Belichick and the Browns

Last night, while Bill Belichick was adding a few more sprinkles to his ice cream sundae of genius, this was tweeted out:

It was a funny line -- and lord knows nobody enjoys a good Cleveland Browns gag more than this Cleveland Browns fan. But I will admit: It really struck me wrong. Belichick's coaching genius has been on public display this season. His Patriots are 3-0 without Tom Brady. And, more to the point, on Thursday they hammered Houston 27-0 without their BACKUP quarterback -- someone named Jacoby Brissett, running some sort of modified high school offense, led the offense and the defense forced three turnovers and essentially suffocated the Texans offense and that was that. The Texans are a good football team. Belichick and Co. made them look helpless.

So it was a good time for the Fun Fact that the Browns once fired Belichick.

Only they didn't.

More than that, though, the Belichick chapter of Cleveland Browns football has probably been the most misunderstood part of Bill Belichick's career. It was a failure, no doubt. But it didn't have to work out that way.


The Browns hired Belichick before the 1991 season. It was the worst possible time to be hired as Cleveland Browns coach. The worst, Jerry. If you are a young coach (Belichick was 39, the youngest head coach in the NFL) there are a few things you would really like for your first head coaching job:

  1. A realistic ownership group and fan base that understands the challenges ahead.

  2. Young talent.

  3. A clear directive that everyone believes in.

  4. A clean break from the past.

Belichick was given none of these things. The Browns were coming off one of the most heartbreaking decades in sports history. They had reached the AFC Championship game three times and they lost all three, two of them in soul-crushing fashion. In the same decade, they also lost probably the most painful game in franchise history, the Red Right 88 game, where Brian Sipe threw an interception when the team was already in field goal range to win the game.

So there was still this sense -- for owner Art Modell and for the fans -- that the Browns were STILL a good football team. There was a sense that, with a few twists of the wrench, they would be back in the AFC Championship Game and THIS TIME it would be different.

One problem: The Browns were abysmal. They had gone 3-13 in 1990, and even that doesn't describe their awfulness. They scored the second fewest points in the NFL while at the same time giving up the most points in the NFL. They were ancient. They were poorly constructed. Their most beloved player was quarterback Bernie Kosar who, a few years earlier, had manipulated the NFL Draft so that he could play for Cleveland. Imagine someone manipulating anything so they could play in Cleveland -- you can only begin to imagine how much we loved Bernie.

Trouble is he, like the Browns, was impossibly bad in 1990, posting a death-defying 65.7 passer rating. They Browns couldn't run, couldn't pass, couldn't stop the run, couldn't stop the pass, they were running some sort of bizarre run-and-shoot offense that was mostly shoot and they were minus-17 in turnovers.

And people like me still thought the Browns were good and Kosar was great and this had just been a fluky, unlucky season. New coach should solve everything!

Uh, no. You cannot overestimate the difficulty of turning around a once-good football team. You end up fighting not only talent issues but all sorts of legacies and misconceptions and emotional attachments. Some teams take decades to get through. The Kansas City Chiefs were a great team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then they got old, but they didn't believe they were getting old, and they were a non-factor for more than 15 years. The Dallas Cowboys were the dominant team of the 1990s, and then they got old, but they didn't believe they were getting old, and they're STILL trying to put it back together. Oakland. Washington. San Francisco. You see this over and over again.

In other words, tip to young coaches, don't ake over a terrible team with delusional people all around it.

Belichick did. And he took over in Belichick style, which means he didn't exactly spend a lot of time on niceties."I will be involved in all facets of the game," he announced on his first day. He would not commit to hiring an offensive OR a defensive coordinator. No, he did not come to Cleveland to play around.

"You have to dig deep to find the human side of Bill Belichick," Marla Ridenour wrote in a sort-of introduction to Columbus readers. She mentioned that he forgot his own birthday, didn't sleep even when he was a kid, and that inside his voluminous football files were folders for his own children, Stephen and Amanda. This sort of thing surprises nobody now that Belichick is a walking, talking legend, but it was quirky stuff in 1991. The guy seemed like something of a freak.

None of this would have mattered if he could have started winning immediately. But that was impossible. The Browns were dreadful. They went 6-10 and 7-9 in Belichick's first two years, better than 1990 but still blah, and everyone around was worried about the wrong stuff. Probably the biggest controversy of Belichick's first two years was over play calling. Browns fans (myself included) seemed to think it would be a good idea to give Kosar the keys and let him call his own plays. To be a Browns fan was to be blind to reality.

"I guess we'll talk about it," Belichick said grumpily. Inside, he had to be steaming. Here we were asking him to let Kosar run the plays, and he had already decided that Kosar was done as a winning quarterback. Something was going to give, and it wasn't going to be pretty.

The Browns got off to a good start in 1993, winning five of their first seven. In the eighth game, after a bye week, the Browns were humiliated by Denver 29-14. The Browns second touchdown, a meaningless late touchdown, was a 38-yard pass from Kosar to wide receiver Michael Jackson. Kosar had drawn the play up in the dirt in the huddle. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that was the last straw for Belichick.

