In American football, The Fumble refers to a specific incident in the AFC Championship Game between the Cleveland Browns and the Denver Broncos on January 17, 1988 at Mile High Stadium. With 1:12 left in the game, Browns running back Earnest Byner appeared to be on his way to score the game-tying touchdown, but fumbled at the 2-yard line.
During the game, the Broncos jumped to a 21-3 halftime lead, but Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar led them back with four second-half touchdowns. By the middle of the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 31. The Broncos then took the lead on a long drive that ended with a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Elway to running back Sammy Winder, making the score 38-31 with 6 minutes left in the game. Cleveland responded by advancing the ball down to Denver's 8-yard line with 1:12 left, setting the stage for the play that would make this game one of the most famous games in NFL lore.
Browns running back Earnest Byner took the handoff and appeared to be on his way to score the game-tying touchdown, but was stripped of the ball by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille at the 2-yard line. The Broncos recovered the ball, gave the Browns an intentional safety, and went on to win 38-33. While Byner took a lot of heat from Browns fans and the media for the fumble, what is often overlooked is that he was one of the main reasons Cleveland came so close to winning the game. He had a superb performance with 67 rushing yards, 7 receptions for 120 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
On ESPN Classic's "The Fumble, the Story of the 1987 AFC Championship", the Browns' then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer analyzed the play, showing that the fumble was not entirely Earnest Byner's fault. Schottenheimer stated: "The [Browns'] wide receiver [#84, Webster Slaughter] is supposed to take 10 steps then block [Castille] to the outside. Instead, he wanted to watch the play."
Castille said: "I was thinking, 'I got burned the last time I tried to bump-and-run [Slaughter]', so instead I stepped back 6-to-8 yards before the snap, so I could better see the play unfold. I saw it was a draw play and that Byner had the ball. I remember thinking that Byner ran all over us that entire second half, so there was no way I was going to tackle him. Instead, I went for the ball the whole time."
Schottenheimer continued: "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 8-yard line."
Dick Enberg, the play-by-play announcer of the television broadcast on NBC, noted: "And wasn't it ironic that Denver got the ball back on the 2-yard line? Wasn't it just 1 year ago where the Broncos were on their own 2 before putting together what became 'The Drive'?"
ESPN Page Two writer Bill Simmons used "The Fumble" as an argument for why the Cleveland Browns should be considered one of the most cursed franchises in sports. He also describes their fan base as "tortured" following this play. His article, "The Levels of Losing," appeared January 29, 2010.
Despite being primarily remembered for "The Fumble," Byner went on to have a relatively successful career. After spending another year with the Browns, he was traded to the Washington Redskins prior to the start of 1989 season for running back Mike Oliphant. In his five seasons with Washington, Byner was selected to play in the Pro Bowl twice (1990, 1991) and won a Super Bowl ring with the team in the 1991 season. In that season's Super Bowl XXVI, in 1992, he caught a touchdown pass in the second quarter, and the Redskins won, giving him the NFL Championship ring he could not win with the Browns.
He ended up going back to Cleveland for two more years, and then finished his career in 1998, after spending two years with the transplanted Baltimore Ravens. In his 14 NFL seasons, Byner rushed for 8,261 yards, caught 512 passes for 4,605 yards, and scored 72 total touchdowns (56 rushing, 15 receiving, 1 fumble recovery). At the time of his retirement, Byner ranked within the NFL's top 30 all-time leaders in rushing attempts, rushing touchdowns, rushing yards, and total yards.
- Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (ISBN 0-06-270174-6)
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