Steven King

These Cleveland Browns Are So 1985

Created on Jun. 16, 2014 5:34 AM EST

Attention all Cleveland Browns fans who have some gray in their hair and remember Hula Hoops or big fins on big cars: if you look at what’s going on now with the team, especially with the quarterback situation, and think you’ve seen it all before – maybe about 30 years ago – don’t get the feeling that you’re delusional.

On the contrary, you’re on to something. You’re right on point, actually.

There are indeed a lot – and we do mean a lot -- of similarities between today’s Browns, with QBs Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer, and what was going on at this point in 1985 with the club. In fact, you might be surprised at just how many there are.

This point-by-point comparison indicates that:

At a loss for words (1985) – The Browns were coming off a season in which they struggled mightily right out of the gate, losing eight of their first nine, including five in a row. The result was a 5-11 finish – after being picked before the season to win the AFC Central crown. The only thing that saved them – relatively speaking – from sinking even lower is the fact they won three of their last five. … 2014 – Last year’s team, which was expected to make dramatic improvement from the 5-11 debacle of 2012, won three of its first five to generate all kinds of optimism before spiraling out of control by losing 10 of its last 11, including its final seven. The record was even worse than the previous year (4-12).

Offensive offensively (1985) – The 1984 club couldn’t light up the scoreboard nearly enough, amassing 17 or fewer points 10 times and being held in single digits on four occasions, with one shutout. Ouch! … 2014 – Last year, the team scored in single digits twice and was held to 17 points or fewer nine times. Double-ouch!

Hardly passing grades (1985) – The reason for the bad offense in 1984 was that there was a bad quarterback directing it in Paul McDonald. He was slow to process information and make decisions, and struggled with his accuracy, completing just 55 percent of his passing attempts. It was clear well before season’s end that he wasn’t the right man for the job going forward. Overall, the team hit on 55.2 of its passing attempts. … 2014 – Bad quarterbacking also wrecked the 2013 offense. Neither Brandon Weeden (52.8 completion percentage) nor Jason Campbell (56.8) was on target with their throws, and both were slow to process information and make decisions. Long before the season was over, Weeden and Campbell had been written out of the team’s future. As a whole, the club connected on 55.7 percent of its throws.

Catching criticism (1985) – Yes, the 1984 team had a great tight end in future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, who caught 89 passes for the second straight season (for 1,001 yards), but the wide receivers as a whole were weak. Only rookie WR Brian Brennan, who was second with 32 receptions but would go to finish with 315 career catches – tying him for fourth in franchise history – was competent on the outside. … 2014 – Overall, the wide receiving position was a mess in 2013. Josh Gordon had 87 receptions and led the NFL with a franchise-record 1,646 receiving yards, but no one else made an impact – at least a positive one. At tight end, however, there was a budding star in Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, who had 80 catches for 917 yards.

Rushing into obscurity (1985) – In 1984, the club averaged 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, its lowest figure for a non-strike season since 1971. … 2014 – RB Willis McGahee had 377 yards, the lowest total for a Cleveland rushing leader since 1953, when Ray Renfro – who would go on to become one of the greatest wide receivers in franchise history – totaled 352 yards. The club rushing average per attempt was exactly four yards, but that’s deceiving because it was bolstered greatly by runs of 45, 43 and 34 yards (twice) on trick plays.

In defense of the defense (1985) – Despite the bad record, the 1984 team had a decent defense filled with young and talented players. There were some good linemen in Bob Golic and Reggie Camp as well as a shutdown cornerback in Hanford Dixon, who had been the team’s first-round draft three years earlier. There was another shutdown corner-in-the-making in Frank Minnifield, who was in his first year with the team after being signed from the USFL.  … 2014 – The defense wasn’t bad in 2013 either. There was a lot of young talent, including DEs Ahtyba Rubin and Billy Winn, DT Phil Taylor and a shutdown corner in Joe Haden, who was the team’s first-round draft pick three years ago. The club hopes it has his long-term tag team partner in Oklahoma State rookie CB Justin Gilbert, whom it drafted in the first round last month.   

