Derry: That Fatal Fumble

It's been twenty years since Earnest Byner lost the ball, and set the Browns future in motion. Frank Derry looks back at that fateful play, the changes it created, and how it still impacts Browns fans today...

All true Browns fans in the 30-something generation and beyond can vividly recall "The Fumble," quite possibly the most devastating single play in Cleveland Browns history.

As you undoubtedly remember, the Browns were driving for the game-tying touchdown in the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.

Earnest Byner, who had already scored two touchdowns and put up just under 200 total offensive yards in one of the gutsiest performances you'll ever see, had what appeared to be a clear path to the end zone.   

But at the 3-yard-line, Jeremiah Castille reached in and stripped the ball away. Castille also recovered, sending the Browns to an eventual 38-33 heartbreaking loss.

Amazingly, 2007 marks the 20-year anniversary of that play which not only cost the Browns a shot at their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, but also marked the beginning of the end of the team's legitimate run at its first World Championship since 1964.

True, the team did make the playoffs the next two years – reaching the AFC Wild Card Game in Marty Schottenheimer's final season as head coach, and the AFC Championship Game following the 1989 season, which was Bud Carson's first year as head coach.

But the reality of the matter is that chemistry, which had been such a vital part of the team's success during the 1985, '86 and '87 seasons, took a severe hit somewhere between "The Fumble" game and the ridiculous home loss to the Oilers in Schottenheimer's final game.

For some reason, Schottenheimer's crocodile tears, which always seemed to punctuate his rah-rah speeches, no longer were providing the inspiration they once did. And the front office, which had been 100 percent in Schottenheimer's corner from the time he took over for Sam Rutigliano in 1984, was beginning to waver in its support for the man who had become a control-freak during his four-plus seasons as head coach.   

The 24-23 playoff loss to the Oilers, which came just six days after the Browns had beaten the same Houston team at home in the regular-season finale, convinced owner Art Modell and his brain-trust that changes needed to be made.

One of the first which Modell demanded was the firing, or at least the reappointing, of Schottenheimer's brother Kurt, who had been the team's special teams coach. Modell, who realized Marty Schottenheimer had worn out his welcome with the team, knew his headstrong coach would never agree to the move.

That led directly to Schottenheimer's firing/resignation and started a merry-go-round of personnel, from head coach, to coordinators, to quarterbacks, to running backs, etc., that still exists today.

The hiring of Carson, the longtime successful defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, represented a complete contrast in personality to that of Schottenheimer. In many ways, the mild-mannered Carson was a puppet for Modell.

Carson was pretty much told who to hire as his coaches, including offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, who was taking over for Joe Pendry, who had taken over in 1988 for the highly-successful Lindy Infante, who had been named head coach of the Green Bay Packers after the 1987 season.

Trestman, despite not being with the team when Infante was offensive coordinator, was told to run Infante's offense rather than be allowed to run his own offense. It proved a disaster.

The Browns also made one of the worst trades in team history prior to the start of the 1989 season, sending Byner to the Washington Redskins in exchange for special-teamer Mike Oliphant, whose total career contributions to the Browns' cause included 15 carries for 97 yards; three catches for 22 yards; and five kickoff returns for 69 yards. 

Byner, meanwhile, helped the Redskins win Super Bowl XXVI, 37-24, over the Buffalo Bills.

Carson's arrival as head coach seemed to inspire the Browns early on in the 1989 season. Included was a resounding 51-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium to start the year, and a 15-13 win over Denver in Week Three.

Through 10 games Carson had the Browns at 7-3 and seemingly in line to make another run at the Super Bowl. But even though the Browns had enough gas left in the tank to beat the Buffalo Bills 34-30 in the AFC Division Playoff Game, they were totally overmatched in a 37-21 AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos the following week.

When the Browns got off to a 2-7 start to begin the 1990 season, the impatient Modell had seen enough. He fired the easy-going Carson, replacing him with offensive coordinator Jim Shofner, who had replaced Trestman as offensive coordinator to begin the year.

Shofner's arrival did little to spark the team, which was definitely starting to show its age, The Browns went 1-6 under Shofner, opening the door for Modell to hire Bill Belichick for the 1991 season.

As every Browns fan knows, Belichick has gone on to become one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history. And Modell went on to win his one and only Super Bowl. But none of that success happened in Cleveland, which in some way might very well be related, at least indirectly, to that fatal fumble 20 seasons ago.    

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