1987 NFL Labor Dispute: The Year the Cleveland Browns Should Have Been SB Champs

Chuck StanecContributor IIIApril 25, 2011

29 Nov 1992: Quarterback Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns prepares to hand off the ball during a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Browns won the game, 27-14.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With so much discussion and debate on the current collective bargaining agreement—or disagreement, as it stands now—I feel the need to jet back to the most recent NFL labor struggle and rewrite the books on how the 1987 season would have actually played out.

Much like today, the players and owners were at odds over money resulting from TV revenues—big surprise—and free agency. Yes, the "free agent" tab had been used for 11 years leading up to this event, but it came with strings attached. The players wanted a freer version of the free agent.

Also, in 1987, owners and general managers expected a strike to happen and planned on using replacement players well ahead of the players walking off the job.

This is where things get interesting and, I feel, get lost in NFL lore. Two weeks into the season, with little negotiation or resolve in the CBA, the players went on strike. History leads us to believe that games rolled on with replacements and without skipping a beat—not so fast, my friend.

What actually happened is that the owners canceled the third week of the season and those games were never made up. As a Browns fan, this week changed the team's destiny, and now I'm going to tell you why.

Week 3 of the 1987 NFL season pitted the Cleveland Browns at home on Monday Night Football against the hated Denver Broncos. This game never happened, and the Browns went on to finish the season 10-5, while the Broncos finished the regular year at a mark of 10-4-1.

If the Browns and Broncos had clashed on the banks of Lake Erie that Monday night and the Browns had prevailed, Cleveland would have finished with a record of 11-5 (.688 win percentage) and Denver at 10-5-1 (.656 win percentage).

The Browns would have marched into the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the AFC and host of the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos, the benefactors of the Week 3 strike in reality, would have slid to the No. 2 seed and would have visited Municipal Stadium on January 17, 1988. Ah, the magic of whatifsports.com.

With the January matchup in Cleveland, the weather that day was a frosty 42 degrees with light fog and light rain. The Browns were confident, having beaten the Broncos earlier in the season. The Broncos, led by the rocket arm of NFL MVP John Elway, were looking to avenge their earlier loss to the Browns and head back to their second straight Super Bowl.

The Browns boasted the NFL's stingiest defense and one of its top three scoring offenses. Denver, a team with the AFC's second-most powerful scoring attack, also was very staunch on defense, having only surrendered 288 points in 15 games.

The Browns were back to receive the game's opening kick but did nothing with their first possession, as quarterback Bernie Kosar's second-down pass was intercepted by Tony Lilly and returned to the Cleveland 30-yard line.

The Broncos came out looking for a fast start but were turned away by the defense. The great field position yielded only a field goal, and Denver took the early 3-0 lead.

The lead was not to last long, as Kevin Mack took a first-down toss off the left side for 44 yards to the Denver 3-yard line. One play later, Earnest Byner pounded home a three-yard score to put the Browns on top 7-3.

On the ensuing possession, Elway led the Broncos on a 41-yard scoring drive, capped by a Rich Karlis 38-yarder. The first frame would end with the Browns ahead by a small margin, 7-6.

In the second quarter, each team had two possessions, and each team scored twice. The difference, however, was a Bernie Kosar touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter from four yards out. At the break it was the Browns 17 and the Broncos 12.

Starting the second half of the championship game, neither team moved the ball with its first possession. On the Browns' first attempt, Byner took the ball off the left side and, while fighting for more yards, fumbled the football. In turn, John Elway only needed four plays before hitting a strike in the end zone to Vance Johnson, giving Denver the 19-17 lead.

Not to be outdone, the fiery Kosar wasted no time in engineering a three-play, 71-yard drive in just over 90 seconds. He hit the Wizard of Oz, tight end Ozzie Newsome, for 60 yards and the huge TD.

With a 24-19 lead, the Browns defense went to work and limited the Broncos offense to only five plays the rest of the game in Cleveland territory and giving up no points.

