It was beginning to look like this Bill Belichick guy was going to work out just fine. Winning pushed aside any animosity fans may have had over his dour, acerbic manner.
The Browns improve to 3-0 with a last-second road win over the Los Angeles Raiders. Throughout much of the afternoon, it had appeared the lifeless Browns offense would be unable to muster a score against the Raiders. To start the fourth quarter, Belichick substituted backup quarterback Vinny Testaverde for Kosar. Testaverde led the Browns to a 41-yard Matt Stover field goal, but things still appeared grim. Down 16-3, Testaverde (who had also backed up Kosar at the University of Miami, and is twelve days his elder) led the Browns to two late touchdowns. The last score came on a nail-biter, with an Eric Metcalf sweep with two seconds remaining. Browns win!
This story involves an instance of a football player who publicly flouts the authority of his head coach. Let’s have a little fun with that theme. We all have stories from our past that make us smile; many involve activities that ran contrary to the ‘rules’. I’d like to share with you one of mine today.
Do you remember the biggest laugh you ever had, in your life?
Once, maybe in fourth grade, we boys were seated at the portable, rectangular tables in the gym. It was lunch time. The stern directive at that time was that no blowing of straw wrappers was allowed. It was a big deal, so it must have gotten out of hand at one point. Anyway, everyone had finished eating, and the gym was getting louder and louder with shouting and other various sounds kids make. Typical stuff. Amid the din, one boy- Danny- produced a straw, with the paper wrapper intact. He tore away an end, slid the wrapper up about one inch, and twisted the loose portion. A few of us noticed, and waited to see if he had the guts to ‘do it’. We wanted him to, of course. We looked around, and no teachers were in sight. Only Larry, the quiet, easy going janitor was there, leaning against the wall in the opening to the hallway. He was wearing his typical garb, a work shirt and pants not unlike those of a gas station attendant. He wasn’t really watching us- he left us alone for the most part. He was probably just waiting for lunch to end so he could haul away the trash.
It was like a scene from a movie, when the noise fades to background buzz as the concentration of a few becomes focused. Danny put the straw to his mouth, tilted his head straight back, and blew. Nobody else seemed to notice. The wrapper rocketed upward, toward the high ceiling of the gym. We watched as it crested, then began its descent. The direction of its arc was toward the hallway. Toward Larry. The wrapper shot straight down- and buried itself halfway into Larry’s shirt pocket. We waited for a second; Larry had been looking the other way, and hadn’t noticed it! We looked around the table, to see who had watched this one-in-a-million shot. A couple of us started giggling. Within a few seconds, all the boys knew. Our laughter began to take on a life of its own. Nobody was laughing at Larry, but we all shot looks his way. He eyed us and chuckled some with a quizzical look. He remained leaning against the wall. Some of us were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, and our stomachs hurt. Finally, one of the boys looked at Larry and pointed to his shirt. Larry looked down, pulled out the straw wrapper, and began laughing as well as he crumpled the wrapper and stuck it in his pants pocket.
Vinnie Testaverde was inserted as quarterback for the third straight game, against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. The Browns led at the half, 14-10. Their fans had relaxed a bit as Marino suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon. Unfortunately, the meter on their emotions soon would be pegged at “horror” as Dolphins backup Scott Mitchell led Miami to two touchdowns and a victory. (This game ‘earned’ Mitchell a rich free agent contract in the offseason, although he’d never play that well again.)
Bill Belichick, who liked to declare he could “only go by what I see”, was sufficiently impressed by what he’d seen in Vinny Testaverde. Kosar was benched in favor of Testaverde for the next game, in Cincinnati. Nobody could dispute the results of that game: a 28-17 win to sweep the Bengals. Testaverde had staked the Browns to a 21-0 lead as they coasted to the easy win.
But the Cleveland fans—and media—were restless. Some Browns fans’ opinion was that Kosar was pouting; many didn’t agree, and to hardly any did it matter. He’d earned the right to be ‘our’ quarterback. I will forever maintain that had the Browns focused on keeping the offensive line stocked, he could have been a Hall of Fame quarterback. He was extremely accurate, could throw it far enough, and he often rose to the occasion in a big game. And nobody ever claimed he lacked the brainpower.3
The Pittsburgh Steelers came to Cleveland for Game 7, with first place in the AFC Central up for grabs. Cleveland led, 14-0, before falling behind 23-21 in the fourth quarter. Vinnie Testaverde had two touchdown passes to his credit, but was sidelined late in the game with a separated shoulder. Bernie Kosar entered the game to a deafening chorus from the home fans.
The Browns beat the Steelers, staking their claim to first place with a 5-2 record. But it wasn’t due to the heroics of the favorite son, Kosar. The hero on this day was Eric Metcalf. Cleveland’s electric punt returner scored on two long returns, the final dagger coming with about two minutes remaining in the game. The division-leading Browns were sky-high as their bye week approached.
With Testaverde out with the injured shoulder, Bernie Kosar got the Game 8 home start against John Elway and the Denver Broncos. The Browns lost, 29-14, but the game was not even that close. With nine seconds remaining, Kosar threw a bomb to WR Michael Jackson for a touchdown – it was soon disclosed that in a move designed to defy his head coach, Kosar had drawn up the play in the dirt, while in the huddle. The Browns’ coaches did not have input into the play.
The very next day, Bill Belichick cut Bernie Kosar. He’d had his fill of the veteran starter, and had convinced Art Modell and the rest of the team brass; the decision was announced as “unanimous”. Belichick’s phrase, “diminishing skills”, would echo through the annals of Browns history, perhaps forever.
A huge problem Belichick had in cutting Kosar was that Vinnie Testaverde was still out with the shoulder. Third string quarterback Todd Philcox was tabbed to start the next game, in Seattle. The Browns committed seven (7) turnovers in a thoroughly disgusting display, and finished the season losing six of their final eight games as they staggered to a 7-9 record.
Countless Browns fans were- and perhaps remain- outraged. Belichick’s pyrrhic victory over the local icon was viewed by observers against the backdrop of the coach’s intentional, general dismissing of media and fans since his arrival in 1991. Of note, this was also done within the context of Modell’s general modus operandi of running the Browns with public relations in mind. “Bill Must Go” chants (from the stands, to outside the stadium, to the home locker room entrance) surfaced into the 1995 season, the year when Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after having recently lobbied to keep the NFL from inserting an expansion team in that city.
Kosar would be picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, subbing for QB Troy Aikman in a key backup role for the Super Bowl champions. He later ‘took his talents to South Beach’, notably suggesting a successful ‘fake spike’ play on which Dan Marino and Mark Ingram connected for a key touchdown.
Years later, surprised fans would learn that when Al Lerner and Carmen Policy were assembling an expansion franchise in Cleveland in the wake of Modell’s move of the team, Bernie Kosar offered his opinion on whom they should hire as head coach: Bill Belichick. The incredulous braintrust declined.