Jaguars running backs coach Earnest Byner is one of the most beloved players in Cleveland Browns history. He's also the most tortured player in Browns history, tortured by the memory of fumbling the ball as he was about to score a game-tying touchdown in the Browns' quest to make it into the Super Bowl. Twenty-three years later, the Browns have still never played in the Super Bowl.
It was the 1987 AFC title game, it was in Denver and Byner was two yards away from sending the game into overtime. Then tragedy struck when the ball was stripped from his grasp by Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille.
"Life has a way of showing us we're still vulnerable and that was a way I was shown that," Byner said during a break in the Jaguars' Thursday schedule. Byner is in the process of preparing his running backs to play a game of critical importance against his old team on Sunday.
The game is considered to be an NFL Classic. It's a game that's known simply as "The Fumble," and it has been re-examined and glorified in recent years by ESPN's re-make of the 1987 AFC Championship Game telecast.
Then-Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer even went so far as to absolve Byner of blame by putting blame on wide receiver Webster Slaughter for missing his block on Castille. "The wide receiver is supposed to take 10 steps and then block to the outside. Instead, he watched the play," Schottenheimer said in the ESPN re-make.
"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," Schottenheimer added.
Byner said he wrestled with the stigma of the fumble for about four years before he was able to accept it and move on with his life, but he never blamed anyone but himself. He took the fall for it all.
"For me, it was a continual process of going through it. It was always re-wind," Byner said. "Sometimes, I'm like, they got that on again? It's one of the best games in history and it's going to continue to be played. If someone is benefitting from it, it's all fine."
Who might benefit from Byner's grief? The running backs he coaches.
"I use it. We talk about protecting the rock and that you don't want to go through what I went through. We definitely have to use it to help others," Byner said.
The Browns will come to Jacksonville this weekend with a new running back star. Once upon a time, it was Byner and Kevin Mack, now it's another big, pounding back in the Cleveland big-back tradition. His name is Peyton Hillis and he's rushed for 726 yards and eight touchdowns. He'll square off on Sunday against the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, a 745-yard rusher who's at the peak of his game.
"We wanna keep MoJo going. He's had two good games back to back. Generally, if we get a 100-yard game, we have a pretty good chance of winning," Byner said.
Jones-Drew is being aided by the resurgence of quarterback David Garrard and the team's passing game, which has become enough of a force to start backing defenders away from the line of scrimmage and into the passing lanes. The pass is helping the run and the run is helping the pass.
"When one is taking a breath, the other is blowing it out. We'd like to see that continue. Once we get that going, it's tough for the defense to lock in on what we're doing," Byner said.
"I always have fond memories of being in Cleveland. For me, it was a good time up there and much love to the fans," he added.