Kardiac coaching casualties (1985) – The awful performance of the 1984 team, particularly its offense, cost coach Sam Rutigliano his job. The architect of the “Kardiac Kids”, whose specialty was offense and quarterbacks, was fired hours after a mid-season road loss to a division rival (the Cincinnati Bengals) in which the club was held to single digits (nine points). It was the team’s fourth straight defeat and seventh in eight games.  … 2014 – Coach Rob Chudzinski also paid for bad offense and bad quarterbacking with his job. Chudzinski, whose specialty was offense and developing quarterbacks, was fired hours after the 2013 club lost on the road to a division rival (the Pittsburgh Steelers) in the season finale. Cleveland scored in single digits (seven points) in that game as well, losing for the seventh straight time. What a way to end the year. By the way, Chudzinski grew up in Toledo and talked often about idolizing Rutigliano’s “Kardiac Kids” teams.

Marty and Mike, birds of a coaching feather (1985) – Rutigliano was replaced by the team’s defensive coordinator, Marty Schottenheimer. A no-nonsense, straight-talker who believed strongly in the running game, Schottenheimer’s resume was built entirely on the defensive side. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he played collegiately at Pitt and then with the Buffalo Bills on defense (linebacker). This was his first head coaching job at any level. His birthday is Sept. 23. … 2014 – Mike Pettine, also a no-nonsense, straight shooter whose coaching resume was made exclusively on the defensive side of the ball, got his first NFL head coaching job when he was hired to replace Chudzinski.  A big proponent of the running game, he was born and raised in Pennsylvania, played collegiately on defense at Virginia (safety), served as a graduate assistant at Pitt and, immediately before coming to Cleveland, was defensive coordinator of the Bills. His birthday is Sept. 25.

Matched-set Michigan men migrate here in May (1985) – Needing a veteran quarterback, the Browns traded with the Detroit Lions on May 2 of that year to get 6-2 Detroit native Gary Danielson, who had had a decent NFL career after playing in the Big 10 at Purdue. He was projected as the starter. … 2014 – Projected as the starter in many circles even though he has not done much overall in the NFL is the 6-2 Hoyer, a Cleveland St. Ignatius High School product who played in the Big 10 at Michigan State. He was signed on May 13, 2013, after being waived by the Arizona Cardinals.

First things first (1985) – Knowing they needed to make a bold move to get their franchise quarterback, the team’s top executives, namely owner Art Modell and GM Ernie Accorsi, orchestrated a blockbuster trade with Buffalo to acquire the Bills’ No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 NFL Supplemental Draft, which they used to take 21-year-old Bernie Kosar. A native of Youngstown, Ohio and a graduate of Boardman High School, he had made it clear he wanted to play for the Browns, the team he had rooted for while growing up. Modell knew a good public relations move when he saw it and Accorsi knew the same thing from a football perspective. So the move was made. Kosar started two years at the University of Miami and in his redshirt freshman season led the Hurricanes to their first national championship. His arrival in Cleveland shook not just the city – he was immensely popular, a fan favorite from the get-go in that everywhere he went, it caused a stir – but also the football and sports world overall. He was the cover boy on Sports Illustrated after being drafted, pictured with the headline, “Banking on Bernie.” In 1986, a song, “Bernie, Bernie”, sung to the tune of “Louie, Louie” – an old-time rock-and-roll song that was written by Richard Berry in 1955 and popularized nationally when recorded by The Kingsmen in 1963, the year Kosar was born – was put together by a local group as the quarterback took the team to the AFC Championship Game for the first time. … 2014 – Team owner Jimmy Haslam and GM Ray Farmer went into the recent NFL Draft intent on finding their franchise quarterback. But who? And at what point in the three-day event? It came late on the first day when the club traded up four spots with the Philadelphia Eagles to No. 22 and took 21-year-old Manziel. He had texted a Browns assistant coach during the draft telling him he wanted to come to Cleveland and urging the club to get him. The team listened. He started two seasons at Texas A&M and, in 2012, became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy after putting the Aggies back on the map. They finished with their highest final ranking in the Associated Press poll (fifth) in 56 years. Manziel was immediately pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated after being picked by Cleveland and, in the short time since, has become not just a local story but a national one with everything he has done and said. He has created a frenzy in northeast Ohio, the likes of which has not been seen since … well, when Kosar was here. His birthday is Dec. 6, about two weeks after Kosar’s on Nov. 25. Since he has been in town, Manziel’s theme song has been an old-time rock-and-roll hit, “Go, Johnny Go”, recorded by Chuck Berry in 1959.

