Is this really Bud Carson football, the weird 16-13 victory that his Cleveland Browns registered over the Denver Broncos on Sunday? How weird? Well, it was a game the Browns had at least three chances to put away in the fourth quarter, and failed. Then at the end the Broncos could have gone ahead—and failed.
It was an afternoon in which Tom Dooley, the referee, moved the visiting Broncos 92 yards down the field early in the fourth quarter—their longest march of the day—to get them away from the eggs and rocks and dog biscuits and double-A batteries that were flying out of the Lake Erie end of the stands, a.k.a. the Dawg Pound. As a result, the Browns had the wind at their backs instead of in their faces—just enough wind to nudge Matt Bahr's 48-yard field goal over the bar at the final gun.
We don't know if this is really Bud Carson football, because it was only his fourth game as an NFL head coach. But we do know that his Browns are one of the four 3-1 teams in the AFC. And we know that his whole history as an assistant is of crafting superior defenses; on Sunday, Cleveland played terrific defense. Denver quarterback John El way was held to six completions (in 19 attempts), the fewest he's had in a pro game in which he has gone the whole way. What's more, when things looked bad for the Browns, with Denver on the Cleveland eight, the score tied 13-13, 1:49 to go and the Browns needing a big defensive play, they got it—from middle linebacker Mike Johnson, who stripped the ball from running back Sammy Winder. Then they got the winning drive from their offense.
Afterward, sitting in his little office in the depths of Cleveland Stadium, shooting the breeze with his brother, Guy, and a few friends, Carson was asked if every Sunday was going to be like this. He let out his breath and said, "If it is, I'm not going to last long."
In the players' locker room next door, though, the Browns were telling a different story. They were talking about a triumph of the mind, of a concept, of an intellectual approach to defensive football: the intricate world of prereads, instant adjustments and an audible system so carefully developed that it can match the offense's, call for call. "Stick with me," Carson had told his defensive players when he got them together in camp. "You're not going to get everything right away. It's going to take awhile, but it's sound, and when you catch on you'll be playing at an entirely new level of defensive football."
"Each week we keep putting in new things," said strong safety Felix Wright. "We thought we had a pretty good audible system last week against Cincinnati, but when we shifted, we didn't do a good enough job disguising it, and [quarterback] Boomer [Esiason] read us. So that's what we worked on this week. This week I think we were one step ahead of Elway."
Elway said the toughest thing about his reads was "the pressure they put on me. The key thing was what they did up front."
But by the fourth quarter some of the edge was off Cleveland's pass rush; it was tiring. Elway was getting time, but the coverage was still giving him trouble. "We're now doing the kind of things you usually expect from a smarter team, a more mature team," said Johnson. "We're starting to understand what Bud wants from us."
Some people will tell you that pro football isn't such a complicated game. You line up. He hits you in the mouth; you hit him in the mouth. The tougher guy wins. It's the people, the athletes, who make the difference. There's some truth in that view, but there's a lot more to playing in the NFL.
"We probably had the greatest collection of defensive talent ever put on the field," says Andy Russell, the All-Pro linebacker on the Pittsburgh Steelers' early Super Bowl teams. "But we also had a great defensive coach, Bud Carson, who gave us a system that was years ahead of its time. He got us to where we could change our calls so quickly that we always had the last word. It really worked against a team like the Cowboys, with all the shifts and changes and formations they used. We could always stay one jump ahead of them."