The Browns offense, putting the final touches on a victory and their first Super Bowl appearance, ran their way to victory behind the shoulder pads of Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. Mack closed out the scoring and 131-yard performance with a 20-yard bolt to the end zone with just over four minutes left in the contest.

What followed was two weeks of intense preparation as the Browns were slated to meet the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII. The 'Skins were quarterbacked by Doug Williams and ran on the strong legs of rookie running back Timmy Smith. They had a very potent offense and threats all through the wide receiver position with the likes of Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark.

The Browns countered the Redskins in the secondary with Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon (both Pro Bowl selections) at the corners and Felix Wright at free safety. The Browns also had Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews running the defense with inside linebackers Mike and Eddie "The Assassin" Johnson helping him out. The front three featured sack master Carl Hairston and Al "Bubba" Baker at defensive ends and stout nose tackle Bob Golic on the inside.

The Cleveland faithful, having not seen a title brought to their town since the AFL Browns in 1964, were in full force to support their team. As I once not famously said, "We ain't won [it] since Jim Brown quit", referring to the untimely retirement of the great Jim Brown. Could this be the Browns' year—finally?

The first quarter was rather uneventful. It was a game of field position that saw five punts to start the game. The Browns had the ball last, however, and were on the move.

As the second frame began, Dexter Manley, who harassed Kosar all day, took him down for a huge loss on the quarter's first play. The unflappable kid from Boardman, OH, Bernie Kosar, never wavered in his confidence. On the next snap, from the Washington 24-yard line, he hit Kevin Mack on a wheel route, and Mack was taken down at the four. After a run for a loss of one, Kosar threw a perfect fade to wide receiver Webster Slaughter, who came down with the touchdown toss and a seven-point lead for the Browns.

That remained the score until two Washington possessions later, when Doug Williams orchestrated a seven-play, 56-yard scoring drive, capped by a 19-yard Timmy Smith touchdown trot with 1:49 remaining in the half.

In what looked like way too much time for Kosar and the touchdown-hungry Browns offense, a big drive was thwarted by Kevin Mack fumble inside the 'Skins 25. Williams tried to get his team on the march, but a big sack on first down by Carl Hairston stopped any thoughts of that happening. Williams' next two passes fell harmlessly to the ground, and the Browns had one more chance with eight seconds and 66 yards ahead of them.

On first down, Kosar hit Brian Brennan for 16 yards, where he ran out of bounds at midfield. With one final heave before the intermission, Bernie rolled right and let it fly. As improbable as any play in Super Bowl history, Reggie Langhorne hauled in his only reception of the day as Kosar's 50-yard bomb fell into his waiting arms. The Browns took a 14-7 lead into the break and were getting the ball to start things off in the final 30 minutes of play.

In the third, each team only held the ball once—the Browns for just over seven minutes and the Redskins for just under eight minutes—and scored three points each. The drives were very different, as Cleveland stalled on the Washington 20-yard line and the Redskins were stopped inside the Browns' 5-yard line by a fantastic display of goal-line defense.

Desperately holding on to a 17-10 lead, Cleveland tried to mount some offense to begin the fourth, but several miscues stopped them cold on the opening drive of the quarter. But they were turning the game over to the league's No. 1-ranked defense.

On a third down from the 50-yard line, Doug Williams sailed a ball deep down the right sideline, where it was picked off by Frank Minnifield. Dodging tacklers, Minnifield managed to return the ball out to the 33-yard line of Washington.

Clevelanders knew Marty Schottenheimer all too well. He was a man that put competitive teams on the field, a man that knew the X's and O's of the game and could illustrate the finer points of winning football to his players; he was the man that invented Marty Ball. In typical Marty Ball fashion, with momentum in his favor, Schottenheimer ordered Kosar to hand the ball off to his running backs.

