A Look at “The Fumble”
After “The Drive” robbed the Browns of another chance to make it to the Super Bowl, another infamous play – “The Fumble” by Earnest Byner – took them out of the big game one more time.
Understanding this moment helps fans and others understand this momentous occasion.
Setting the Stage
Under quarterback Bernie Kosar, the Browns had once again become a dominant team.
However, they had fallen to the Denver Broncos in 1987 after quarterback John Elway engineered a 98-yard game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
However, the Browns’ luck in the 1988 game against the Broncos seemed high again.
While they were down 21-3 at the half, they rallied to score four touchdowns in 15 minutes to tie the game 31-31 with 5:14 left on the clock.
Elway answered with a 75-yard scoring drive, but Kosar took the team from the 25-yard line down to the eight-yard line.
A touchdown would tie the game and put them in an excellent position to revenge the Broncos for the previous year.
The Play as It Happened
With over a minute left in the game, the Browns had more than enough time to score a touchdown to tie.
Running back Earnest Byner had been strong all game and was known as a talented, versatile, and strong rusher.
He was handed the ball and needed to take the ball inside.
However, his linemen had not opened up a route, and he was blocked from his pathway. In this situation, he decided to cut back to the left outside to find a path.
Byner then added a quick juke back inside to blow past most of his defenders.
As he barreled towards the end zone, wide receiver, Webster Slaughter, turned to watch the play unfold.
Slaughter believed that Byner’s score was inevitable, as the young player had easily been the reason the Browns stayed in the game.
However, Slaughter’s flagging attention allowed defensive back Jeremiah Castille the freedom to chase Byner.
If Slaughter had blocked Castille as he should have done, The Fumble would never have happened.
Instead of scoring, Castille struck Byner and stripped the ball from his hands just before he scored.
Castile found the ball, covered it up, and gave Denver the ball.
The Broncos took a safety with eight seconds left – they had the lead, and a field goal still wouldn’t catch them – and gave the Browns back the ball with almost no time.
Kosar bombed towards the end zone in desperation, but the pass was no good, and the clock ran out to give the Broncos the win.
The Earnest Byner Fumble pic.twitter.com/tyteDSU2yW
— Joe Farley (@Joepfarley1) March 25, 2020
Many fans blamed Byner for the snafu. However, Browns’ head coach Marty Schottenheimer defended him: “Earnest never saw Castille coming.
Earnest was the reason we were still in the game at that point.
He had several heroic runs and catches over the course of the second half that allowed us to have a chance to tie the game at 38.
All of these heroics, unfortunately, were overshadowed by a single draw play from the eight-yard line.”
What Happened to Byner?
Although many Cleveland fans remember Byner for this miscue – with some never forgiving him – he didn’t flame out or become a pariah after the game.
In fact, Byner played one more year with the Browns before he was traded to the Washington Redskins before the 1989 season.
Cleveland brought in Mike Oliphant from that squad while Byner joined the Redskins and excelled in many ways.
His first two seasons with the Redskins were extremely positive – he was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1990 and 1991 and even won a Super Bowl in the latter year.
He contributed to the win with a steady performance and a touchdown catch in the second quarter.
After this season, he played two more years with Washington before he was traded back to Cleveland for two more years before the infamous move to Baltimore, where he played another two years for the Ravens before retiring in 1998.
And, in spite of his infamous fumble being talked about still in Cleveland, Byner ended his career with an impressive 8,261 rushing yards and 4,602 receiving yards on 512 catches.
Byner scored 56 rushing touchdowns, 15 reception touchdowns, and one fumble-recovery touchdown for 72 total scores.
These numbers were good enough to put him in the top 30 all-time for rushers. Not bad.
Byner also later became a renowned coach with 17 years of experience.
Primarily a running back coach, Byner helped Redskin running backs earn at least 1,100 yards during four seasons with the team.
In particular, he helped Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis improve his game to the point where he earned 4,616 yards and 34 touchdowns under Byner’s coaching.
Later, Byner coached for the Tennessee Titans, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.