We don’t typically think in terms of large numbers of days. That’s what weeks, months, and years are for. But today marks the 10,000th day since a most fateful Browns season opener.
It was September 4, 1988, and the three-time defending AFC Central Divison champion Browns kicked off a new season in Arrowhead Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was their first chance to get past the famous fumble that ended their Super Bowl dreams seven months prior.
Quarterback Bernie Kosar, age 24, had never missed a game due to injury and was coming off a Pro Bowl season. The offense was stocked with skill position players: Ozzie Newsome, Earnest Byner, Kevin Mack, Webster Slaughter, Brian Brennan, and Reggie Langhorne.
But that unit had lost its coordinator, Lindy Infante, who left to become the Packers’ head coach. Marty Schottenheimer didn’t replace him, choosing to run things himself, though he’d cut his teeth as a defensive player and coach. He did hire Kosar’s college position coach at Miami, Marc Trestman, to serve in the same role here.
Then, just days before the regular season opener, the Browns made their worst trade since sending Paul Warfield to Miami in 1970. Starting center Mike Baab was shipped off to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick, clearing the way for another Miami product, Gregg Rakoczy, who had been drafted 32nd overall the previous year.
10,000 days ago was Rakoczy’s first NFL start, and while it’s not his fault that Chiefs safety Lloyd Burruss was unblocked off an edge blitz, that’s what happened in the first quarter. Kosar, in typical fashion, was able to get the ball off, but he couldn’t stop Burruss’ helmet from slamming into his right elbow, causing ligament damage that kept him out for six weeks.
More than a few Browns observers will say that Kosar was never quite the same passer as he was before that hit. Certainly the Browns never again reached the heights they did in 1986 and 1987.
But maybe it’s too reductionist to blame that injury for the slow demise of the last great era of Browns football and the popular local kid who led them. Brennan, for instance, told me in person a few years ago to discount the idea that Kosar was any less effective at throwing in the years following. And he should know as well as anyone.
Still, it’s hard to avoid thinking about what might have been, if only that 6-3 victory at Arrowhead had not been the turning point it undoubtedly was. After a season featuring four different starting QBs, in which the Browns probably overachieved in even making the playoffs, Schottenheimer and owner Art Modell parted ways.
The next opening day found Marty (with assistants including Bill Cowher, Bruce Arians, and Tony Dungy) on the sidelines as the head coach of the Chiefs, starting his next big turnaround, bring another team from the doldrums to something special, but just short of the ultimate success.