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New York Jets-Cleveland Browns: Remembering the Marathon by the Lake

Marty Lyons, Webster Slaughter
Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

New York Jets fans would love to forget about the heartbreaker against the Cleveland Browns in January 1987, but it remains an NFL classic.

Pain is a word that’s certainly applicable when describing New York Jets fandom. A certain fan-turned-host who used to rant on the WFAN airwaves used the word so frequently (with an “Oh, the” in front of it) that he ultimately became the fan’s top voice to a bulk of the crowd.

The overall level of pain isn’t too controversial. What’s interesting is deciding which moments have caused the most damage, and there’s much to choose from.

The latest “Oh, the pain” moment came in Orchard Park, NY to wrap up the 2015 season. Previously, a flat effort on the greatest AFC stage in Pittsburgh, a Brett Favre injury, Doug Brien and a crazy Jason Elam kickoff helped Joe Benigno fill air time. Unfortunately for fans, it doesn’t stop there.

A.J. Duhe‘s interception madness stomped out the first genuine Super Bowl shot since Joe Namath. And just when fans thought it couldn’t get any more painful, the roller-coaster 1986 squad was eliminated in the most heartbreaking way.

The Baker Mayfield-led Cleveland Browns come to town this Sunday with the Jets down on their luck. In January 1987, the Jets and the Browns were both good teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

The Marathon by the Lake remains one of a handful of Jet heartbreaks fans will never fully get over.

The roller-coaster season

The insanity of that 1986 season is tough to recapture. After splitting their first two games, the Jets would go on to win nine-straight games en route to a 10-1 mark after 11 contests. It prompted dreams of an all-New York Super Bowl. (The Giants stood 9-2 after 11 games that season and ultimately won their first Super Bowl that season.)

Everything was rolling. The Jets’ nine-game onslaught was sparked by the classic against the Miami Dolphins that featured Ken O’Brien vs. Dan Marino. O’Brien, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, threw for 479 yards and four touchdowns, all to Wesley Walker, including the overtime game-winner. (Marino went for a cool 448 yards and six scores.)

O’Brien looked solid, Freeman McNeil represented a tested pro in the backfield, Mickey Shuler was a plus at tight end, and the Walker-Al Toon combo at wideout was as good as it could possibly get. The offense was the strength of Joe Walton‘s squad. The defense finished 22nd in the league that season, but it still had the New York Sack Exchange in tow.

Jets fans were as high as they ever had been since Super Bowl 3. That was until the Dolphins spanked them 45-3 in Miami. The Los Angeles Rams then knocked them off 17-3, and before anybody could realize what was happening, the Jets lost three more. Losing the final five games of the season meant a 10-6 record that barely placed them in the five-team AFC playoff side of the bracket.

It got so bad that Walton eventually turned to perennial backup quarterback Pat Ryan. Amazingly, riding a five-game losing streak, Ryan led the Jets to a triumphant 35-15 wild card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at The Meadowlands.

The Marathon by the Lake

  • New York Jets 20 (11-7)
  • Cleveland Browns 23 (13-4)
  • NFL, 1986, AFC Divisional, Final, Double OT, Box Score
  • Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Cleveland, OH

From totally elated to deflated, the Jets fan quickly turned back to the elated side when their team knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs in the first round. Next was the game in question, one of the greatest playoff contests in NFL history—a game that defined an entire season.

The Jets struck first when Ryan found Walker for a 42-yard touchdown on some trickery.

The double-pass that started from a toss barely beat the tough Cleveland defense downfield, but it was good enough to stun everybody in attendance at the Mistake by the Lake (Cleveland Municipal Stadium).

Cleveland quickly responded. Traveling 98 yards on the drive, Bernie Kosar found running back Herman Fontenot for a 37-yard touchdown off play-action.

The defenses stiffened up a bit after the Fontenot score. A Mark Moseley field goal in the second quarter gave the Browns a 10-7 lead, but a pair of Pat Leahy field goals (one in the second quarter and another in the third) put the Jets on top, 13-10, heading into the final frame.

A key sequence occurred with around nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-goal, the Jets brought pressure and it paid dividends. Kosar forced a ball to the corner of the end zone where Russell Carter picked it off.

At this point, Walton was forced to turn to O’Brien after Ryan left the game via injury in the second quarter. After marching the Jets across midfield, the Jets were forced to punt.

Cleveland’s first play resulted in disaster.

Jerry Holmes undercut Kosar’s pass and set the Jets up with a chance to drive the final nail in the coffin. McNeil then scampered for 25 yards to the end zone.

There the Jets were, up 10 points with just 4:14 to go in regulation. The team that looked as though it belonged in the NFL elite over the first 11 games were suddenly back. It would take a miracle for the No. 1-seeded Browns to pull this one out.

