The Fumble

[Get Exclusive Tips on our Patreon, Ad-Free

The Fumble is a famous play that happened during the 1987 AFC Championship Game between the Cleveland Browns and the Denver Broncos. Late in the game, with the Browns trailing 38-33 running back Earnest Byner had an excellent chance to score a touchdown that would put his team in front but fumbled the ball at the 1 yard line. The game, played at Mile High Stadium on January 17, 1988 was a high stakes one for a Browns outfit looking to exorcise the memories of their upset at the hands of the Broncos at the same stage in 1987, hence Byner’s error was very painful for the club’s faithful.

Background and Events of the Fumble

In 1987, the Broncos and the Browns had met in the AFC Championship game, with the Broncos winning the tie in dramatic fashion. Another famous play, known as The Drive, had ensued during that game with quarterback John Elway leading a 98-yard drive which ended in a Broncos touchdown to tie the game with 38 seconds left and send it into overtime. The Broncos would go on to clinch the game, leaving a sour taste in Cleveland mouths.

The following season, the Browns rebounded and won another conference title, with the highlight of their season being an impressive sweep of the mighty Steeler. A player strike that lasted more than three weeks denied Cleveland an early chance at revenge over the Broncos as games from week 2 were cancelled. However after qualifying for the AFC Championship Game, the Browns finally had a chance to carve their pound of flesh.

When the game kicked off, the Browns immediately found themselves in trouble trailing 21-3 by halftime. An inspired performance by quarterback Bernie Kosar to set up four touchdowns in the second half brought the Browns back into the game. The Browns tied the game at 31 by mid-fourth quarter but Denver stole the lead with four minutes on the clock through running back Sammy Winder after a 20-yard pass from Elway. With the scores now sitting at 38-31, Cleveland put on a spirited fight and worked the ball patiently down the field towards Denver’s end zone. With 1:12 left, the Browns had the ball at the Broncos’ 8 and a clever play to put the Broncos defense off had Byner with what looked like a clear charge at the Broncos end zone.

Byner ran around the left end poetic justice looked almost guaranteed for the Browns. Cleveland fans were already on their feet as Byner fell past the goal line but it soon became clear that he did not have the ball. Bronco’s cornerback Jeremiah Castille had dived at the charging running back and recovered the ball at the 3-yard line. With 13 seconds on the clock, the distraught Browns forced a fourth and 1 at the 12 but the Broncos smothered the threat with an intentional safety. As the last few seconds ticked down, the reality of another last minute heartbreak sunk in among Cleveland players and fans.

Aftermath of the Fumble

The irony of Byner’s fumble became a subject of amusement for neutrals and Denver fans for a long time after the game. The fact that The Fumble happened on the two-yard line, the same mark where barely a year earlier The Drive had started was a coincidence with little comparison. Many game experts were of the opinion that the fumble did not occur entirely due to Byner’s fault. Wide receiver Webster Slaughter took a share of the blame because he failed to block Castille and instead went ball watching, allowing Castille to put in a tackle on Byner.

Castile later described his decision to go for the ball rather than for Byner’s body as a calculated move since he had witnessed Byner’s running power throughout the game and knew that the earlier strategy would most likely fail.

Byner became a pariah of sorts among some Cleveland faithful despite having been one of their more decent players over the years. He spent one more year in Cleveland and was then traded to the Washington Redskins for the 1989 season, with running back Mike Oliphant heading the opposite way. He had a fairly successfully career earning Pro Bowl status in 1990 and 1991, winning the Super Bowl in the latter season. He returned to Cleveland in 1996, and ended his career there in 1998.