Testaverde Still A Hated Man In Cleveland
By Steven King
When Vinny Testaverde played with the Cleveland Browns two decades ago, he couldn’t do anything right in the eyes of the fans. But when other people look at the former quarterback, they like very much what they see. And this is why Testaverde headlines the College Football Hall of Fame class of 2013 that was introduced Tuesday.
Testaverde, who played for the Miami Hurricanes from 1982-86, is one of the 10 players set to be inducted along with two coaches on Dec. 10 at the 56th National Football Foundation Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Two of the other inductees have strong Ohio ties in Orlando Pace – a Sandusky High School product who played left tackle at Ohio State from 1994-96 – and Percy Snow, who starred at Canton McKinley High School and as a linebacker at Michigan State from 1986-89. However, it is Testaverde whom Browns fans will remember most from that list of inductees after being one of the biggest lightning rods – to this day – in club history.
Testaverde started his final two seasons at Miami, winning the Heisman Trophy in his senior year of 1986 and finishing as the school’s career leader with 6,058 passing yards and 48 touchdown passes. The Hurricanes were 21-1 in regular-season games with him as a starter. Indeed, he was another in a long line of great Miami quarterbacks during that era.
Testaverde was taken No. 1 overall in the 1987 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Surrounded by bad players on a perennially-bad team, he struggled mightily during his six seasons with the Bucs, throwing for 77 touchdowns and 112 interceptions.
In the first year of full-fledged NFL free agency as we know it today, Cleveland signed Testaverde as an unrestricted free agent on March 31, 1993. It was a seminal moment in the final few seasons of the original Browns’ existence.
When the signing was announced, Bernie Kosar’s jaw dropped. Kosar, who preceded Testaverde as the starter at Miami, had been quarterbacking Cleveland since being taken in the 1985 NFL Supplemental Draft. Kosar had butted heads with Bill Belichick, who had been hired as the coach in 1991, and knew that Testaverde’s arrival was the beginning of the end for him.
It was just a matter of time. And, as it turned out, Kosar was right on target.
In the Browns’ third game – and first on the road – in that 1993 season, Testaverde was inserted for a struggling Kosar and rallied the club to a stunning 19-16 come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Raiders. Although Belichick insisted afterward that Kosar was still the starter, the Boardman High School product knew better.
Two straight losses followed and Testaverde got his first Browns’ start at Cincinnati, throwing three first-half touchdown passes in a 28-17 victory. A week later, Testaverde was knocked out of a home game against Pittsburgh with a shoulder injury and Kosar came on and helped lead Cleveland to an exciting come-from-behind victory of his own.
But then eight days later, after a lethargic offensive performance in a 29-14 home loss to the Denver Broncos, Belichick stunned the football world – and every citizen in Northeast Ohio – by unceremoniously cutting Kosar because of his “diminishing skills.” Even then-owner Art Modell didn’t believe it. Kosar, a local favorite from the Youngstown suburbs, had directed Cleveland on a great run through the last half of the 1980s and was – and still is – one of the three most popular players in team history along with Brian Sipe and Jim Brown.
That was the beginning of the end for the “original” Browns.
There was a near-riot at Cleveland as fans directed their anger at Belichick, Modell – and Testaverde, who had taken Kosar’s job and thus was the “coach’s guy”. Testaverde could never shake that perception – and neither could Belichick or Modell, who was being skewered for causing the problem by hiring Belichick in the first place. The team, tied for first place in the AFC Central with a 5-3 record at the time, won just two more games the rest of the year and finished 7-9.
With Testaverde at the helm, the 1994 Browns went 11-5 for their best record since 1986 and made the playoffs for the first time in five years. But it was bittersweet for Cleveland fans because of what had happened to Kosar. They refused to appreciate the way Testaverde played or give him credit for it. He was the opposite of Kosar in that he was an outsider and one of the most unpopular players in team history.
Halfway through 1995, with Testaverde and the 4-4 Browns having an unexpected up-and-down year, Modell announced the club was moving to Baltimore following the season. Another riot by Cleveland fans ensued, only this one was bigger. The anger they had been directing toward Testaverde seemed to be representative of the terribly negative aspect overall of those 1993-95 seasons.
Most former Browns players are welcomed back to Cleveland anytime with open arms. But even now with the long memories of Browns fans, Testaverde might be the one exception to that rule. So with that being said, then, there’s no question that there will be few – if any – cheers in Cleveland when Testaverde is inducted into the College Football HOF two weeks before Christmas.