In the history of the Cleveland Browns, they have been blessed with numerous talented running backs. And in several situations, the blessings they received came in two’s.
It began with future Hall of Famer Marion Motley in the 1940’s who would be paired with Dub Jones. When Jim Brown was drafted, the next season Cleveland drafted track star Bobby Mitchell in the seventh-round who was preparing to participate in the Olympics. Later, Bo Scott and Leroy Kelly graced the same backfield.
And there have been many more to name a few: Greg Pruitt and Mike Pruitt, Earnest Byner with Kevin Mack, and today the scheme surrounds Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
The headlines surround the possibility that Chubb and Hunt could end the year with duo 1,000-yard seasons. That’s all fine and good for a franchise that is built to run the ball, but it’s not like it hasn’t been done before. In fact, it was done earlier by the Browns.
In 1985, Byner finished with 1,002 yards while Mack had 1,105.
And perhaps a little clarity is needed. Most clubs today do not feature a fullback; but for the better part of NFL history every team not only had a fullback, but they played predominately throughout the game. Fullbacks are known for their pass protection abilities and for clearing holes for the star running back. For instance, Jim Brown was a fullback. So was Mike Pruitt. The same was true for Kevin Mack despite being more of a tailback but was listed as a fullback.
Traditionally, fullbacks get very few carries in the course of the season. The Browns did not follow that tradition. Instead, they crushed the notion that big, bruising men are only blockers to help the little dude make headlines. Cleveland’s fullbacks were well-rounded: pass catchers, run blockers, runners, pass protectors.
Mack’s journey into the world of pro football did not begin in Cleveland. It began in a hotel conference room in New York City.
The United States Football League (USFL) began in 1983 with 12 clubs as an NFL rival league playing a spring/summer format. The new league held two separate college drafts: a traditional regular draft with franchises alternating picks by numerical rounds, and then a territorial draft. In 1984, the USFL added six expansion teams. In the 1984 territorial draft held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, the Washington Federals claimed seven Clemson players, including Mack. But before training camp, his rights were traded to the Los Angeles Express who were coached by the legendary John Hadl.
While at Clemson, Mack had started 41 games. In 1981 they won a National Championship under head coach Danny Ford.
The Express went 10-8-0 but won the Pacific Division of the Western Conference. The quarterback was future Hall of Famer Steve Young. Los Angeles defeated the current league champs Michigan 27-21 in triple overtime, then lost 35-25 to Arizona in the Western Conference Championship Game.
Before the following season, the FBI began to investigate Express owner J. William Oldenburg for financial dealings. In the meantime, the NFL held a special one-time supplemental draft for USFL and CFL players. Cleveland held the 11th pick and chose Mack, one of 20 Express players selected.
The Browns had began the 1984 season 1-7-0 before head coach Sam Rutigliano was fired and replaced by DC Marty Schottenheimer. Now for 1985, Schottenheimer’s “interim” tag was dropped for “head coach.” His coaching philosophy was a stiff defense coupled with an offense built to run.
And in Mack’s rookie season, Cleveland pounded opposing defense’s with the running game behind center Mike Baab, guard Dan Fike, tackle Cody Risien and Mack’s running mate Earnest Byner. Plus, the offense had an exceptional tight end named Ozzie Newsome who arrived known for his outstanding blocking abilities, a great receiver with good hands, and a leader with superb speed.
Mack played nine seasons with the Browns from 1985-1993. He was named to the Pro Bowl in his rookie campaign in 1985 and later in 1987. For his career in Cleveland, he gained 5,123 yards on 1,291 attempts, scored 46 rushing touchdowns and eight receiving TD’s, had a 4.0 rushing average per attempt, added 1,602 receiving yards, and started 82 games out of 99 games played.
While with Cleveland, Mack was part of three AFC Championship Games and many very good Browns’ squads. With Byner as a running mate, there would be times that these two players would switch places of who was supposed to actually carry the ball. The duo were both team-first players and decided that whichever had the hot hand for that game would continue to get the rock.
From 1985 through 1988, the Browns won the AFC Central Division four times, went to the playoffs all five years, went 3-5 in the playoffs and played in three AFC Championship Games, losing all three by scores of 23-20, 38-33 and 37-21.
One of Mack’s finest moments was in the double-overtime home victory over the New York Jets in the Divisional Playoff Game in 1986 after going 12-4-0 during the season. The Jets owned a 20-10 lead with 4:14 to play. Mack scored on a one-yard dive to the rightside on the first play after the two-minute warning. After a defensive stop, kicker Mark Moseley, who had missed two field goals in the contest, nailed a 22-yard field goal to tie the game. In overtime, Moseley connected on a 27-yarder for the win which lasted over four hours.
Today, Mack is the head of Alumni Relations with the Browns.
