Earnest and D’Ernest will live on forever in the folklore of the Browns and the Broncos.
Running back Earnest Byner was responsible for one of the most devastating losses in Browns history with “The Fumble’’ in Denver against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game Jan. 17, 1988.
Running back D’Ernest Johnson was responsible for one of the most impressive starting debuts in Browns history with “The Rush’’ in Cleveland in a critical game against the Broncos Oct. 21, 2021.
For a team that has produced four Hall of Fame running backs – Marion Motley, Leroy Kelly, Bobby Mitchell and Jim Brown, the greatest of all time – and Pro Bowler Nick Chubb currently, Johnson made them all and the Dawg Pound proud Thursday night when the undrafted rookie carried the Browns and carried the ball 22 times for 146 yards to hold off the Broncos 17-14.
The Browns had lost their starting quarterback and their two leading running backs, but they found an offensive force in earnest D’Ernest.
The Broncs’ D had real problems stopping, slowing and shorting Johnson, especially late in the game. The Broncos finally had pulled to within three points with 6:08 remaining and needed so badly to force the Browns to punt so they could have a chance to win or tie.
The Browns never relinquished the ball because of Johnson. They literally ran out the clock.
After the kickoff, the Browns started from their 26-yard line. Browns quarterback Case Keenum, Broncos quarterback vintage 2018, fooled the Broncos by throwing on first down. But, then, he threw only one more time the rest of the game.
D’Ernest ran 6,3,7,3,7,3,5 and, at last, 8 yards for the final first down to frustrate and finish the Broncos – who knew what was coming and couldn’t impede it. That 41 yards doesn’t seem so overwhelming to anyone who didn’t see the game, but everyone who did knows that Johnson was the difference not only at the end, but in the beginning and during the middle.
The Broncos, under Vic Fangio, generally have been stingy against the rush, but not lately against the Ravens (who stuck it to them for the last play to tie a rushing record) and now the Browns, who ended up with 182 rushing yards in Cleveland.
Johnson, who was called upon for only three rushes for 11 yards previously this season, had one touchdown and a longest run of 20 yards, but he ran the Broncos into the ground. Nobody in Denver knew his name before the game. They’ll never forget it.
With both Chubb and Kareem Hunt hurt, and Baker Mayfield out indefinitely, the Browns appeared to be football fodder for the Broncos, who have dominated the series, particularly in the three AFC title games of the 1980s when John Elway was the QB and Public Enemy No. 1 in Cleveland. But he could only sit in a suit Thursday night and endure, as the president of football operations, the Broncos’ fourth straight defeat.
The Browns now have a lesser “The Drive’’ with their late fourth-quarter possession when the Broncos could do nothing to prevent the Johnson journey to distinction.
Somewhere Earnest Byner was smiling. The former Browns’ 1,000-yard runner was about to put his team in position to beat the Broncos on that faithful day in 1988 and avenge the Broncos’ victory of a year previous. But, just before Byner reached the goal line late in the fourth quarter, the football was punched free and recovered by the Broncos, who would advance again.
The Broncos have played in eight Super Bowls, the Browns none.
The Broncos are highly unlikely to play in a ninth this season. They are 3-4 and last in the AFC West, and Fangio, who is in command of the defense, and Pat Shurmur, who is the offensive coordinator, are in deep trouble as the mini-bye begins. There won’t be any coaching changes in the final season of CEO Joe Ellis, and probably Elway’s last rodeo, and the first season of general manager George Paton – because the Broncos will have new ownership next year.
A game, but lame, Teddy Bridgewater struggled early and often, and the Broncos also lost Von Miller, who had promised a great game, to injury. Eight Broncos’ linebackers have been injured and unable to play.
But even the healthy Broncos were unable to play well enough Thursday night to halt the streak.
Blame the Broncos’ coaches and players, and blame D’Ernest Johnson.