Can Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow bring Battle of Ohio back to Bernie-Boomer heyday?Sporting News — (Bill Bender)
It's been almost 30 years since their last head-to-head NFL matchup, but the mention of former Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason still evokes a chuckle from former Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar.
Kosar slows his cadence before making a simple request.
"If he calls, tell him our big joke was that he would win the game at the beginning of the year," Kosar told Sporting News before raising his voice to deliver the punchline. "Then I would win the one that mattered."
When Esiason hears that, the chuckle becomes a laugh-out-loud moment. He's quick to offer a statistical self-defense.
"Tell Bernie I think I had a 16-7 or 17-7 record against the Browns," Esiason said. "I think that's what it was."
The totals are a bit inflated, but the sentiments come with mutual respect between the quarterbacks-turned-analysts. Kosar and Esiason represent the heart of the Battle of Ohio in the late 1980s, when the AFC Central race was almost always at stake.
It's the most revered chapter of the in-state rivalry between the Bengals and Browns. Now, Kosar and Esiason are hoping Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow bring that back to their respective franchises. Mayfield and Burrow will have their first head-to-head matchup when Cincinnati travels to Cleveland for "Thursday Night Football" in Week 2. The hope — however slim — is that this is the second coming of that Kosar-Esiason heyday.
"I think it speaks more to what the franchises have gone through lately than anything else," Esiason said. "You'd like to hope the next set of guys would make us fade into the past, but at the end of the day I like to say we had Sam Wyche, Marty Schottenheimer and a lot of great personalities on both sides."
Those comparisons are worth making when looking back to the future.
Boomer vs. Bernie
Esiason arrived in Cincinnati as a second-round pick in 1984, and he got the introduction to the rivalry with the Browns on the first bus ride to Cleveland that season.
"From our side, it was what it meant for Paul Brown, when he was alive, to beat the Browns and how important it was for that to be the case," Esiason said. "I sat next to Coach Brown, and he told me about the history and intensity. I really got to understand that fast."
Esiason would make his first start against Cleveland on Nov. 10, 1985. Kosar, a rookie with the Browns, was waiting. Esiason won the first two matchups, but it was a Dec. 14, 1986, meeting that had playoff implications for both sides.
Cleveland and Cincinnati met with the division on the line, and Kosar took the first shot in a rabid Riverfront Stadium.
"On the road, I have a philosophical belief," Kosar said. "You want to set the tempo as a young quarterback by being aggressive on your first play. I like to throw bombs on the first play, and typically with a 22-year-old quarterback that doesn't go well on the road to win the division, especially in the mid-'80s. It ended up working. I hit a bomb to Reggie Langhorne. It quieted the crowd down and showed that I'm here. We're here."
Cleveland won 34-3, and the rivalry took on new life over the next few seasons. Kosar led the Browns to the AFC championship game in 1986, 1987 and 1989. Esiason won the NFL MVP award in 1988, and Cincinnati advanced to Super Bowl 23. Esiason had a 6-4 head-to-head advantage against Kosar on the field, but it's the way both quarterbacks recall the details with remarkable accuracy that stands out even more.
Esiason recalled center Dave Rimington screaming at teammates on the sideline during a freezer-burned loss at Cleveland on Dec. 13, 1987, and quipped, "Maybe it was being lined up against Bob Golic." He remembers arguing for 10 minutes on "Monday Night Football" with NFL official Bob McElwee at Municipal Stadium after a touchdown was called back in the 1990 matchup.
"I thought I had them totally confused enough that they would overturn the call," he said. "That's how close I had them. We scored the TD anyway, but that's how it was in those games."
Those matchups are barstool legends now for franchises whose taps have run dry. Cleveland has the longest playoff drought at 17 seasons. Cincinnati has the longest playoff win drought at 29 seasons.
Why do Boomer and Bernie still come up? Because fans have been waiting for something good to talk about. Mayfield and Burrow could provide that opportunity.
The Battle of Ohio has been dormant since the heyday of Bernie Kosar, left, and Boomer Esiason in the 1980s.
Pressure on Mayfield
Cleveland has the right personality at quarterback.
The Browns drafted Mayfield with the No. 1 pick in 2018 after an 0-16 season, and the Heisman Trophy winner's brash demeanor was a much-needed jolt for the franchise after coach Hue Jackson was fired.
Mayfield set a rookie record with 27 TDs and riled up the fan base with his swagger. Cleveland stock-piled talent — including star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — ahead of the 2019 season.
It backfired. Mayfield endured a sophomore slump that coincided with a 6-10 season under Freddie Kitchens, who also was fired. Now, Mayfield is on his third coach in three years with Kevin Stefanski.
"A lot of nonsense has gone on around him the last two years," Esiason said. "They brought in personalities and big-time players and they've never lived up to it. A lot of that goes to relationships with players on the field. Hopefully Kevin gets it straightened out."