The next day, Kosar got a call at home from Marilyn McGrath, the secretary of owner Art Modell. "Huh," Kosar reportedly told his wife, "maybe he wants to ask me about my views about the offense."

Yeah, talk about being blindsided. Kosar walked into Modell's office and there was Belichick too. And together they told Kosar that he was getting cut.

The famous headline in The Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day was, "The News Hits Home: 'Dad, They Let Me Go,' Kosar Says."

There's no good way to describe the sonic boom that hit Cleveland when Belichick cut Bernie Kosar. I'd say it was at least equal to the Cleveland reaction after LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. Heck, it was probably bigger. Outrage. Tears. Ripped up tickets. Fury.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Bernie as a person and as a competitor," Belichick said. "But my reasons are his lack of production and loss of physical skills."

Police kept close surveillance of Belichick's home that night.

The truth is: It was the right decision. Well, let me take it back: I don't know if Belichick should have cut Kosar midseason, on a Monday after a loss, without any viable option (backup Vinny Testaverde was injured). It was coldhearted and no way to treat a beloved Clevelander.

But Kosar's skills WERE diminished, and his exalted place in Browns lore WAS a problem, and his constant disapproval of the offense WAS a serious issue. All of these things were big hurdles for Belichick's mission to turn the Browns into champions. Browns legend and future star GM Ozzie Newsome saw it -- he was an assistant coach then. "Right decision," he said. "You have to separate your personal feelings."

After Belichick released Kosar, it was nasty for Belichick for a while ("I'm not running for mayor," he joked -- and that's more or less an archetypal Belichick joke). Everybody hated him for a while and some never stopped. The team did not play well for the rest of the year while the whole Kosar ash and dust settled.

But then came 1994. Whoa. People want to talk about what a genius Belichick is now -- you should have seen those 1994 Browns. Nobody remembers that team because they got beat up by Pittsburgh in the playoffs. But that year Belichick and his defensive coordinator, a guy named Nick Saban, built one of the most improbale defenses in NFL history out of straw and mud and pepper (Johnson). The only players on that defense you likely have heard of were the ex-Giants, Johnson and Carl Banks, and they were both well past their prime. Young safety Eric Turner was terrific and the Fridge's little (sort of) brother Michael Dean Perry was good too.

Still that's a mishmash of talent. And the Browns somehow allowed just 204 points all year -- 30 less than any team in football and the second fewest number of points allowed in the 1990s. I still have no idea how they did it. They didn't force more turnovers than the average team. They didn't stop the pass or the run any better than the average team. They committed the most penalties in the NFL.

But you just couldn't score on that team. It was like witchcraft. The Browns offense was somewhat ridiculous, led by Vinny Testaverde and Mark Rypien (yes Mark Rypien). The Browns didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver, the deathly boring offense ran through their FULLBACK Leroy Hoard (Kosar would have despised being on that team). But the Browns went 11-5 and won a playoff game. It was a mystery.

Of course, it was no mystery. It was Belichick.

Harry Houdini once wrote of his hardscrabble childhood, "the less said on the matter the better." That's how I feel about the 1995 Browns season. The Browns started the season 3-1 -- Sports Illustrated had picked the Browns to go to the Super Bowl. The timing after that is unclear. At some point, Art Modell decided he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. He announced it November 6, after the Browns had lost three in a row, so it is possible that the Browns season started falling apart BEFORE the decision to bolt. But I've been told that inside the Browns compound the Browns move was widely discussed in the weeks before that and it was impossible to keep the team together through it all.

Whatever the starting point, the Browns lost 10 of their last 12 games that year -- their only two wins were over the Cincinnati Bengals. The team fell apart just as the community fell apart around them. There was absolutely nothing for Belichick or anyone else to do about it. Modell destroyed the 1995 Browns just as he ended the Cleveland Browns as we knew them. Belichick was just at the scene of the crime.

He was fired on February 14 of the following year, almost two months after the season ended and one week after the Browns officially moved to Baltimore. That's the basic inaccuracy of the tweet that inspired all this -- it was the Baltimore football club (I don't think they were called the Ravens yet) that fired Belichick.

But basic inaccuracy is not the larger problem with the tweet. I can't say for certain that if circumstances had been different -- if the Browns had stayed in Cleveland, for instance -- that Belichick would have won a bunch of championships and become the legend for the Browns. It is true that he never did figure out how to acquire good offensive players in Cleveland, and there's no way to say that a Tom Brady would have just dropped into his lap.

But I can say: Belichick flashed some genius in Cleveland. He transitioned the Browns out of their delusional phase. He built a ridiculous defense. He won despite the team's staggering lack of offensive talent. He didn't make many friends, but making friends is just not a Belichick priority. The Browns years were ultimately a failure for Bill Belichick, but most of that had nothing to do with him.