Good day, Browns fans!
It's been a while. Like many of you, I've been reflecting on the 2002 season, and especially how it ended. I've watched with some disappointment as the team ran afoul of the salary cap and was forced to release some productive players. Like many of you, I have some reservations about the player taken in the draft. But since the final gun sounded back on January 5, one issue has been at the forefront:
Who will be the starting quarterback of the 2003 Cleveland Browns?
I can't answer that question for you. But as we all consider the handling of this situation, I'd like to take you on a trip into the past. The date is September 19, 1993. The Browns were following on a 1992 season where Bernie Kosar spent a good deal of the season injured with a broken ankle. Mike Tomczak stepped in and was passable. The Browns finished 7-9 and had a playoff hopes through the next-to-last week of the season when a screen pass by the Houston Oilers on second-and-15 went for 65 yards and sank the season.
After the 1992 season, the Browns realized they needed an experienced backup and brought in an old friend of Kosar's, Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde had become the king of the interception during a less than stellar run in Tampa. The Browns were 2-0, coming off an amazing win against the San Francisco 49ers. After a short week, they traveled to Los Angeles to face the Raiders.
The Raider defense started off tough that day. The Browns managed just 37 yards of offense in the first half, never even crossing midfield. The defense was all over Kosar, sacking him six times. Eric Metcalf ended up with –2 yards rushing for the game. But the defense came alive in the second half, holding the Raiders to just one first down, and that came on a penalty. The Browns were down 13-0 going into the fourth quarter. There was a shot of head coach Bill Belichick leaning over, saying something to a discouraged Kosar on the bench. One would assume he was either giving him encouragement or perhaps instructions. What we would soon find out was that Kosar was being yanked from the game.
I was a long-time Kosar fan. But on this day, the switch made sense. Just two games into the season, it was obvious Kosar was still struggling with the ankle he had broken the previous year. While Kosar was never graceful or agile, he was even less so from then on. It made sense to make the move. One could say that it was protecting Kosar from possible injury. One might say that it was the "relief pitcher" mentality that had been so successful for the Miami Dolphins with David Woodley and Don Strock. Whatever the reason in Belichick's mind, Testaverde entered the game.
The Browns managed a field goal early in the fourth quarter. A stingy defense allowed the Browns to hold the Raiders to a field goal after a Testaverde interception deep in the Browns end. Down 16-3, Testaverde then led the Browns on a 12-play, 90-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to Lawyer Tillman. The Browns had closed the gap to 16-10, but now only 2:26 remained.
The Raiders got the ball deep in their own end and failed to make a first down. They were forced to punt. Rather than risk a block in their own end zone, the Raiders elected to take an intentional safety. The Browns were now within 16-12, but still needed a touchdown to win. On the ensuing free kick, Eric Metcalf grabbed the ball and took it back 37 yards to the Raider 45-yard line. The game was now in Testaverde's hands.
Testaverde completed passes of 17 and 16 yards to Mark Carrier, taking the Browns to the 1-yard line with just seven seconds left and no timeouts. In what was a very gutsy call, the Browns pitched the ball to Metcalf and he ran untouched into the end zone, giving the Browns a 19-16 victory.
I watched this game with my brother, and we were overjoyed to see the Browns come back against some very tough odds and win a game on the west coast, something the team rarely did. This was an amazing comeback, and a game we knew we would long remember. It did not matter to us who the quarterback was – the Browns had prevailed! But this game set in motion events that would have repercussions that I certainly could never have forseen in my wildest dreams.
The next week, Bernie Kosar struggled again in a game against the Colts. Belichick once again switched to Testaverde, who promptly fumbled and was intercepted on back-to-back possessions. A 10-9 fourth-quarter lead turned into a 23-10 loss. Belichick seemed to be calling more conservative plays when Kosar was in the game than he did for Testaverde. After a bye week, the 3-1 Browns returned home to face the Dolphins. Dan Marino blew out an Achilles tendon in the game, and was replaced by an unknown backup named Scott Mitchell. Mitchell rallied the Dolphins, who overcame a 14-10 lead to win 24-14. For the third consecutive game, Testaverde replaced Kosar. Even though Testaverde went just 6 of 13 for 44 yards, I'll never forget hearing the postgame press conference on the radio over at the Port Authority lot when Belichick announced Testaverde would start the following week in Cincinnati.
In my opinion, the Raider victory set the table for the quarterback change and Kosar's eventual release on November 7. The Browns, 5-3 at that point, were forced to hand the ball to Todd Philcox. The 1993 season ended with a 7-9 record. Kosar, meanwhile, went to Dallas and filled in for an injured Troy Aikman. He played a key role in a victory in the NFC Championship game over the 49ers.
That release of Kosar began a rift between owner Art Modell and the city and fans that never healed. I believe that the events of the 1993 played a huge part in The Move. Modell and Belichick were already villains in Cleveland long before November of 1995. But I also believe that without the release of Kosar, a better climate would have existed for talks about a new or renovated stadium, and The Move might well have been averted. One can argue that being rid of Modell ultimately made it worth enduring a three-year hiatus from the NFL, but none of us will forget the pain of late 1995 and early 1996.
Now fast forward to January 6, 2003. Kelly Holcomb has thrown for more yards than any quarterback in history in a non-overtime playoff game. We saw him make some great plays, and plays that most of us simply don't believe Tim Couch could have made. It was an amazing performance, even in a loss. But before we rush to anoint Holcomb the starter after this one game and his performance in that game, we should consider that there could be more ramifications to making the move than we might be able to imagine. Can Holcomb stand the pounding? He was seriously injured last season in limited duty. And though he engineered a near-amazing comeback against the Ravens, he made some crucial mistakes, too. Holcomb looked average at best in a start against the Bengals, though that was in the rain, and in relief against the Falcons.
In my mind, there just isn't enough evidence yet to know what Holcomb could really do as the starter. I also can't help but look at the fantastic games Tim Couch had in the preseason in 2002 until his arm problem surfaced. Was Couch injured all season and did the offseason allow him to recover? Or will this be the play we will all point to like that safety blitz on opening day in Kansas City in 1988 was for Kosar? Can Couch handle an open competition for the first time in his career? Would he be able to handle a demotion? What affect might that move have on the team?
I'm raising a lot of questions none of us can answer here. But keep in mind, the events of the next six months might be the things we will talk about in 2013, and how they set in motion events that none of us right now can predict.