“Oh, the pain,” says the diehard old-school Jets fan who remembers this one.

After a Jets’ squib kick, the Browns started at their own 31-yard line. A holding penalty on the first play put Cleveland in an unenviable first-and-20 situation. A sack on the second play put them back even further.

Then, shortly after NBC color commentator Bob Trumpy likened the Jets season to the Twilight Zone, Mark Gastineau made one of the biggest mistakes of his playing career.

Kosar had nothing on the play. Instead of a third-and-forever situation with the Browns on the ropes, Gastineau speared Cleveland’s quarterback. Placing the crown of his helmet in Kosar’s ribcage forced the flag and Cleveland suddenly had life with 3:27 remaining.

It was the play that changed everything. It was akin to the Monday night affair that saw Marino’s Dolphins harass the 10-1 Jets to the tune of 45-3. It flipped everything.

With Gastineau on the sideline and the pass rush sucking wind, Kosar meticulously picked apart a softer Jets coverage. It led to a Kevin Mack 1-yard touchdown plunge to cut the lead to three (20-17).

Marion Barber Jr., the father of one-time Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber III, was one of the Jets’ special teams aces at the time and proved it once again by recovering the ensuing onside kick.

With under two minutes to go, New York needed just one first down to ice the game. Cleveland had just two timeouts remaining. After two failed rush attempts, the Jets’ third-down play resulted in a sack (it was either a busted play or a quarterback draw). Back then, the clock stopped until the officials reset the ball on any sack under two minutes in each half.

Amazingly, the Jets’ punt that pinned the Browns at their own 6-yard line was called back thanks to a holding penalty. The re-kick was returned to the Browns’ 32-yard line. Kosar needed just three points with 53 ticks left on the clock.

Kosar immediately went to work down the middle of the field where Jets defensive back Carl Howard was called for a costly pass interference. Then, Kosar hit Webster Slaughter for a huge chunk down the sideline that set the Brownies up inside the 5-yard line.

These were the days before the quarterback spike. These were also the days in which the two-minute offense was in its infancy. Cleveland’s celebration wasted valuable time, but more importantly, Kosar’s next pass nearly cost them the game.

Carter had his hands on the ball, only to see it fall incomplete, allowing Moseley to send the game into overtime.

Amazing. The roller-coaster of emotions continued.

After all of that, the Jets won the coin toss but ultimately punted on their first overtime possession. Kosar then connected on a big chunk to Reggie Langhorne inside the 5-yard line. A chip-shot 23-yard field goal is all that separated the Jets from the golf course.

Moseley missed his third missed field goal of the game.

Marty Schottenheimer didn’t take any chances. He sent his field goal unit out there on first down and it backfired in the cruelest of fashions.

Again, it was a momentum thing with the ’86 Jets. Suddenly, there was life. Unfortunately, they could do nothing with possession. After a punt, the Browns fumbled on their next possession but recovered it. Had New York recovered that loose ball, it would have been on the fringe of field goal range.

The defenses would then control the game, as both offenses punted back and forth. The final key play of the contest came when Carl Howard had a chance at redemption just before the first overtime finished. With the ball in his hands, it looked like the Newark, NJ native made up for the costly defensive pass interference call in the fourth quarter. Instead, it fell incomplete.

A few Mack carries helped Cleveland into better field goal range, which set up Moseley for a chance to win the game from 27 yards out.

The Jets simply ran out of gas. A struggling O’Brien and a stagnant offense, coupled with a tired defense, doomed them in the end, thus driving the final heartbreak for fans home. It was the second-longest game in NFL history at the time.

The aftermath

Joe Walton would go on to coach the Jets for three more seasons, but he never reached the playoffs again. The team’s 8-7-1 record in 1988 represented the high-water mark in the Walton era following the Marathon by the Lake.

Cleveland would go on to face the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game. It would be the first of two-consecutive Championship Sunday heartbreaks, as John Elway orchestrated “The Drive” to stun the Dawg Pound. (“The Fumble” would happen the following season.) Denver would eventually get blown out by Bill Parcells’s Giants in the Super Bowl.

Similar to the regular season, the New York Jets took fans for a wild ride against the Cleveland Browns. From ecstasy to anger, it didn’t officially turn to horror until Mark Moseley finally kicked the game-winner in the second overtime frame.

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verge tibbs
3 years ago

I rewatched this entire game on youtube this past offseason. Gotta say, i was surprised at how high flying the offense was. They were actually fun to watch! I came away from the end thinking gastineaus penalty, while stunning and awful, was far from the only issue there, they had so many chances. I also thought he was unjustly blamed since another jet also hit kosar at the same time. I always thought it was just a late hit flag, never realized until now that it was about how he got hit, now it makes sense. Thanks for the knowledge.