Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 17, 2021

One More Sad Moment On The Browns’ Long List

We will, of course, never know if the game truly turned on that one play. After all, there was still the entire second half to be played, thirty minutes in which much would unfold, including the forced departure of Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes due to a concussion. But given that the history of the Cleveland Browns is replete with episodes of climatic failure that run the gamut from improbable to just plain weird, it’s hard not to focus on the result of that single snap from center with just over one hundred seconds to play in the second quarter of Sunday’s divisional playoff between visiting Cleveland and home team Kansas City. Since we now know that when the final gun sounded, the scoreboard read 22-17 in favor of K.C., it seems certain that “The Touchback” will join the long list of a star-crossed franchise’s foibles.

For decades pride of place on that roster, though that may not be the proper way to describe first spot on such an ignominious listing, has belonged to “The Drive.” For the sake of younger fans, it should be noted at the outset that as part of the legal settlement allowing owner Art Modell to relocate his club from the banks of Lake Erie to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in 1996, the name, records, and all intellectual property of the Browns stayed in Cleveland, passed on to the expansion franchise that began play three seasons later. Thus “The Drive” belongs to the Browns, not the Baltimore Ravens, though more than a few Cleveland season ticketholders would probably be glad to be rid of it.

It was January 1987, and the Browns were meeting the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game for the first of what would eventually be three times in four seasons. With time beginning to wind down in the fourth quarter, Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar found Brian Brennan open on a 48-yard pass play that put the Browns on top 20-13. Then on the ensuing kickoff Denver’s Ken Bell muffed the catch, with the ball bouncing down to the Broncos’ 2-yard line before Bell was able to fall on it. With 5:43 remaining and their home crowd in a frenzy, Cleveland looked ready to advance to Super Bowl XXI.

Unfortunately for Browns fans, Denver QB John Elway had other ideas. With methodical precision, the future Hall of Famer picked apart the Cleveland secondary, completing six passes in nine tries as the Broncos marched inexorably down the field. On a 2nd and 7, Elway ran for 11 yards. On a 3rd and 18, he connected with Mark Jackson for 20. Finally, just over five minutes into the march, Elway’s eyes went wide when he spied Jackson wide open in the end zone, and his 5-yard completion brought the Broncos back. There was of course still overtime to be played after Denver’s extra point knotted the score, but all the energy was gone from both Cleveland Stadium and the home team. The first time Elway and the Broncos got their hands on the football in OT, they rolled down the gridiron into range for the winning field goal.

One year later the two teams met again in the AFC title tilt, and late in that game it looked like Cleveland might return the favor from the previous season. Needing a touchdown to tie, Kosar drove the Browns from their own 25 all the way to the Denver 8. With 1:13 to play, Cleveland had adequate time and plenty of momentum, when Kosar handed off to running back Earnest Byner. For a moment Byner appeared headed for the end zone. An out of position Jeremiah Castille, with no chance at a tackle, flung an arm in his direction. The defensive back’s flailing appendage struck the football, knocking it from Byner’s grip. Castille then pounced on what has ever since been known in Cleveland simply as “The Fumble,” and the Browns were denied once again.

Any record of Cleveland laments must of course include “The Move,” the 1995 decision by owner Modell to act on years of frustration over the city’s refusal to make improvements at its stadium by packing up his team and moving. It took some time, with plenty of protestations and threats of litigation, but eventually Modell took his franchise ownership and all the existing player contracts to Baltimore, leaving behind a record book without a team. But once the NFL bequeathed that history to a new franchise, it was as if the fledgling club was immediately infected by a poltergeist from its pages.

In 2001, Cleveland was fighting for a playoff spot in a mid-December home game against Jacksonville. With less than a minute to play quarterback Tim Couch completed a pass on a 4th and 1 to keep a Browns drive alive. Couch immediately brought his team to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball to stop the clock. Only then did the officiating crew announce the prior play was going to be reviewed. After looking at the tape, referee Terry McAulay ruled the ball had hit the turf before wide receiver Quincy Morgan gathered it in, meaning the Jaguars took over on downs. The official version was that another play – Couch’s spike – had been run because the communication system between McAulay and the replay booth had broken down, thus the replay review was allowed. Not surprisingly, Browns fans saw things differently, pelting the fields with beer bottles and forcing the game to be called with 48 seconds remaining, in what became known as “Bottlegate.”

Then there was the 2017 season, when Cleveland went 0-17. That debacle of a year doesn’t really have a name. Just call it pathetic.

And now there is “The Touchback.” Trailing 16-3 with 1:40 remaining in the half, the Browns had a 1st and 10 on Kansas City’s 26 when Baker Mayfield dropped back to pass. He found Rashard Higgins wide open down the right side. Higgins caught Mayfield’s throw at the 5-yard line and quickly turned for the end zone. But even as he attempted to dive around Kansas City’s Daniel Sorenson, the ball came loose from the contact with the K.C. safety. It squirted free into the end zone, then rolled out of bounds before a player from either squad could cover it. What was literally inches from a Cleveland touchdown that would have pulled the Browns close just before halftime instead became a touchback, giving Kansas City the ball on their own 20-yard line.

To compound the tragedy for Cleveland, the focus on the bouncing football may have distracted the officials from the contact on the play, with Sorenson driving into Higgins with his helmet, arguably a penalty. Ah, but the non-call will just give Browns fans one more thing to mourn, as if they didn’t already have enough.


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