The 1980s were pretty good for the Browns, providing a lot of successful -- and exciting -- seasons.
But 1984 was a rare exception to that rule.
It wasn't supposed to be, however.
Going into the season, the Browns, for a variety of reasons, were the odds-on favorites to win the AFC Central.
They had had a good-but-not-great year in 1983, finishing 9-7 but just missing the playoffs after two bad late-season losses.
Many of the players from that team returned for 1984.
In addition, the division was in a state of flux. The Pittsburgh Steelers had won the crown in 1983, but they finished just one game better than the Browns at 10-6, and had lost at Cleveland in the season finale. In addition, most of the Steelers' great players from the 1970s had already retired or were ready to do so.
In fact, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw had retired after the 1983 season, and Mark Malone, an unknown quantity, was taking over.
The Cincinnati Bengals, three years removed from their first Super Bowl trip, had fallen back to being just a middle-of-the-road team.
And the Houston Oilers, after having played Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game in 1978 and '79, and then making the playoffs again in '80, had disintegrated from 1982 to '83, posting a combined record of only 3-22.
So the Browns, who seemed to have fewer flaws than the other clubs, were the pick.
But things didn't work out for them.
The Browns struggled to score points, lost a slew of close games -- a staggering total of eight by four points or less -- and finished just 5-11, good for only third place.
And, to top it off, following a last-play 12-9 loss at Cincinnati at mid-season that dropped the Browns' record to just 1-7, with a four-game losing streak, head coach Sam Rutigliano was fired. The popular Rutigliano, who had had the job since 1978 and was the architect of the Kardiac Kids, was replaced on a permanent basis by Marty Schottenheimer, the team's defensive coordinator since 1980.
In all but one game, the Schottenheimer-led defense had played well in the first half of the season. It was the offense that was holding the club back.
Brian Sipe, the starting quarterback for the vast majority of the previous eight seasons and the NFL MVP in 1980 when he had the best season, passing-wise, in franchise history, had left after 1983 to sign a lucrative contract with the New Jersey Generals of the rival United States Football League. Incidentally, Sipe's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in his second season of 1985, was Chris Palmer, who would become the first head coach of the expansion Browns in 1999.
Rutigliano didn't want to lose Sipe, but the coach was confident that McDonald could step in and do the job. McDonald, the second of the Browns' two fourth-round choices in the 1980 NFL Draft, had been the No. 1 backup since then, except for the last half of 1982, when he wrested the job from the then struggling Sipe and directed back-to-back wins that got the club into the playoffs.
Otherwise, he had been the holder on extra points and field goals.
But neither McDonald nor the offense as a whole ever got untracked in 1984. Sipe was missed a lot more than anyone, even Rutigliano, had imagined.
In the opener at Seattle, which was moved one day back to Labor Day afternoon because of a Seattle Marines baseball game being played Sunday at the Kingdome, the Browns did nothing right in a 33-0 loss to the Seahawks, getting shut out for the first time in 1977, the year before Rutigliano arrived.
Opening with two games on the West Coast for just the second time in club history, and the first time since 1951, the Browns made it closer in Week 2 but still fell to the Los Angeles Rams 20-17. The Browns led 17-10 entering the fourth quarter but lost on a field goal with 1:28 left.
In the home opener, a nationally-televised Sunday night affair against the Denver Broncos, the Browns were driving for either the tying field goal or the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter when a McDonald pass was intercepted and returned 62 yards for a score. The result was a 24-14 loss and a disastrous 0-3 start, the team's first since 1975.
The first score of the following week's game against Pittsburgh came when a McDonald pass was picked off and returned 69 yards, but he recovered to throw two TD passes in a 20-10 win.
The Browns were hoping that would get them jump-started, but it didn't. They went on to lose 10-6 at Kansas City when McDonald got sacked a club-record 11 times.
Back home the next week against New England, the Browns led 16-3 in the third quarter but lost 17-16. They moved the ball to the New England 21 with 23 seconds remaining before McDonald was intercepted.
The Browns lost to the New York Jets 20-17 after leading 20-17 in the fourth quarter, and despite the fact Ozzie Newsome set team records with 14 receptions for 191 yards. The Hall of Famer would tie the club mark he had set in 1983 by catching 89 passes.
Then came the loss at Cincinnati, suffered on a field goal as time expired.
The Schottenheimer era began much the way the one under Rutigliano had ended -- in excruciatingly painful fashion. The New Orleans Saints edged the Browns 16-14 when Morten Andersen kicked a 53-yard field goal -- the longest in Cleveland Stadium history -- as the clock ran out.
But the snakebit Browns then got it turned around, going 4-3 in their final seven games. It might have been even better had it not been for a pair of three-point losses to the Bengals (in overtime) and the Steelers (on a field goal with five seconds left).
McDonald improved in the second half of the season, but he still threw only 14 TD passes to 23 interceptions. On top of that, he was sacked 53 times, then a club record.
However it happened, the Browns had to get more production from the quarterback position if they wanted to make those pre-1984 predictions ring true in '85. Finding a way to do that was the big challenge facing Schottenheimer and executive vice president of football operations Ernie Accorsi heading into the offseason.
|9/3||L0-33||at Seattle Seahawks||59,540|
|9/9||L17-20||at Los Angeles Rams||43,043|
|9/30||L6-10||at Kansas City Chiefs||40,785|
|10/7||L16-17||New England Patriots||53,036|
|10/14||L20-24||New York Jets||55,673|
|10/21||L9-12||at Cincinnati Bengals||50,667|
|10/28||L14-16||New Orleans Saints||52,489|
|11/4||W13-10||at Buffalo Bills||33,343|
|11/11||L7-41||San Francisco 49ers||60,092|
|11/18||W23-7||at Atlanta Falcons||28,280|
|12/2||L17-20||Cincinnati Bengals (OT)||51,774|
|12/9||L20-23||at Pittsburgh Steelers||55,825|
|12/16||W27-20||at Houston Oilers||33,676|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||295||270|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||89/228||86/217|
|3rd Down Pct.||39.00%||39.60%|
|4th Down: Made/Att||6/13||4/13|
|4th Down Pct.||46.20%||30.80%|
|Total Net Yards||4,828||4,641|
|Avg. Per Game||301.8||290.1|
|Avg. Per Play||4.6||4.7|
|Net Yards Rushing||1,696||1,945|
|Avg. Per Game||106||121.6|
|Net Yards Passing||3,132||2,696|
|Avg. Per Game||195.8||168.5|
|Net Punting Avg.||76/35.8||77/36.4|