By Michael K. Bohn, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Twenty-five years ago on Jan. 11, 1987, the boisterous fans in the Dawg Pound had plenty to bark about. Their beloved Cleveland Browns had just surged ahead of the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game, 20-13. Late in the fourth quarter, the Browns were less than six minutes from a trip to the Super Bowl.
Sensing victory, most of the 79,915 people on hand filled Cleveland Stadium with a roar that spilled past the Dawg Pound bleachers in the east end zone and out onto Lake Erie. The dispirited Broncos tried to ignore both the deafening rumble and the stiff wind in their face as they gathered for the kickoff return on the west end of the field.
Denver’s Ken Bell and Gene Lang were deep to receive, and they blew on their hands in the minus 5-degree wind chill. Cleveland’s kicker, Mark Moseley, planted his square-toed shoe on the ball’s equator and sent a knuckler into the following wind. The ball bounced on the Denver 15-yard line and caromed to Bell’s right and on toward the goal line. Bell retreated and tried to pick up the ball. Seeing the onrushing Browns, Bell gave up and covered the ball on his own 2-yard line.
The Broncos faced a march of 98 yards to tie the game with 5:32 left on the clock.
As the Denver special teams players headed for the sideline, they ran across the muddy and almost grassless field littered with dog biscuits. Taking a cue from the Dawg Pound fanatics, the Cleveland faithful had taken to pitching Milk Bones at opposing teams. One Bronco said later, “You could feel the things crunching under your feet when you ran.”
In the huddle, Denver guard Keith Bishop eased the tension a bit — “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”
Elway dropped back into the end zone on the first play and threw to running back Sammy Winder in the flat for 5 yards. Winder then ran for another 3 yards. Coach Dan Reeves, unsure if they needed 1 or 2 yards for the first down, called timeout.
The crowd’s din lessened as the action stopped. Reeves and Elway conferred on the sideline. Reeves said, “Send Winder over left guard.” Winder gained two yards and a first down on the 12-yard line.
After a Winder run for three yards, Elway dropped back to pass. “The rush came high and I kinda stepped up inside it. I looked up field and they were awful soft.” Elway pulled the ball down and took off to his left. Seeing Browns linebacker Chip Banks hurtling at him, Elway made a headfirst slide onto the ragged field.
First-and-10 on the 26-yard line. Hoping to exploit Cleveland’s two-deep coverage, Elway called a play-action pass — “Fire pass 94.” Receiver Steve Sewell knew he would be the first read. “I had the option of the corner or post,” he said. “I saw the safeties split and went to the post.” He went up high and made the catch just before safety Chris Rockins hammered him.
First-and-10 at the Denver 48. Elway connected with Steve Watson on a 12-yard out pattern. Two-minute warning.
KOA radio announcer Larry Zimmer witnessed the effect Denver’s drive had on the fans. “Denver suddenly took command of not only the game but the stadium. The closer Denver got to the end zone, the quieter the crowd got.”
First-and-10 on the Browns’ 40-yard line. Elway overthrew receiver Vance Johnson on the Cleveland 5-yard line. Despite the incompletion, the Browns know what a hot Elway can do. Defensive end Sam Clancy yelled, “Somebody’s got to get him.”
Second-and-10. Time: 1:52. Elway made a short drop and started to move up when defensive tackle Dave Puzzuoli met him head-on for an 8-yard loss. Third-and-a-bunch. Denver called timeout.
“Just try to get half of it,” Reeves told Elway. They both knew that a fourth down would not be a punting situation.
Third-and-18 at the Cleveland 48. Time: 1:47. The crowd had awakened and suddenly the noise in the stadium was overwhelming. In the huddle, Elway called the play and set up a silent count. Rookie receiver Mark Jackson later recalled his reaction. “Usually, John gives that play a quick read, from the top, or deeper, route to the bottom route. I was the guy who would be 20 yards deep.”
In the shotgun, Elway saw that the Browns’ safeties were playing deep. “I’m going to take a shot downfield,” he thought. He lifted a heel and Watson went in motion from left to right. Elway and center Steve Bryan mistimed the count and Bryan snapped the ball early. It hit Watson on the left hip.
The ball had enough juice on it to wobble back to Elway’s ankles. Recovering, he saw Jackson break into the hole in front of the safeties. Again, Jackson, “John drilled me with the ball.” Twenty-yard gain.
First-and-10 on the Browns’ 28-yard line. “At that point, I became concerned,” said Cleveland coach Marty Schottenheimer.
