43 Super Bowls without the Cleveland Browns
On Sunday afternoon at 3:28 PM PST, I will be in front of the television for the Super Bowl, my annual ritual of watching the Cleveland Browns not compete for an NFL title. But while my Browns are one of just five teams (along with Houston, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Detroit) never to reach the Super Bowl, on five different occasion they were just one step away. And that makes the suffering for the denizens of the Dawg Pound even worse.
Starting in 1968. That year, the Browns were only team to beat the 13-1 Baltimore Colts during the regular season. But that 30-20 upset in front of their home fans was avenged by the Colts, who whitewashed the Browns 34-0 in Cleveland for the NFL title. (Making matters worse, Joe Namath and the AFL Jets shocked the 18-point favorite Colts in Super Bowl III, changing the trajectory of professional football in a game which left the Browns' earlier win an historical footnote.)
The next year in 1969, the Browns fell victim to Joe Kapp and the Purple People Eater in Minnesota. The Vikings crushed Cleveland 27-7 in a rout to punch their ticket to Super Bowl IV. That disaster for Cleveland was played in bitter cold at old Metropolitan Stadium in conditions so dangerous that several Browns players later had to be treated for frostbite.
But that pain was mild compared to the heartbreak of the 1986 season. The 12-4 Browns, fresh off a pulse-pounding 23-20 double-overtime win over the New York Jets, hosted John Elway and the Denver Broncos at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. Leading 20-13 with five minutes left and the Broncos trapped on their own two-yard line, Cleveland's first trip to the Super Bowl seemed assured. Then came "The Drive." 98 yards and multiple third and fourth down conversions later, Elway lasered the tying touchdown pass to Mark Jackson. Denver went on to win 23-20 in OT, elevating the Broncos to the Super Bowl - and John Elway to the ranks of football's all-time greats.
That coronary for Cleveland fans was followed by a second one a year later in the 1987 AFC title game. In the 1988 match-up, the Browns miraculously rallied from an 18 point first half deficit to trail 38-31 with just minutes remaining. Following the game at 3 AM on shortwave radio in a hut in West Africa, I listened as Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar led Cleveland to the Denver seven as the seconds were ticking down. On the next play, running back Earnest Byner broke for the goal line, only to be stripped of the ball at the 1 by the Broncos Jeremiah Castille. The final score was Denver 38, Cleveland 33. And while Byner recovered from "The Fumble" (going on to win a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins), Cleveland fans never did.
In comparison, the contest for the 1989 AFC crown was a mercy killing. Again facing John Elway's Broncos in Denver, the Browns trailed throughout in a game they lost 37-21. For the third time in four years, the Browns' road to the Super Bowl was detoured by the Broncos. (All three times, Denver for its efforts was rewarded by being routed in the Super Bowl, losing 39-20 to the New York Giants, 42-10 to the Washington Redskins and in record-setting humiliation, 55-10 to the San Francisco 49ers.)
As the Steelers and Cardinals approach the kick-off for Super Bowl XLIII, Browns fans remember it wasn't always this way. In the 1950's, the Browns played for the NFL title six straight times, winning three of them. And in 1964, it was the Browns who stunned a heavily favored Baltimore Colts team 27-0, winning the pre-Super Bowl NFL championship on the strength of three Frank Ryan-to-Gary Collins touchdown passes.
Which is why on Super Bowl day, I'll be wearing my Browns jersey, number 64. That's the one that says "Champions" on the back.