Bill Belichick was a Really Good Coach with the Cleveland Browns
I have a story to tell. It’s the story of a coach who took over a team that had played for the AFC Championship not three years before. However the team was coming off it’s worst historical season in terms of point differential in 1990.
Bill Belichick was hired to coach the morbid Cleveland Browns in 1991, and he held that position until the team fired him and left for Baltimore in 1996. This is obviously not a particularly good situation to be coaching in, and it’s somewhat comparable to Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville, Chan Gailey in Buffalo, and Leslie Frasier in Minnesota. The only sure fire way to keep the team in their current locale — and to keep your employment status with the team — is to win consistently. And for four years, Bill Belichick more or less worked miracles in Cleveland to keep the team competitive until he had built the AFCs strongest team. However, unlike in his New England days, the Browns had no staying power, regressed sharply in 1995, and moved to Baltimore.
Now the timing of Belichick’s hire in Cleveland is consistent with other jobs that Belichick has selected: the Browns were primed for a strong rebound. The team’s defense, one of the league’s best in 1989, had fallen into the conversation for the worst in 1990. The Browns were going to benefit from the plexiglass effect. The offense though, didn’t seem to have as much hope. Bernie Kosar looked like one of the league’s best young QBs from 1987 to 1989, but when the offense was so bad that Kosar’s numbers fell apart in 1990, there’s hardly an obvious solution for getting that back on track.
The Browns were a mediocre offensive team back in the day lead by a talented quarterback and not much else. Belichick’s biggest effect over his first two seasons as a head coach was giving Kosar enough talent to not only make it back to 1989 levels, but above and beyond that. Belichick did his part, and Kosar’s development stalled following the 1991 season. That 1991 team was weird for a number of reasons. The Browns became the first team in 12 seasons to post a turnover differential of +15 or better, with a point differential within 5 points of even to miss the playoffs. Those numbers are a practical guarentee of a .500 record, as only the bizarre 1971 Bengals joined the 91 Browns as teams that failed to win half their games averaging +1 turnovers a game and scoring as much as their opponents.
The problem wasn’t hard to see: the Browns were killed on the ground that year, both offensively and defensively, which would make closing out late leads and preventing late leads from being closed out rather difficult. But perhaps the biggest problem with Belichick’s Browns team was that they didn’t do any one thing all that well, and it was borne out in the future that the one guy who put up good numbers as a Brown in 91, Kosar, was at the end of his career in terms of effectiveness. Still, Belichick had taken a team from the worst season in the history of the franchise and had basically made them a playoff contender, based on periphrial numbers such as point differential and turnover margin.
The 1992 and 1993 Cleveland Browns seasons were practically identical. The Browns went into each season thinking they knew who would carry a bulk of the load on the ground, and thinking that the still kinda young Bernie Kosar would lead them to the playoffs. In each season, they had to turn over a number of the carries to a younger player based on the effectiveness of the incumbent. And despite retooling the entire receiving corps to create a potent downfield threat, the Browns seemed to find out that they were building an attack that worked away from the quick passing strengths of Kosar, and were better off in both years with a journeyman quarterback. In 1992, Mike Tomczak took a majority of the snaps. In 1993, it was Vinny Testeverde, with the Browns opting to release Kosar in the middle of the season.
Belichick’s failing here was that he simply was unable to do anything with the defensive side of the ball to negate the changes that were going on the offensive side. The Browns won 7 games in both the 1992 and 93 seasons, and were essentially the same team they were in 1991 terms of a point differential perspective. But the Browns were right on Kosar. They built an offense that he was limited in, and even though Tomczak left the offense after just one year to play for the Steelers, the Belichick Browns had the QB situation solved with Testeverde.
Except for one problem. Testeverde was fantastic for the Browns in 1993 and 1995. But in 1994, Testeverde had his poorest year as a pro after leaving Tampa Bay. He played poorly against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1994 Divisional Playoffs, a loss. And he happened to do that in the one season where Belichick coached an excellent defensive team in Cleveland. In four years on the job, Bill Belichick had built the best team in the AFC. But the Browns committed ten turnovers in three games against a Pittsburgh team that wasn’t all that great, and it cost them both the division title and a trip to the AFC Championship game. But this was a team that really should have been back in 1995.
And in Belichick’s last year, the Browns started 3-1 under Testeverde. The team was 3-2 and +35 in point differential and +8 in turnover differential. Then the defense completely imploded. The Browns finished a well below average 5-11, juggled rookie QB Eric Zeier in for an injured Testeverde (who continued to have a great year when healthy), lost 10 of it’s last 12 games beating only the hapless Bengals, and then the team moved to Baltimore in January. Things got a lot better for Testeverde in Baltimore. The Ravens immediately became a strong drafting team. And even though the team didn’t win a lot of games under Ted Marchibroda, many of Belichicks’ solutions remained staples on the Baltimore defense for when Brian Billick took over and the team won the super bowl in 2000. Marvin Lewis, the team’s defensive coordinator, came into a pretty easy situation.
Belichick made a bunch of really good decisions for a struggling Browns franchise in the early nineties. He built a really good team in 1994, one that looked to have some staying power in the AFC, not unlike the current Patriots. Belichick’s Browns, when they were in Cleveland, seemed to be going in a better direction than Bill Parcells’ Patriots. He was done in by his inability to build a consistently strong defense, something that bit him multiple times in Cleveland, and ultimately got him fired. He inherited a quarterback-only team, correctly realized the extent to which Kosar was going to develop, and fostered consistently strong quarterback play out of a bunch of journeyman. An average coach likely would have been taken down by Kosar’s decline, but Belichick built an elite AFC contender after releasing his franchise QB.
Bill Belichick was already a really good coach for the Cleveland Browns, and his effect on pro football started long before he starting winning super bowls with Tom Brady. To date, Belichick has never had a worse season from an offensive perspective than he did in 20o0, the first year since Kosar that the media would have argued he inherited an “established” NFL quarterback with Drew Bledsoe. The circumstances around the Bledsoe to Brady transition were far different and more sensitive, but the result is not unfairly surprising given the scope and path Belichick had traveled with the Cleveland Browns. The fact that he has won three titles with the Patriots after losing his job with the Browns is more a testament to the strength and stability that owner Robert Kraft and Brady have provided him, as well as some timely
It is absolutely not an example of a guy learning his lesson after being fired. Bill Belichick was always a good football coach.