With Watson well covered, Elway overthrew him to kill the clock. He next called for running back screen to the left and it gained 14 yards.
“Man, we’ve got a shot at this,” yelled Bronco linebacker Karl Mecklenburg from the sideline. “We could do this.”
First-and-10 at the 14. Watson caught Elway’s pass, but out of bounds at the goal line.
Second-and-10. Time: 0:49. The Brown’s coverage forced Elway from the pocket and he made a beeline for the first down marker on the right sideline. He slid feet first just as linebacker Mike Johnson arrived.
Third-and-one at the 5-yard line. Time: 0:42. The play: “Option left 62 Rebel.” Receivers Johnson and Jackson were the main options on the left — Johnson in the flat, Jackson on a slant.
“My whole role was to rub Vance’s guy as he ran the shoot route and he was gonna catch the ball,” Jackson explained.
“I can remember seeing Mark wide open,” Elway recalled, “and saying to myself, ‘Get the ball to him as fast as you can.’”
“I wasn’t expecting the ball. All of a sudden, I see John’s eyes blow up and I see that he’s looking directly at me. As his arm goes back, I’m thinking Holy Smoke, the ball’s coming!”
Elway’s heater, low and away, found Jackson as he slid to the ground. Touchdown!
Barefoot placekicker Rich Karlis began his mincing off-balance run onto the field. “I just remember being a little bit more nervous about that because of the flying dog bones. The Dawg Pound was in a frenzy.”
Karlis made the extra point in front of the Dawgs. Denver kicked off and Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar took a knee. Tied, 20-20. Overtime.
Cleveland won the toss, but the momentum favored Denver. After three-and-out, the Browns Jeff Gosset punted. Gerald Willhite fielded it on the Denver 21, and was tackled after a 4-yard return.
First-and-10 on the Denver 25. After Winder ran to the 30-yard line, tight end Orson Mobley made a diving catch for a 22-yard gain.
“They went into a prevent defense,” said Karlis. “John just picked ‘em apart.”
Winder lost two, and Elway threw incomplete to Sewell on a screen. The momentum seemed to slow.
Third-and-12 on the 50-yard line. The Browns chased Elway from the pocket, and the quarterback sprinted to the left with defensive end Sam Clancy in pursuit. Dangerously close to the line of scrimmage, Elway saw defensive back Felix Wright slip as he covered Watson. Elway snapped a quick throw across his body. Watson jumped as high as he could and made a fingertip catch. Wright caught up with him on the way down. Twenty-eight yard gain.
“I was almost over the line,” Elway recalled. “I fell forward and when I got up, I was right on it.”
First-and-10 on the Cleveland 22. Karlis removed his insulated boot and began his warm up. Winder ran three times in the middle of the field to set up the game-winning field goal attempt.
Fourth-and-three at the 15-yard line. Time: 5:48. Karlis and Elway passed each other. “John was as wound up as I’ve ever seen him,” the kicker said later. “He was so uptight.”
“It’s just like practice!” Elway shouted at Karlis. And again. “It’s just like practice!”
Karlis paced off his approach. “Keep your head down and just swing through,” Karlis told himself.
The Broncos on the sideline craned to see the attempt, but two players drifted back toward the bench. Linebacker Jim Ryan recalled the moment. “Elway and Watson came over and said ‘We can’t look.’” Ryan couldn’t see the kick but when he saw everyone jumping and yelling, he said, “Boys, we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
And so goes the legend of “the Drive.” The Broncos magic that day boosted the 1986 AFC Championship into everyone’s list of NFL greatest games. To his credit, Elway engineered 46 similar feats in his Hall of Fame career — drives that led to scores and Bronco victories in final five minutes of a game.
Cleveland’s professional sports teams have suffered enough other disappointing losses that each has gained a name like “the Drive.” Here’s a partial list.
The Fumble. Again facing the Broncos in the 1987 AFC Championship in Cleveland, the Browns had the ball on the Denver 8-yard line and trailed 38-31 with 1:12 to play. Running back Earnest Byner took the handoff from Kosar, but Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille stripped the ball at the 2-yard line. Dawgonnit again.
The Shot. In the deciding game in the first round of the 1989 NBA playoffs, the Cavs led the Chicago Bulls 100-99 with three seconds left. Inbound pass to Michael Jordon. Jumps, shoots, scores!
The Move. Browns owner Art Modell announced on Nov. 6, 1995, that he planned to move his team to Baltimore.
The Decision. NBA star LeBron James announced his decision on July 8, 2010 to sign with the Miami Heat.