The turnaround (1985) – The Browns reversed their fortunes from the previous year, going from next-to-last place in the AFC Central to 8-8 and their first division title in five years. They did it with a defense that – featuring aggressive, man-to-man, press coverage in the secondary – improved on the momentum it had started in 1984 and a powerful running game featuring RBs Kevin Mack (then a rookie) and Earnest Byner, who became only the third set of backs from the same team to both rush for 1,000 yards in the same season in NFL history. Kosar had a role, too. Danielson opened the season but was knocked out of the fifth game (against the New England Patriots) on Oct. 6. Kosar came on and directed a 24-20 victory over a team that would eventually make it to its first Super Bowl. He continued to be the starter even after Danielson returned, but the latter came on from time to time and served as an excellent relief pitcher when the rookie struggled. Cleveland blew a 21-3 third-quarter lead and lost 24-21 to the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round of the playoffs, but the stage was set for a run in which the team made it to the AFC Championship Game in three of the next four seasons … 2014 – Pettine has all but come right out and said the Browns will use their defense, with man-to-man press coverage in the secondary and their running game, with RBs Ben Tate (a  free-agent signee) and Terrance West (a third-round draft pick), to control the tempo in an effort to win games. Can they do it? Can the Browns repeat the about-face of 29 years ago? That would be the last – and obviously most significant – piece to this eerily similar then-and-now puzzle that is being pieced together. And one more thing: what roles will Manziel and Hoyer play? Stay tuned. Cleveland fans with some gray in their hair who remember Hula Hoops and big fins on big cars, certainly are. They’ve seen this movie before and are hoping upon hope that it’s a good re-make.

The dish on quarterback derbies – Cleveland, with Manziel and Hoyer, won’t be the only place where quarterback competitions will be staged during training camp and the preseason. There are unsettled situations elsewhere, but some may become settled much sooner than others. … In Jacksonville, No. 3 overall draft pick Blake Bortles seems a shoo-in to start and try to lift a sagging Jaguars franchise. … At the very end of the first round, at No. 32, Teddy Bridgewater was the choice of the Minnesota Vikings, who have been looking for a young, franchise quarterback for a long, long time. Like Bortles, Bridgewater will start. If he doesn’t, then the Vikings’ deep thinkers ought to start fearing for their jobs. The same can be said in Jacksonville if Bortles isn’t under center when the season begins. … Another team that has been searching for a young stud passer – seemingly since the days of Kenny Stabler – is the Oakland Raiders. But they’re hoping the search has ended with the selection of Derek Carr with the fourth pick of the second round. … And because it’s New York, there will be plenty of attention focused on the Jets, where there is supposedly a competition brewing with Geno Smith, a second-round draft pick in 2013 who became the starter last year and veteran free-agent signee Michael Vick. … Overall, expect some surprises along the way because they always happen. And when they do happen, every team is hoping it turns out as well as it did for the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. They signed high-profile free agent Matt Flynn to be their starter, only to have an undersized third-round draft pick from a run-oriented program, Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, win the job in camp and take his team to the playoffs as a rookie. Of course, Wilson famously then led the team to the Super Bowl in his second season and a stunning 43-8 drubbing of the favored Denver Broncos. That was a Hollywood script that came true.

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