"Watch this one, this is my favorite," continued Schottenheimer. "See, number 51 and number 54 have read his audible—they're both yelling and pointing to their right. Bernie sees them. Screw you, he says, and he dumps the ball off to Herman Fontenot the other way and gets a big gain."
Now the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals were coming to town. They were leading the AFC Central with a 7-1 record, which tied them for the best record in pro football and put them two games up on 5-3 Cleveland. They were bringing in the AFC's best offense; the Browns would counter with the No. 1 defense. When Cincinnati beat Cleveland by a TD in September, the Bengals got a hefty 213 yards on the ground, and their quarterback. Boomer Esiason, completed only one pass in the second half.
On Friday things weren't looking up for the Browns. Thirty-mile-an-hour winds were whipping across their practice field, causing Kosar's passes to flutter. After the workout, Schottenheimer announced that fullback Kevin Mack, Cleveland's top rusher, its big thumper, would miss the game with a pinched nerve in his neck. His place would be taken by Tim Manoa, who's primarily a blocker and short-yardage guy.
"If there's wind like this on Sunday—well, I don't know," Kosar said, shaking his head. "Of course, it won't be too good for Boomer, either. Against Phoenix I threw everything I wanted to, but my arm still isn't 100 percent."
Sunday dawned sunny and cool in Cleveland with minimal wind. Still, Kosar got off to a shaky start. The Browns' first series ended with an interception. In the second quarter, with Cleveland leading 3-0, David Fulcher, Cincinnati's strong safety, put on a rush. Kosar tried to dump the ball over him to Manoa, but Fulcher grabbed it and ran 16 yards for a TD. After that, the Browns' special teams, which came up with three big plays, took over.
Fontenot returned the ensuing kickoff 84 yards, to the Cincinnati nine, and a penalty on the play moved the ball down to the five. Manoa, who gained a career-high 89 yards on 23 carries, rammed for three yards and then two to get the score. The Bengals responded with a 73-yard drive that ended in a field goal. The score was 10-10 at the half, and Cleveland was in trouble.
"They knew what we were doing," said Kosar, who had directed only one decent drive in the first half. "Their third-string quarterback, Mike Norseth, was with us in 1986, and he did an excellent job of briefing them on our offense. They were tuned in to our cadence and audibles and our whole package."
Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche's no-huddle offense, which has been both praised and maligned, didn't figure much in the first meeting between these teams. Who needed it, with all that ground power? But in the first half of Sunday's game, Cincinnati's no-huddle attack gave Cleveland problems. In the second quarter, the Bengals drove 74 yards to the Browns' 12, where they were stopped on fourth-and-one. Two plays earlier the Browns couldn't get their nickel defense on the field in time and were penalized for using 12 men.
Then, on Cincinnati's 72-yard field-goal drive, the Bengals drove Cleveland crazy with their no-huddling. They completed a third-down pass for a first down before the Browns could get their nickel people in, and they picked up a couple of other first downs by using their regular offense and running the ball against the less sturdy nickel defenders. It was an orgy of strategy, and Cleveland was coming out second-best.
"At halftime we decided that they're better at this kind of stuff than we are," said Browns noseguard Bob Golic after the game. "So we figured whatever defense we had on the field, let's just play it. Plus you get tired from all that running on and off the field."