While the first two carries netted a first down, the Washington defense and coach Joe Gibbs got wise. They began stacking the box against the power running attack of Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner. While the Browns managed to run nearly three-and-a-half minutes off the clock, they were punting the ball back to Washington with five minutes to go.

Taking the ball from the 12-yard line, Doug Williams went to work on the Browns defense, and his Pro Bowl receiver Gary Clark was his accomplice. Clark caught two balls for 50 yards on the drive and helped move the Redskins to the Cleveland 30-yard line at the two-minute warning. Then, it was Ricky Sanders hauling in a pass and picking up several yards after the catch before being pushed out of bounds at the 15.

On the very next play, Williams found an open Art Monk crossing the field at the 5-yard line, and he took the ball the rest of the way for the score. The extra point knotted things up at 17, and all of Washington's hopes rode on the shoulders of its talented defense.

Cleveland had hopes and aspirations of its own. The Browns also had the hometown boy in Bernie Kosar. What Kosar lacked in athletic ability he made up for in having one of the most brilliant brains in the game. After a holding call on the kickoff backed up Kosar and the Browns to their own five, Bernie walked, poised and confident, onto the field. It was all just a game, a lifetime, a dream to him that he had on so many nights growing up in Northeastern Ohio. It was his team and his time to shine.

On the first play from scrimmage, Kosar backed up, scanned the field and found an open Kevin Mack. Mack caught the ball and ran for a pickup of 17 yards. The next play, Kosar was hammered by Dexter Manley and his second sack of the ball, which could not have come at a better time for Washington. Cleveland opted to run a draw on the following play, and Kevin Mack answered the bell and pounded out 19 yards to the 35-yard line.

The Browns called a timeout with 45 ticks left on the clock. Kosar was able to hit Earnest Byner for four yards, and his next attempt went high over the head of Webster Slaughter. That was to be Bernie's last errant throw of the game.

Kosar took the next snap from shotgun and connected with his All-World tight end Ozzie Newsome. Newsome made a man miss and rumbled out of bounds at the Washington 48-yard line with a mere 13 seconds remaining.

The Browns broke the huddle—one timeout, 48 yards to pay dirt, tie game in the 22nd Super Bowl. Kosar looked over the defense as seconds came off the play clock. Finally, the snap went back to Kosar, manipulating the safety with his eyes and finding a slanting Brian Brennan. Brennan took the pass and slid down at the 30-yard line. Cleveland burned its last timeout with three seconds remaining as the field goal unit ran out onto the field.

The dreams of a city, a state, a generation of loyal fans hung in the balance. One man, his boyhood dream, stood on the sideline and watched as Matt Bahr marked his spot on the field. Had he done enough to deliver the Lombardi Trophy to the deserved fans in Cleveland? In this fan's eyes, Bernie had always done enough: Bernie poured his heart and soul into this team, this town, and we are forever grateful.

Bahr backed away from the holder, rocked, set himself and then gave the nod—he was ready. The ball was snapped back into place, the hold was good and the kick was on its way. From 47 yards, the stroke was true as the football split the uprights as time expired. The Cleveland Browns were victorious.

Twenty-four years of futility were erased with one kick and one win. Red Right 88, the Drive—they all became meaningless, as Bernie Kosar's Cleveland Browns were taking home the hardware of Super Bowl XXII. For Kosar, his night of celebration was not over. Bernie was called to the stand for one more accolade—the Super Bowl's MVP. His final stat line closed with a 16-of-23, 272-yard, two-touchdown performance.

He graciously thanked the city and fans that he loved. He hoisted the Lombardi Trophy high over his head, because in typical Bernie Kosar fashion, the team's goals and successes always meant more. The consummate team player, the hero for many, the Champion of Cleveland—Bernie Kosar and the Browns reigned supreme on this one night.

What if this really happened? What if this was the truth? They say that the players are not the ones hurt by the labor disagreements. They say it is the fans that pay the biggest penalty. As any Cleveland fan can attest, if this is the reality that we missed out on, then we most certainly paid the biggest penalty of all.


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