In the mid-1980s, we were a very close-knit team. Not only did the defensive players get along well as a group, but we were equally close with the offensive players and the special teamers. It was nothing to see an offensive player and a defensive player out with their families having dinner together. I think cohesion was the most significant and probably overlooked aspect of those teams.
I bring this up because in 1985, when Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner were both striving to reach the 1,000-yard mark, something accomplished by only two other running back tandems in the history of pro football, the defensive players were their biggest cheerleaders. When our offense was on the field, instead of sitting down on the bench, most of the time the defensive players would literally stand up on the sideline and exhort them on. Or at least we'd put ourselves in a position on the bench to watch them run the football. We really enjoyed it.
Mack and Byner epitomized what it meant to play for the Cleveland Browns. They were two hard-core, blue-collar football players. They packed their lunch and they came to play. Of course, we also enjoyed the fact that their ability to run the ball effectively meant the defensive team didn't have to spend a whole lot of time on the field. We were certainly well-rested as a result of their efforts.
Head coach Marty Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Dave Adolph emphasized that point quite often. They'd say, "Hey guys, you're not going to be on the field a whole lot today, so when you're out there, give 100%. We need you to give 100% and create turnovers." If we got 50 or 60 plays in a game that year, versus the NFL average of 75 plays, that would be about it. We had to make those plays count and we had no excuse for leaving anything on the field.
The other thing which was often overlooked was the fact that going against Mack and Byner in practice every day definitely made us a better defensive unit, and better individually as well. When you go against offensive players who do not loaf, they are not going to allow you to loaf. If you did, Byner was going to punch you in the chest. Or Mack was going to hit you, knock you on your butt and keep running down the field. So it made you bring your 'A' game to practice. We all practiced hard and were better because of it.
That's why I was concerned last year when I read some of the current Browns' players say they practiced too hard and they had no legs when it came to game time. We practiced our butts off. Schottenheimer worked the heck out of us. I am here to tell you his reputation as a hard core practice coach is warranted. Yet, what made him such a good coach is that he knew when to slow down and take care of us. He knew when he had to back off. We were always ready to go on gameday, both physically and mentally.
The players responded. After a while, we knew when a practice wasn't going well. It was not unusual for a player to stand up and say, "Let's start this whole practice over again." We didn't wait for a coach to say anything. We'd take it upon ourselves as leaders of the team to make sure everybody was giving 100% all of the time, be it in practice or a game. And a great deal of that credit goes to Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack, two guys who definitely gave it their all both during the week and on Sunday afternoons.