Round Two: There’s always a chance history could repeat itself

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I was all set to write about how things are different for the Cleveland Browns this season.

The Kardiac Kids of 1979 and 1980 were back, pulling out games at the very end that, up until the final minute or even seconds, looked lost, each victory more exhilarating and unlikely than the last.

This season was also beginning to resemble 1986, when, unlike the Kardiac Kids era, the Browns were more than just an upstart team showing a lot of pluck — and a little luck — in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat Sunday after Sunday. This team, like the 1986 squad, showed that it could beat the best the NFL had to offer — demonstrated by a home win over the then-unbeaten 49ers and last Sunday’s road victory at AFC North Division leader Baltimore — and appeared to be a legitimate threat to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

But at the moment, the Browns Time Machine is stuck on the side of the road in 1988.

That’s when quarterback Bernie Kosar suffered an elbow injury to his throwing arm in the season opener at Kansas City, derailing the Super Bowl hopes of a Browns team that had reached the AFC Championship Game the previous two seasons, losing to John Elway’s Denver Broncos in two of the most agonizing defeats you’ll ever see. Expectations were in the stratosphere heading into the 1988 season, but Kosar’s injury in Week 1 had the wind blowing out of Browns Nation’s sails harder than a Lake Erie gale.

And the winds are blowing again with the news earlier this week that Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is out for the rest of the season with a broken bone in his throwing shoulder, an injury that will require surgery to repair.

Watson’s injury came just when excitement was reaching fever pitch following the Browns’ last-second win in Baltimore, a victory that gave them a 6-3 record and put them smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt. We’re not used to relevant football in November, but after beating the Ravens, the Browns seemed poised to do big things. And now … this.

In 1988, the Browns still managed to make the playoffs as a Wild Card entrant, although they had been sufficiently defanged with Kosar off the field. The Browns lost to the Houston Oilers in that Wild Card round, just a shadow of their former Super Bowl-threatening selves.

And now we’re going to party like it’s 1988 again. Grow that mullet, tease up that big hair, and put on some Def Leppard and Run DMC, because with Watson now a spectator, we’re going Full Monty ’88 from here on out.

You weren’t around to see that 1988 season and you have some questions? No problem, I’d be happy to give you a tour through the fall of ’88 while our time machine is up on the rack, so fire away!

How did the Browns get to the playoffs in 1988 without having their starting quarterback most of the season? With an eclectic revolving door of quarterbacks, that’s how. After Kosar went down in the opener at Kansas City, wily veteran Gary Danielson (you know him as the longtime game analyst on CBS college football telecasts) stepped in at QB – for less than one full game. Danielson suffered a fractured ankle in Week 2, which brought in third-stringer Mike Pagel, who managed to stay upright all the way to Week 6 before suffering a separated shoulder.

The Browns were 3-3 and had literally run out of quarterbacks with 10 weeks still left in the season.

So owner Art Modell called Don Strock to see if he was busy. Strock had made a career as a backup QB extraordinaire with the Miami Dolphins, routinely coming off the bench to pull his team’s chestnuts out of the fire to save games – and sometimes even seasons. Strock was smart, poised and accurate in the clutch. Problem was, at the time Modell called him, Strock was retired from football and working as a golf pro in Florida. The question was, would Strock rather work on the Browns’ playbook or work on his tan?

Fortunately for the Browns, the playbook won. Strock came north and, fresh off the golf course, went out and beat the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. That bridged the gap for Kosar’s return in Week 8, which lasted until Week 15, when Kosar was lost for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

Strock came back in at QB and beat the Oilers in the snow at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium to earn a Wild Card berth – against the Oilers at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium the very next week. Strock was injured in the playoff game, Pagel came back in at QB, the Browns lost 24-23, and what Browns Nation thought would be a Super Bowl season back in August was over.

So the QB carousel in 1988 went: Kosar-Danielson-Pagel-Strock-Kosar-Strock-Pagel. If Strock hadn’t filled the gaps, the playoffs wouldn’t have happened.

Sounds like this season’s QB carousel, doesn’t it? The names have changed, but the quarterback situation is eerily similar. Watson played the first three games before missing Week 4 with a shoulder injury, rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson was thrown to the wolves – in this case, the Ravens – in a 28-3 loss in Week 4, P.J. Walker was the QB the next three games, Watson returned for Weeks 9 and 10, and now DTR is said to be getting the start this Sunday against the Steelers.

So we’re in Week 11 and it’s been: Watson-DTR-Walker-Watson-DTR. Already.

The Browns were 3-3 when they pulled Don Strock off the golf course in 1988 and still made the playoffs. How did they do it? Because the starter, Kosar, came back in Week 8 and made it to Week 15. The Browns went 5-3 in that span, sitting at 9-6 overall following the Week 15 loss to the Dolphins and very much in the playoff race. This season, the Browns are currently 6-3 and won’t have the luxury of the starting quarterback returning. So unlike 1988, the Browns will have to play the stretch run with a backup at quarterback.

So the 2023 Browns need to find their Don Strock? Short answer: Yes. Longer answer: Maybe not. First, the Yes part: It’s hard to envision the Browns navigating the rest of their schedule with the QBs currently on their roster and winning enough games to make the playoffs. So it’s time to see which retired or long-in-the-tooth quarterback feels like getting their Don Strock on. Tom Brady? Philip Rivers? Nick Foles? Joe Flacco? Cam Newton? Old friend Colt McCoy, who played for the Browns from 2010-12? Browns GM Andrew Berry has said the team will add a quarterback. The question is, will they add one just to have a third QB, or are they looking for a starter? Now, the Maybe Not part: DTR had no chance in his debut as a starter against Baltimore in Week 4. A rookie quarterback making his first start against a top-shelf NFL defense isn’t going to go well, and it didn’t: The Browns’ offense was predictably AWOL in a 28-3 loss. But anyone who watched DTR in his four years at UCLA knows that he is a dynamic, athletically gifted, confident player who can make things happen with his arm and his legs. If he is allowed to play instinctively rather than forced to stand in the pocket like a robot with a bull’s-eye on his chest, DTR can stress a defense. We’ll find out Sunday when T.J. Watt and the Steelers come to town.

Sure, the Browns made the playoffs in 1988, but only as a Wild Card team — and they were one and done. Their Super Bowl hopes were dashed without Kosar. Can we say the same for the Browns without Watson? Without Kosar, the 1988 Browns were a different team. He was the starter for a reason, and until the elbow injury, he was destined for greatness. After the injury, he never had quite the same effectiveness. Watson also was the starter for a reason, but teams have reached the Super Bowl — and won it — with backup quarterbacks. But that depends on who the backup is and what kind of team they have around them. The Browns have a championship-caliber defense; the question now is what the offense will look like over the long haul without Watson.

If Kosar was never the same after the elbow injury in 1988, could we be looking at a Deshaun Watson with “diminishing skills” when he returns next season? Both quarterbacks suffered injuries to their throwing arm, which is always dicey. Kosar went on to play into the mid-1990s, so the injury didn’t end his career, but he clearly lost some zip on the ball. So it’s wait and see with Watson.

How’s that Browns Time Machine coming along? Any chance we can fire it back up and get to 1986 where the road is smoother? Sorry, no, it looks like we’re going to be stuck in 1988 for another couple months. So make yourself comfortable.

You danced around the question earlier: Yes or no, can the Browns still get to the Super Bowl without Watson? Remember, we went back in time, not forward. So I can’t answer the question.

That’s a cop-out. Can they, or can’t they? You’ll have to do what we did in 1988: Tune in each week and see what happens. Any given Sunday, my friend. Any given Sunday.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.