DBN caught up with Kevin Mack to find out what he thinks of the tandem of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, if he hates John Elway, and what it took for Earnest Byner to get those last few yards in 1985 needed to get 1,000 yards for the season.
DBN: You were a track star in high school. What was your best event, and what was your favorite event?
Mack: My best event was the 100, but my favorite was the sprint relays 400 and 800.
DBN: Coming out of high school and going to Clemson, how do you surmise it would be to play in today’s offense versus the Tigers offense you played in back in the 1980s?
Mack: That’s a tough comparison since we played a Power “I” set always with two backs always in the game and a four-back rotation to stay fresh during a game. These days, the Tigers have a more wide-open attack with the field spread. It would take some time to adjust to the different assignments, pass protection and route running but should be exciting and fun to play in that system.
DBN: You averaged 4.8 yards per carry while at Clemson and won a National Championship in 1981. The first pro team to call your name was the new Washington Federals with the upstart USFL in their territorial draft. How did you end up playing for the Los Angeles Express instead?
Mack: I ended up in L.A. because the Federals traded my rights to LA. I never really got the full story of the trade.
DBN: You played just one season in the USFL. Looking back, was that a league that you thought could take on the NFL?
Mack: I don’t know if the USFL would have been able to take on the NFL head-to-head. But there were many talented players who joined the USFL to see if a spring/summer football league could compete with the NFL.
DBN: After one season with Los Angeles, the Browns took you in the first-round of the “Supplemental Draft of USFL Players” along with linebacker Mike Johnson. Was Cleveland’s contract that much higher than what you were making with Los Angeles, or did you leave basically to play in the NFL?
Mack: No, the contract was not much different than what I had in LA. I think the ultimate goal for most players in the USFL was to eventually end up playing in the NFL.
DBN: When you got to the Browns in 1985, the running backs were Earnest Byner and Boyce Green. Did they treat you like the kid who was there to take their jobs, as a USFL refugee, or accept you into the running back room?
Mack: Once I arrived in Cleveland the players here were open and welcoming. Of course you had the regular rookie hazing: getting doughnuts and breakfast for the veterans, carrying helmets and shoulder pads at training camp. And singing for the veterans at dinner after training camp.
DBN: What was your first training camp like with Cleveland?
Mack: My first training camp was very tough. Learning and adjusting to a new system, new teammates and coaching philosophy was very demanding mentally and physically. But looking back on it, I see how we developed our style of play for that 1985 season - which was being physical and tough as a team.
DBN: You were blessed with head coaching talent. Your first head coach was Marty Schottenheimer and your last was Bill Belichick. Both are defensive-minded guys. How is each one similar, and how is each one different?
Mack: I think the biggest difference for me was Marty was a more of a hands-on coach being a former NFL player. He knew how to get guys prepared for games and was always encouraging young players to develop different skill sets to grow into more rounded players. Both were tough and discipline-minded coaches.
DBN: Those early years you were with the Browns, Bill Cowher was the Special Teams Coordinator. Why didn’t you speak up and tell owner Art Modell or GM Ernie Accorsi to hire that guy when you had him in-house?
Mack: As players we recognized Bill’s passion for the game and knew it would propel him to a higher position in coaching, But, we had no idea it would lead him to Pittsburgh and the success he had there.
DBN: Your quarterback was Bernie Kosar. What type of player was he, and what was his competitive level?
Mack: Bernie was an awesome teammate especially being involved in so many pressure-packed games. He always stayed the same on the field and didn’t get rattled by negative things. He was always on an even keel.
DBN: Your first season in Cleveland, you rushed for 1,105 yards and Earnest Byner netted 1,002 yards in the same season. Only two other pair of running backs in the history of the NFL had ever accomplished this before with the same team. In Week 16 against the Jets, you had already surpassed the mark with 1,075 yards, but Byner was short with 900 yards rushing. He ended up with 102 yards for the day. The two of you were already famous for switching positions on plays. Was it the game plan to get him his 1,000 yards against New York, or did you switch often enough so that he could eclipse 1,000 yards?
Mack: We entered the game with a plan to win. We did not adjust to try and get him the 1,000. I remember someone on the sidelines near the end of the game giving Marty an update about the yardage Earnest needed and him getting his 1,000 on the last play of the game. The toughest part I think was waiting until we could see a stat sheet in the locker room after the game to see if he had gotten the yardage he needed.
DBN: A good running back tandem appears to be tough. What was the operative to the success of the “Mack Attack” with Byner?
Mack: Our key was we challenged each other as players. We did whatever it took to make sure we were successful in doing our jobs whether it was blocking or running the ball or catching passes. We learned that you never know which play is going to be the one that will help your team win so you should try and be perfect with all of them.
