Former National Football League coach Bud Carson died this week, and the stories that followed focused on his work as an assistant in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to understand why, since Carson, as defensive coordinator to Chuck Knoll, helped coach one of the best defensive units in history, the Steel Curtain. He worked with players like Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, and played an integral role in the Steelers’ winning two Super Bowls.
But that’s not how I remember him. I remember Carson for his 27-game stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1989-1990. He replaced Marty Schottenheimer, who had achieved a 10-6 season in 1988 despite injuries to four different quarterbacks during the course of the season.
But Browns owner Art Modell (and honestly, many Cleveland fans) wanted more. The Browns had twice come within a few plays of making their first ever Super Bowl appearance (in 1986 and ’87), only to fall short to John Elway and the Denver Broncos.
In 1988, Schottenheimer’s team was ousted in the first round. Soon after, Marty was ousted himself.
Now think about this. The Browns made the playoffs for four consecutive years, won three division titles, and had come close to making the Super Bowl.
And that wasn’t enough. It was into this pressure-filled situation that then New York Jets’ defensive coordinator Bud Carson walked in 1989. He was supposed to be the man to take the Browns to the next level.
It didn’t happen. The Browns went 9-6-1 in 1989 and again made the AFC Championship game. Again, they lost to Denver.
The next season, the Browns lost seven of their first nine. Carson was fired after an embarrassing 42-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills at home. The look on his face as he walked off the field told me, and every other Browns’ fan that he knew he was in trouble.
Since then, I have heard it said that Carson was a great defensive coach, but failed as a head coach.
The record and the quick firing certainly make it look as though Carson wasn’t a great in the position.
But really, the record in 1990 was less indicative of Carson than it was of the Browns’ talent and organization. The Browns limped to a 3-13 finish in 1990, and the next season Giants’ defensive coordinator (and current New England God) Bill Belichick took over.
The Browns didn’t win under him much, either. In the five years that followed, the Browns had one winning season and made one playoff appearance. Then they bolted to Baltimore.
So, was Carson to blame for the Browns’ mediocrity in 1990? A look closer would indicate the problems laid elsewhere.
The sad thing is that Carson never got another chance as an NFL head coach. He became defensive coordinator in Philadelphia afterwards, but he never again rose to the top position.
Would Carson have been more successful if given more of a chance? No one will know for sure. Nor will we know what he would have done if given the top position with another team.
But to anyone who thought that Carson was the cause of the Browns’ problems in 1990, remember this: In the 15 years and 12 football seasons that have followed, the Browns have never returned to the AFC championship game.
Rest in peace Bud. From a Browns fan, thanks for the memories.