On Oct. 10, just before 7 p.m., one player remained at the Cleveland Browns' training facility in Berea, Ohio. Quarterback Bernie Kosar was upstairs watching film of the Minnesota Vikings beating the Browns' next opponent, the New Orleans Saints, and on the conference table in front of him sat a 10-gallon tub filled with melting ice. He sticks his right elbow, injured in the 1988 season opener, into the tub after every practice as a precaution against swelling.
Kosar studied the Saints' pass defense, but he couldn't help but notice the protection Viking quarterback Wade Wilson got on one play. "Look at that," Kosar said softly, marveling at what he was seeing on the screen. Wilson took a five-step drop and looked downfield. Then he looked some more; no New Orleans player was getting to Wilson. Finally, after about four seconds, Wilson completed a long pass down the right sideline. "Unbelievable," said Kosar, who sees a sturdy passing pocket much more often when he's watching film than when he's on the field.
While the Browns were stumbling to a 1-3 start this season, Kosar was being sacked 14 times and knocked down on 21 other occasions after he had gotten rid of the ball. He had one touchdown pass, three interceptions and a paltry quarterback rating of 57.9. It was open season on Kosar, giving coach Bud Carson reason to consider replacing him with Mike Pagel—for Kosar's own good health. "You're taking as many big hits as I've ever seen a quarterback take," said Carson.
Even though the 6'5", 215-pound Kosar dons extra armor—a skateboarder's elbow pad, a brace to protect his right knee and a flak jacket for his ribs—the next hit he takes could bring a premature end to his career. All quarterbacks are in the same position to some degree, but in this era of tremendously athletic pass rushers and mobile quarterbacks, Kosar, still a month shy of his 27th birthday, has three strikes against him before the first snap of every game: His inexperienced line leaks, he runs like a duck, and the offense is adjusting to a new play-calling system for the fifth time in six years.
Kosar quarterbacked Miami to the national championship in 1983. He took the Browns to the AFC Championship Game in 1986, '87 and '89. Before last season he was rewarded with a six-year, $15.3 million contract extension. Still, you've got to wonder how great the '90s will be for him and his battered body. In a generation, will we look back at Kosar and compare him with John Unitas? Or with Neil Lo-max, whose career was ended early by constant punishment?
"How many times in a fight can a guy take a knockdown before he can't get up anymore?" says former Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano, now the coach at Liberty University. "Bernie's the type of quarterback that you've got to build a barbed-wire fence around. The moment you take it down, he's in trouble."
"I'm very worried about Bernie," says Archie Manning, who as quarterback for the Saints, Houston Oilers and Vikings from 1971 to '84 was sacked 396 times. "The pass rushers are so much bigger and more mobile now than when I played. He's taking worse hits than I ever did."
Bernie knows. Bernie shrugs. "I don't think about my future," he says. "I think it's best to think week to week."
One thing you should know about the Browns: Not all of them believe in the Kosar-as-endangered-species theory. Owner Art Modell points to the Oct. 8 Monday night game in Denver, in which Kosar—24 completions in 38 attempts for 318 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions—made quick and correct decisions, stepped up in the pocket to find second and third receivers, passed on the run and threw without pain or obstruction. "He was vintage Kosar," Modell says. "It's the closest he's played to the greatness he had in 1986 and '87."
Against Denver, the Browns made changes in their offensive line and altered their blocking schemes, and for the first time this season Kosar was able to show how superb a passer he can be when he has time to throw. Cleveland, a team riddled by rumors that had Kosar going to the bench and Carson being fired or quitting, won a huge game, with Kosar bringing the Browns from nine points down on drives of 80 and 64 yards in the final 7:21 to beat the Broncos 30-29.