DBN: You made the Pro Bowl your first season in Cleveland. How did you find out you had been selected, who was the first person you told, and can all the writers here at DBN wear your league-issued Pro Bowl watch for a day?
Mack: I think it came from my position coach Steve Crosby. I can’t remember who I told first. I’ve had my watch tucked away for quite a while and still looks awesome.
DBN: The 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1989 squads all made the playoffs, won the division crown and played deep into the post-season. In your opinion, which year’s roster do you consider to be the best, and why?
Mack: 1986 was a very good year for us as a team even with the new offense we changed to. After getting more accustomed to our offense in 1987 we felt it opened things up for us on the field. Teams had to respect both our ability to run and throw.
DBN: 1986, 1987 and 1989 your Browns went to the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, and lost every time because of different odd circumstances. Do you hate John Elway even today?
Mack: No, but can’t say the same for the guys who played defense for us.
DBN: You and Byner never had dual 100-yard games despite having a dual 1,000-yard season. Your thoughts?
Mack: Looking back at how we never had a 100-yard game at the same time is strange but many times during the course of games we would let the guy with the hot hand take a bulk of the carries. But we also keep both involved to keep the defense honest.
DBN: In a list compiled by cleveland.com of the 100 greatest Cleveland Browns, they list you at Number 58. Both Greg Pruitt and Mike Pruitt are listed ahead of you. We think the list is rigged. Do you think they both paid someone off to get rated in front of you?
Mack: LOL!! I don’t think so. Both were awesome players and deserving of the rankings they received.
DBN: Historically the Browns have had tremendous running backs, especially in tandems. Marion Motley paired with Dub Jones. Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell. Ernie Green with Jim Brown. Leroy Kelly and Bo Scott. Greg Pruitt and Mike Pruitt. Yourself and Byner. When you watch Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, what similarities do you see? Key differences?
Mack: In watching Nick and Kareem I do see similarities. What’s different is they are not on the field together as much as Earnest and I were. They are both very explosive in their roles and Nick appears to be the one used more for between the tackles running the ball where I think he excels. Kareem is used more in the outside run and pass catching role where he can very dangerous for a LB to cover.
DBN: When you hung up your cleats you moved to Houston and became a coach for Texas Southern. At that juncture in your life, did you see yourself being a coach for the rest of your life?
Mack: No, I didn’t. It was me getting back involved with the game after taking some time to let my body recover from football. I knew I wanted to try and figure out what would be the best fit for me and that coaching opportunity came along as I was starting to explore possibilities. It was great being back out in football and helping young guys develop and grow as players.
DBN: Those 1980s Browns teams were right in the middle of the beginnings of the “Dawg Pound.” Those fans were rabid like they had been caged all week and were finally released on Sunday. What was it like scoring in that end of the field in the old Municipal Stadium, and did you ever get ingested by the crowd by getting too close?
Mack: It was an awesome feeling to score in the Dawg Pound end zone with that crowd going berserk and celebrating. I never got close enough to sucked up into the crowd.
DBN: Other than money, what is the biggest difference between the league today and when you played?
Mack: I think playing today is easier in the sense that players are taught different techniques and taught to care for their bodies better to help them with longevity in playing the game longer. Nutritionists, massage therapists, less head blows and stopping blind side blocks help today’s player to stay healthy with less wear and tear on the body versus when I played.
DBN: You are currently employed by the Browns as head of their Alumni Relations. How did you get this gig, what are your job duties, and can you get Bernie Kosar to show up and toss the football around in the parking lot with our writing staff?
Mack: I initially came back to the team in player development under former GM Phil Savage. I was asked to consider alumni relations after a few years. Some of my duties involve keeping local Browns Alumni up to date on league initiatives for retired players that involve benefits, health, finances, etc. I also try to keep former players connected to Browns’ events and community events in Cleveland.
(Editor’s note: Mack not responding to scheduling Kosar to show up at the DBN offices and toss the pigskin around with our writers, we are considering that a “maybe.”)
DBN: In your job, you get to be around lots of former players. Name three old guy Browns you have gotten to know as your favorite former players.
Mack: Paul Warfield, Milt Plum and Jim Brown.
DBN: You are one of many former USFL players who made it big in the NFL such as Reggie White, Vaughn Johnson, Steve Young, Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Gary Clark and Gerald McNeil. Was this something you were proud to be a part of?
Mack: Yes, I was proud of being a part of the USFL. It afforded me an opportunity to gain some valuable experience before arriving in Cleveland.
DBN: What is your fondest moment of playing for the Cleveland Browns?
Mack: Watching my friend Earnest Byner reach 1000-yards rushing on the last play of the game in New York. Me being a rookie and accomplishing such a feat took a while for it to sink in and realize how rare it happens.