Browns-Broncos: Kevin Mack Understands

At least one member of the current Cleveland Browns staff understands a rivalry from the 80s...

Browns assistant director of player development Kevin Mack was leaning back in his chair.

But only for about a minute after he had sat down the other day.

As the name "Denver Broncos" was mentioned the first time, he sat up. As the conversation continued and "Denver Broncos" was mentioned again and again and again, Mack not only kept sitting up but began leaning forward.

By the time the reporter had stopped talking, Mack, a little bit of fire in his eyes – really -- was nearly in a three-point stance, ready to take the handoff from Bernie Kosar, run past and through the likes of Karl Mecklenburg, Tom Jackson, Rulon Jones and Andre Townsend and sprint into the end zone with, this time, the winning score.

Yes, the Denver Broncos.

For everybody else in the current Browns organization, the mention of the Broncos means nothing. It's the same as bringing up the Washington Redskins, Houston Texans, San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars.

These people – players, coaches and front office people – come from all over the country. They weren't here – maybe they weren't even born yet – when the Browns and Broncos tangled three times in a four-year period in the AFC Championship Game two decades ago.

If they were born and old enough to know better, and if they watched those games on TV, then rest assured they didn't view them with the same interest, fervor and passion as everyone in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio did as the Broncos not once, not even twice, but all three times defeated the Browns, twice in oh-so-excruciating fashion with The Drive (1986) and The Fumble (1987), and denied them a chance to go to the franchise's first Super Bowl.

When asked about the franchise's rivalry with the Broncos, if it meant anything personally to him since he had been here before in 1994 and '95, and if he would say anything to the players since they, too, are now Browns, Cleveland head coach Eric Mangini treated it with all the enthusiasm of making a balogna sandwich with two-day-old bread.

"I really look at it as, I always start with us," he said. "That's always my starting point, is what are we doing to control the things that we can control?

"If we take care of those things, if we do what we're supposed to do, then I feel like regardless of who we're playing, we're going to give ourselves the best chance to win. In terms of the historical part of it, it wasn't really something that I covered."

Uh, OK.

Lest he get run over by the running back late, great Browns radio play-by-play announcer Nev Chandler used to call "the Mack truck," Mangini had better not say that in front of old No. 34.

Or old No. 19 (Kosar), old No. 29 (Hanford Dixon), old No. 31 (Frank Minnifield), old No. 79 (Golic), old No. 57 (Clay Matthews) or old No. 63 (Cody Risien).

Or any of the number – literally and figuratively -- of other Browns on those teams in 1986, '87 and 89.

"When I think of the Denver Broncos, I think about a lot of things," said Mack, the fifth-leading all-time rusher in Browns history. "I think of the bitter feeling they left us with in that they were the one team – the one single team -- that kept us out of the Super Bowl. We could beat everyone else, but not them.

All those great teams we had, all those games we won, all those things we accomplished, and still, we never got to the Super Bowl. And it was because of the Denver Broncos."

Mack says he still thinks about those title games, and suspects that a lot of his former teammates do as well.

He said the 1987 edition was the best of the three Browns teams.

"In 1986, we were still pretty young," said Mack, who was in his second year then. "In 1987, we had a lot more experience under our belts. We had grown up as a team."

He is convinced that if the Browns had won in 1986, or '87, they would have been a better opponent in the Super Bowl for the New York Giants and Redskins, respectively, than were the Broncos, who got crushed both times, and in 1989, when the San Francisco 49ers also spanked them.

In fact, Mack said he talked to some of the 1986 Giants who told him as much.

That's small consolation, for the Browns never got that chance. And it hurts – three times over.

"All the losses were tough, but the toughest one, for me at least, was that game in 1986," Mack said of the 23-20 loss in overtime. "We had the game in Cleveland. We had all those fans behind us. There was no way the Broncos were going to come into Cleveland and beat us, but they did."

They did so after the Browns had gone ahead 20-13 on a touchdown with 5½ minutes left in regulation.

Which made it just that much tougher.

"It just seemed in that game that it was meant to be for us to win," Mack said.

And the fact the Browns didn't win cut into the team's reputation.

"Like I said, we had done all those great things in the regular season and in the playoffs leading up to those Denver games, but when we lost, we got the label of a team that couldn't get it done – couldn't get over the hump," Mack said. "I don't think that's fair, because it took a lot for us to just get there in the first place."

Mack just kind of shook his head as he spoke. He forced a smile and a few laughs, maybe because it would mask the opposite emotions he was actually feeling.

"When the schedule came out and I looked at it, the first thing that jumped out to me was, ‘Ohhh, we're playing the Broncos,' " Mack said. "When I was with the Browns, the Broncos were every bit the rival that the Pittsburgh Steelers were – and maybe more so in some ways, since most times when we played them, it was in the playoffs.

"I understand that the other people in this organization weren't here back then and so they're not going to feel about the Broncos like I do, but we had a huge rivalry with them when I was playing. Facing them Sunday really means something to me. I'll definitely be watching on TV."

And so will countless Browns fans, who will sit up straight in their chairs and maybe even lean forward a bit as they hope beyond hope that their team at long last chases away some 20-year-old ghosts.

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