The 25 biggest headaches for the Cleveland Browns since 1990 — #25: Gary Baxter
The past two decades represent a drawn-out, frightful voyage into deep wilderness for the Cleveland Browns franchise and its faithful followers.
Fans of 31 NFL teams are left disappointed each season, but you’d be hard-pressed to name a more snake-bitten enclave than Cleveland’s. Their troubles are well-documented, from soul-crushing AFC title game defeats to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the 1980s; to Art Modell‘s splintering of the franchise with the move to Baltimore in 1995; to the focused, passionate fight of Browns fans to keep the team’s colors and history tied to Cleveland forevermore.
All of this happening BEFORE the team returned in 1999.
Cleveland’s re-emergence on the NFL landscape was cited as a striking triumph for the city over the tentacles of greed tightening around pro sports.
But victory trumpets were quickly silenced.
In their first game back, the once-proud Browns — now an expansion squad littered with anonymous bodies — were scattered to the wind 43-0 by the Pittsburgh Steelers who, more than a decade later, have only been beaten by Cleveland four times in 25 games.
Generating a list of the Browns’ 25 biggest headaches since 1990 — limited, in this case, to players, coaches and personnel (not individual games or opponents) — is a subjective exercise that allows one to select from hundreds of mistakes and misfortunes. If we all compiled a list, no two would look alike. This is mine, and I stretch it back to 1990 for a specific reason.
I grew up in Jets and Giants country, but chose to follow the Browns as a fifth-grader midway through the 1986 season.
The Browns were on the rise behind Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner and a young Marty Schottenheimer. Late that season, I watched them shred a heavily favored Dan Marino-led Miami Dolphins team on Monday Night Football and my search was over.
I’ll accept the jab that I jumped on a winning team at age 12, but it was less of a bandwagon leap at the time than joining the Jets — who started 10-1 that season — or the Giants, who won the Super Bowl months later.
We all know how that season ended for the Browns — with The Drive, a stunning moment in time that Cleveland’s yet to erase from its battered collective consciousness.
After that game, I floated through middle-school hallways, enveloped by jubilant, preadolescent Giants fans in freshly printed Joe Morris and Phil Simms jerseys. Two weeks later, they watched Bill Parcells guide New York to the biggest win in franchise history.
Certain the Browns were next, I dug in deep, tracking the Browns every move in a pre-Internet age through radio and newspaper clippings — any shred of evidence supporting my theory that they were destined by God for redemption. In those days, the beloved Browns News/Illustrated publication, arriving sometimes a full week after print in my East Coast mailbox, was not unlike the Ark of the Covenant burning in my bedroom.
Little did I know the path my obsession would take — how The Fumble on January 17, 1988, would collapse my youthful worldview and sense of all things good.
For me, that game stung deeper than The Drive. I played the VCR tape on repeat probably 50 times. The footage of Byner willing Cleveland’s offense to the brink of victory with 187 yards and two touchdowns, only to be sliced to the ground in the final moments, losing the ball in a burst for the end zone that would have tied the game at 38 — ending up alone and slumped on a single knee as Karl Mecklenburg and the Broncos jumped for joy.
I could not speak against Byner. He was the heart and soul of the team, and the rest of his career — which included a Super Bowl championship with the Washington Redskins and a successful return to Cleveland from 1994-95 — proved his resilience.
An aging Browns squad scratched its way to a third AFC Championship against the Broncos in 1989, but were pulled apart at the seams. It was the closest they’d ever get to glory in the quarter century since.
The Browns were a team on borrowed time, unable to reload the roster, haunted by terrible drafts and an AFC Central that was every bit as nasty as today’s AFC North.
In 1990, the floor fell out and the Browns spiraled to 3-13.
As Parcells won in his second Super Bowl with the Giants — and my (now) high-school hallways were populated with (at least twice as many) high-fiving Big Blue fans dressed in freshly printed Pepper Johnson and Ottis Anderson jerseys (complete with Gulf War-era yellow-arm bands) — Cleveland was beginning a steep descent into hell.
Having never experienced a Browns team that couldn’t turn misfortune into a playoff berth, I was highly optimistic that a good offseason would have the Browns — with new heroes, if required — back in the hunt for the AFC title.
The AFC hadn’t won the Super Bowl since the Raiders beat the Redskins following the 1983 season, and I was (very misguided and) convinced Cleveland was the most-fitting the team to do it, after all the drama they’d endured.
Little did I know that the Browns, by 1996, would no longer exist and, fittingly, Elway and the Denver Broncos would take the Lombardi Trophy away from the Green Bay Packers to end the AFC’s drought in 1997 — another biting, ironic disappointment for Browns fans in a chain of poisonous subtexts that have pulled this team farther away than ever from its glorious tradition of old.
My selection of this franchise’s 25-biggest headaches since 1990 was simple to generate. I could have gone 50, 100, 500 deep. You’ll have your own — ones that I’ve not selected.
We’ll go from bitter pill to bitter pill, 25 to 1.
Let’s begin our walk down the NFL’s Ho Chi Minh trail.
Not unlike an exorcism.
One can only hope this long journey into night has a dawn.
25. Gary Baxter
The Phil Savage/Romeo Crennel era in Cleveland kicked off with high hopes when Savage signed veteran free-agent cornerback Gary Baxter away from the arch-rival Baltimore Ravens, his former employer, in March 2005.
The Browns inked the serviceable-at-best Baxter to a whopping six-year, $30 million contract that included a $10.5 million signing bonus — a disturbing preview of the economic malfeasance the Browns front office would exhibit on repeat during Savage’s tenure.
Crennel was wheeled out before the media to laud the move.
“Gary’s experience on a dominant defense and the attitude he brings to the game will certainly enhance our efforts on the defensive side of the ball,” Crennel said at the time.
Crennel was never one for prophecy, outside of Baltimore’s continued dominance on defense, which never missed Baxter for a second. While the Browns hoped Baxter would serve as a defensive cornerstone for years to come, weeks would have to do.
Baxter tore a pectoral muscle six games into the season, ending his 2005 campaign. He returned in 2006 promising a new start, only to tear the patella tendon in his right and left knee — on the same play — in an October loss to the Broncos. Baxter was the first player in the NFL to suffer such an injury in 13 years.
Despite a flurry of comeback attempts, Baxter never started another regular season NFL contest. After netting 54 games for the Ravens from 2001-04, he played in only eight with the Browns from 2005-08, a poster boy for the team’s shoddy luck with injury-prone free agents since its return.
During his first season in Cleveland, Savage had this to say: “The overall professionalism (of the Browns) has been raised to a point where our fans can say, ‘They might not win a ton of games, but at least they’re representing themselves well and we can get behind these guys.’”
He was correct: Win a ton of games, they did not do.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.