The 1986 edition of the Cleveland Browns was a team fans could wrap their arms around —for a myriad of reasons.
In the previous 12 seasons, from 1974 to 1985, the Browns qualified for the playoffs just three times—and lost the first playoff game each time. The Browns earned just four winning seasons in that time frame, and fans who were used to so much winning for the first three decades of the franchise’s existence endured four campaigns of double-digit losses.
Given all that, and the fact that the Browns not only were coming off a playoff appearance in 1985, but that hometown boy Bernie Kosar was about to take off as a premier National Football League quarterback, Browns fans had good reason to look forward to the 1986 season with the enthusiasm unseen on the shores of Lake Erie for a long time.
That enthusiasm was slightly tempered by a 1-2 start, including a 30-13 loss to division rival Cincinnati in the home opener. A three-game winning streak, however, showed why this Browns club would end up being much different than many of its recent predecessors.
In a 24-21 home win vs. Detroit, the Browns’ touchdowns came courtesy of a fumble recovery by wide receiver Brian Brennan, an 84-yard punt return from Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil, and a one-yard rush by third-string running back Curtis Dickey.
In a 27-24 win at Pittsburgh, the franchise’s first win at Three Rivers Stadium in 17 chances, the Browns overcame being outscored 21-10 in the middle two quarters, as well as 176 Steeler rushing yards, to improve to 3-2.
Finally, in a 20-7 home win vs. Kansas City, the Browns scored 20 unanswered points and held the Chiefs to just 126 yards of total offense, while getting two touchdowns and nearly 300 yards in the air from Kosar.
The Browns hit a speed bump with a 17-14 home loss to Green Bay to put the Browns at 4-3, but winning eight of their last nine games, including back-to-back home division overtime wins against Pittsburgh and Houston, and blowouts of Cincinnati and San Diego to end the season, allowed the Browns to win the AFC Central title.
What followed was one of the wildest postseasons for a single team in NFL history. The Browns rallied for a 23-20, double-overtime win at home against the New York Jets, then famously lost by the same score in a single overtime at home vs. Denver—known simply as “The Drive.”
But despite that disappointing ending, the 1986 Browns ended up being one of the most beloved teams in franchise history. And there’s little wonder why.
Offensively, the Browns not only had Kosar, but also seven receivers who caught at least 28 passes—wideouts Brennan (55), Webster Slaughter (40), and Reggie Langhorne (39); tight end Ozzie Newsome (39) and running backs Herman Fontenot (47), Earnest Byner (37), and Kevin Mack (28).
Despite injuries to both Mack (four games misses) and Byner (nine games missed), the Browns averaged just more than 100 yards on the ground per game. Right tackle Cody Risien played well enough to go to the Pro Bowl.
Defensively, the Browns not only put pressure on the quarterback with 35 sacks, they also victimized opposing pivots with 18 interceptions. Linebacker Chip Banks, nose tackle Bob Golic, and cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield all earned Pro Bowl spots from the defense.
On special teams, the Browns featured the steady duo of kicker Matt Bahr and punter Jeff Gossett, and the electricity of rookie returner Gerald McNeil.
It was a team effort by the 1986 Browns to get to where they did—one tantalizing game short of the Super Bowl.
It was a team which restored the love affair between the Browns and the city of Cleveland, but, unfortunately, it also is a team which is remembered as the best team of the last 25 years, as no Browns team since has won as many games as the ’86 team did, and only six Browns squads have had a winning record since then.