“It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play” – The Beatles
Thursday marked the 20th anniversary one of the most memorable games in American sports history. The national media called it "The Drive." I call it "The day I realized what being a Cleveland sports fan meant."
The problem with anniversaries is that they are reminders, but little more than that. Often connections are lost, or not clear to us. But in this case, I can see how that game altered history. It moved jobs, changed paths, made a superstar, and crushed a dream.
As I write this, I wonder if the previous sentence is a bit too dramatic. As I read it over a second time, I am certain of that.
But when John Elway marched the Denver Broncos 98 yards for a tying touchdown on Jan. 11, 1987, it set in motion a chain of events that no one could have foreseen. The Broncos beat the Browns that day, 23-20, on an overtime field goal by Broncos kicker Rich Karlis. As I cried to my father after the game (I was 6), he assured me there was next year, and a number of years to come.
But looking back now, I have decided that Jan. 11, 1987 was the Browns’ best chance at a Super Bowl, and subsequently a championship, since thir last title in 1964
The Browns had good teams after that, and more heartbreaking losses. The next season, Earnest Byner’s fumble became football lore. But that was in Denver. The 1987 contest was in Cleveland, and the Browns led by seven with less than six minutes left in the game. The Broncos had the ball on their own 2 yard line.
It was Cleveland’s best chance.
Of course, John Elway ruined it with a 15-play drive that concluded when he found a sliding Mark Jackson over the middle in the end zone. Elway’s legend was born, while the Browns were left in Cleveland, wondering what went wrong.
I mentioned all the dramatic stuff earlier. The reason for all of that was it’s my belief that had Elway not completed his comeback, Marty Schottenheimer would not have been fired after the 1988 season for not being able to get to the Super Bowl.
He would not have been replaced by Bud Carson, who would not have been replaced by Jim Shofner, who would not have been replaced by Bill Belichick.
Belichick would not have been able to release quarterback Bernie Kosar, which would not have turned a large number of fans against the team in 1993.
Browns’ owner Art Modell would have been viewed as a saint for his success, not as an inept owner, and thus never would have felt the need to move to Baltimore in 1996, which would not have meant three years without a team in Cleveland, the expansion era, and a franchise which has had only winning season since its 1999 rebirth.
I’ll admit, there’s some simplification there, but even if every issue in the sorted history of the Browns was discussed, I can still see myself coming to this conclusion:
The Browns would have never left if The Drive hadn’t happened.
What is gone is gone, and lord knows there are worse things in the world than losing a football team for three years (Baltimore lost theirs for over a decade). It’s not my desire to delve into the frustrating history of Cleveland sports with this column.
But "The Drive" does have one other effect, one that will likely be an issue as early as Sunday.
As much as The Drive has haunted the Browns, it has also haunted Marty Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer has won exactly 200 games regular season as an NFL coach in his career, but has never won a conference championship game.
There is talk in San Diego that Schottenheimer — despite a 14-2 regular season — will be let go if he can’t get to Miami.
The criticism about Schottenheimer’s ability to succeed in the playoffs began 20 years ago, in Cleveland. It began with "The Drive."
Marty can silence his critics Sunday, and next week. All he needs is a pair of wins. Reach the Super Bowl, and the criticism ought to vanish – or at least subside.
It’s my hope that Schottenheimer gets what he deserves -– a championship. He has watched a nemesis (John Elway) and a protégé (Bill Cowher) overcome their “can’t win the big one” labels. Even the owner who fired him experienced a championship after decades of doubt about his abilities.
If anyone deserves a title, it’s Marty. He deserved one 20 years ago, but didn’t get it.
This might be his last chance. I hope the Chargers bring Marty what he has certainly earned.