When breaking down Mayfield, Kosar gives a measured response — even if he knows fans don't want to hear that after a 38-6 loss to Baltimore and third-year quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 1.
In short, Mayfield needs more time in a new scheme.
"Multiple coaches and multiple systems in multiple years," Kosar said. "In a normal situation, that wouldn't be easy to get it right. Now, you added no OTAs, no real minicamp, no preseason games, no real contact and no real schedule. If you ever had a scenario to put a team and an offense behind, this is one of them.
"I really do believe it, even though it sounds like BS," Kosar said. "But the fans and other people don't want to hear that."
Esiason said Mayfield should continue to improve with the presence of backup quarterback Case Keenum, who worked with Stefanski in Minnesota. Week 2 offers a chance to quiet those critics, at least for a week.
"He'll learn how to prepare and have another guy in the room that understands the offense that Kevin is putting in," Esiason said. "I know it's a little behind the 8-ball for Baker because it's three offensive coordinators in three years and he's had some really flaky personalities around him, but the pressure is on him now."
Building with Burrow
Cincinnati bottomed out from the remnants of the Marvin Lewis era in Zac Taylor's first season. The Bengals finished 2-14 in 2019, but they drafted their own Heisman Trophy winner in Burrow — a nearby Athens, Ohio, native, Ohio State transfer and national champion at LSU.
Kosar, a Youngstown native, knows the hometown hero angle. He was impressed by Burrow's Heisman speech, but he was just as impressed with Burrow's last-minute drive in Week 1 against the Chargers in a 16-13 loss.
"It was the composure he had to lead the drive and make some of those throws," Kosar said. "Some of those fourth-quarter throws — under two minutes, to put his team into a position to win was almost veteran-like."
Esiason met Burrow at the Heisman Trophy ceremony and said to himself, "This kid has the goods." Esiason also was impressed with Burrow's balance of maturity and confidence.
Burrow will need that to lead a true rebuild. He led the potential game-winning drive in Week 1, but the Bengals lost after Randy Bullock missed a 31-yard field goal as time expired.
"This kid is going to overcome what has become and what is known as 'Bengaldom,'" Esiason said. "'Bengaldom' is where your kicker hurts two calves in a game and misses the (expletive) game-tying field goal. 'Bengaldom' is an interference penalty called on your receiver as he's catching the game-winning touchdown pass. Those are all the negative things that happen to the Bengals.
"I do believe that Joe Burrow has a winning attitude, and his attitude is going to overcome that negativity that has built up over the years," he said. "He's going to be the guy who leads the Bengals back to respectability."
A worthy sequel?
That long road to respectability starts in Week 2. It’s never too early to play in a must-win matchup, but an 0-2 start in an AFC North that features Pittsburgh and Baltimore would be difficult to overcome.
You have to win the Battle of Ohio to keep pace, and Esiason believes that more pressure falls on Mayfield in Week 2.
"Baker Mayfield is in his third year," Esiason said. "He didn't play well last week. The whole team didn't play well, but he didn't play well. In the NFL, you want to win on the road. ... You have to do what Ben Roethlisberger did (Monday) night. You have to do what Kyler Murray did. You have to do what Russell Wilson did in Atlanta."
Burrow will be making his first road start, and Kosar believes that will be made easier without the presence of the "Dawg Pound" in Cleveland.
"You're able to hear during the cadence what the defense is checking to on your motions and shifts," Kosar said. "That's huge for a young quarterback, that typically is not something they are able to take advantage of. You can see Joe Burrow has been coached up enough to the point those are advantages. Typically, he would have been a rookie coming bin to face 70,000 screaming dog bone-throwing fans. Now, he doesn't have to deal with that."
Both quarterbacks face the pressure that all former No. 1 picks and Heisman Trophy winners face in the long term. Mayfield still has time to flip the script with a talented team in Cleveland. He's 3-1 against the Bengals. Burrow can make a statement with his victory against the in-state rivals. It's part of the baptism Esiason and Kosar underwent in the 1980s.
"We as quarterbacks have to go through quarterback hell to get to quarterback heaven," Esiason said. "That's where Baker Mayfield is right now, and unfortunately where Joe Burrow is — and that's because of a lack of experience."
The opportunity to come out on the other side exists, however, and with the chance for a true rivalry renewal that runs up and down Interstate 71. Kosar, who still values that friendship with Esiason today, believes in that promise.
It's time the Bengals-Browns rivalry was no longer a laughing matter.
"I haven't thrown a pass in Cleveland since 1993, and the amount of love and respect that people show me is truly humbling," Kosar said. "I think that much of the Browns, the Bengals, Baker and Joe Burrow. These are absolutely the core-type guys that can resuscitate a franchise. They should be playoff-type teams and have this Battle of Ohio resurrected again."