After finishing with a franchise-worst 3-13 record the year before, ending five straight seasons of success, the Browns were hoping for a reversal of fortunes in 1991.
So to help facilitate the possibility of that occurring, they decided to reverse the way they did things.
As such, they brought in as head coach Bill Belichick, a young -- he was 38 when he was hired -- tough-minded, no-nonsense disciplinarian. He followed Bud Carson, an older -- he was 59 when he was fired midway through 1990 -- more easy-going man. After Carson was let go, Jim Shofner, who has a similar personality, served as the interim head coach.
Carson got the job in 1989 because he was considered a defensive genius who, the Browns believed, could devise a way to stop quarterback John Elway. He and his Denver Broncos had thwarted the club in the 1986 and '87 AFC Championship Games.
The Browns actually went 2-1 against the Broncos while Carson was coach, defeating them in the 1989 and '90 regular seasons. But in the most important meeting -- the 1989 AFC title game -- the Broncos won easier than they had in '86 and '87, 37-21.
Belichick was considered a defensive genius, too, and he was coming off his resume-making game. As defensive coordinator, he helped guide the underdog New York Giants to a 20-19 win over the explosive Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl following the 1990 season. He was also the coordinator when the Giants routed the Broncos 39-20 in the Super Bowl after the 1986 campaign.
With the Browns having surrendered a franchise-record 462 points in 1990, their defense needed to make the biggest reversal of fortunes of any unit on the team. To help with that effort, University of Toledo head coach Nick Saban, a former player and assistant coach at Kent State and a one-time assistant at Ohio State, was hired as defensive coordinator.
****The defense did indeed get a lot better, giving up 298 points, or 164 less than it had in 1990. That's a drop of 10.3 a game, which is obviously substantial.
The defense, in fact, kept the Browns in every game except one, an early-season 42-17 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins.
Along with that, the offense was changed dramatically as well. Gone was the free-wheeling, pass-happy approach that had been used from 1986-90, and in its place was a real focus on eliminating turnovers by being more conservative in play-calling. Belichick hated turnovers almost as much as he did losing, for in his mind, turnovers were the biggest contributor to losing.
Just like the defense, the offense got better, and much more efficient. Whereas in 1990 the Browns fumbled 37 times and lost 23 of them, in '91 they coughed up the ball just 18 times and lost eight. In addition, the number of interceptions dropped from 23 to 10.
In all, the Browns committed 28 fewer turnovers, a staggering reduction.
The biggest benefactor of that was quarterback Bernie Kosar. Although no one remembers it because of the way the relationship between the two men would deteriorate so badly over the next two years, Belichick's approach made Kosar a much more efficient -- and, in some cases, better -- quarterback than he had been from 1988-90.
Kosar had a 2-to-1 ratio of touchdowns (18) to interceptions (nine) in 1991, with a 62.1 completion percentage and an 87.8 quarterback rating. He had thrown 10 TD passes with 15 picks, with a 54.4 completion percentage and a 65.7 rating, in 1990
When the new philosophies on offense and defense were added together, the Browns, as mentioned, were competitive throughout the season. They doubled their number of wins from 1990 in finishing 6-10, but it could have been much better because six of those defeats came by four points or less, and seven were by seven points or fewer. There was a stretch in the second half of the season when the Browns lost three games by a combined total of just eight points.
In fact, the Browns were hanging in the wild-card playoff race with a 6-7 record late in the year, but three straight losses, two of which came by a combined total of just 10 points, knocked them out of contention. To show how much the defense had improved, the Browns surrendered 17 points in each of those games. In the final half of 1990, the Browns gave up 33.6 points per contest.
The Browns posted two shutouts -- 20-0 over the New England Patriots and 31-0 over the Indianapolis Colts -- for the first time in a season since 1983. And they were not shut out once after having been blanked three times in 1990.
Kevin Mack rushed for a team-leading 726 yards, his highest total since 1985, when he had 1,104.
And wide receiver Webster Slaughter had what would turn out to be his second-most productive season with the Browns, catching 64 passes for 906 yards.
So while the Browns missed the playoffs for a second straight year for the first time since 1983-84, the feeling heading into the offseason was much more optimistic than it had been the previous year. Now, at least, the team had a firm foundation on which to continue its rebuilding.
It wasn't a complete reversal of fortunes, but it was a good start.
|8-Sep||W20-0||at New England Patriots||35,377|
|22-Sep||L10-13||at New York Giants||75,891|
|6-Oct||L14-17||New York Jets||71,042|
|13-Oct||L17-42||at Washington Redskins||54,715|
|20-Oct||W30-24||at San Diego Chargers (OT)||48,440|
|3-Nov||L21-23||at Cincinnati Bengals||55,077|
|17-Nov||L24-28||at Houston Oilers||58,155|
|24-Nov||W20-15||Kansas City Chiefs||63,991|
|1-Dec||W31-0||at Indianapolis Colts||57,539|
|22-Dec||L10-17||at Pittsburgh Steelers||47,070|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||265||298|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||74/199||97/215|
|3rd Down Pct.||37.20%||45.10%|
|4th Down: Made/Att||9/20||9/17|
|4th Down Pct.||45.00%||52.90%|
|Total Net Yards||4,664||5,084|
|Avg. Per Game||291.5||317.8|
|Avg. Per Play||5||5.1|
|Net Yards Rushing||1,360||1,875|
|Avg. Per Game||85||117.2|
|Net Yards Passing||3,304||3,209|
|Avg. Per Game||206.5||200.6|
|Net Punting Avg.||80/37.6||61/37.2|