Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt revive Browns' running back glory days of Kevin Mack, Earnest Byner

BEREA, Ohio -- Before the Cleveland Browns featured running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, they boasted Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner.

In 1985, a year after the Browns drafted them, Mack and Byner teamed up to become the third running back duo in NFL history to each rush for 1,000 yards.

Thirty-five years later, Chubb and Hunt are knocking on the door of the same achievement. With two games remaining, Chubb has 931 rushing yards, putting him 69 yards away. Hunt has work to do, with 793 yards, but he too is well within striking distance.

If they both get over the hump, Chubb and Hunt would become only the second Browns tandem to break the 1,000-yard mark. They would become the sixth running back pair ever to accomplish the feat and the first since Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams 11 years ago.

Last season, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram II became the second quarterback-running back combination to each run for more than 1,000 yards, joining Atlanta’s Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn in 2006.

“It would be amazing,” Mack said of Chubb and Hunt reaching the mark. “Would be a huge accomplishment for one guy, let alone two.”

After Sunday’s 20-6 victory over the New York Giants, the Browns have a 90% chance, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, of making the playoffs for the first time since 2002. A consistently dominant running game is among the biggest reasons the team is in position to end the league’s longest postseason drought.

“We have the best backfield in the league,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “There’s no question. We have great guys up front [on the offensive line], and our tight ends are involved in that run game, but those two guys are extremely special ... I love watching those guys run.”

Chubb and Hunt have done plenty of that this season: breaking tackles, breaking away for big plays and then, in the fourth quarter, breaking the will of the opposition.

Hunt is fourth in the league with an average of 2.26 yards per carry after contact. Despite missing four games because of a knee sprain, Chubb is not far behind, at seventh, with 2.22 yards after contact per rush.

The two, meanwhile, are tied for fifth among running backs with 10 touchdowns apiece. All of Chubb’s have come on the ground, while Hunt has five rushing and five receiving.

“Nick has that powerful ability that is coupled with home-run speed, which is very rare,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Kareem’s ability to break tackles and his elusiveness, whether in the open or really in a crowd, is quite impressive.”

What makes Chubb and Hunt stand out compared to other duos in the league is the damage they’ve inflicted in the fourth quarter. Chubb leads the NFL with an average of 7.3 yards per rush in the second halves of games. That average grows to a whopping 10.2 yards in the fourth quarter -- more than 3 yards higher than that of any other back in the league.

Hunt is fourth in the league in fourth-quarter rushing overall, with 346 yards and an average of almost 5 yards per rush. He also has four fourth-quarter touchdowns, tied with Chubb and five other running backs for fourth in the NFL.

“It’s like having two fighters in your corner,” offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. “You have Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, and they both come out in [alternating] rounds. That’s how it really feels. … You can definitely tell later in the games. They’re breaking more and more tackles. They’re wearing on [defenders], and then our offensive line, they feed off of that.”

Cleveland’s running game has put away six victories that were one-possession games in the fourth quarter. The most emphatic example came Nov. 15, when Chubb deliberately stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line following a 59-yard dash in the final seconds, preserving a 10-7 win over the Houston Texans.

“That’s who we are. That’s what we do,” Chubb said. “That’s how our team is designed.

“We wear teams down.”

That same game, the two backs touched a milestone that eluded Byner and Mack, as Chubb and Hunt became the first Browns duo since Pro Football Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green in 1966 to each rush for 100 yards.

"That's who we are. That's what we do. That's how our team is designed. We wear teams down." Browns running back Nick Chubb

“I’m a lot better because Nick Chubb is a great back,” said Hunt, who won the NFL rushing title with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017. “There are some things that I take from his game and some things he can take from mine. We learn from each other and give each other ideas.”

So did Mack and Byner.

In 1985, the two combined for 159 rushing yards in Week 15, as Cleveland clinched its first division title in five years. The following week, Byner narrowly joined Mack as a 1,000-yard rusher, finishing with 1,002 yards on the season.

“Earnest got his on the last play of the game,” Mack recalled. “It was nail-biting to watch my buddy and not being sure if he had it at the end of the game.”

Mack and Byner went on to become catalysts for Cleveland teams that won the division in three of the next four seasons. Mack said that the selflessness he shared with Byner played a role in their success, and he sees the same playing out in Chubb and Hunt.

“We had the mindset of doing the most we could to help the team,” said Mack, who now heads the Browns’ relations with former players. “And they seem to have a very good chemistry.”

It's chemistry the Browns hope to keep together past 2020.

Before the season, Cleveland signed Hunt, 25, to a two-year extension worth $8.5 million guaranteed, which will keep him under contract through 2022. Chubb, who turns 25 this week, doesn’t see that as any impediment to his staying in Cleveland. The 2018 second-round pick will seek his own deal this offseason, when he becomes extension-eligible.

“Kareem is an awesome back,” Chubb said. "He’s incredible. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and how it was going to be [last year] when he came in.

“I’m glad how things are now, I’m glad that we are working together, and I’m glad that he is on the team. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The Browns were able to keep Byner and Mack together for four seasons after 1985 -- until Byner was traded to Washington. Byner came back to Cleveland in 1994, but by then, Mack had retired.

Byner declined to be interviewed for this story. But like Mack, he has been closely following Hunt and Chubb and rooting for them.

In the second quarter of a Monday Night Football game between the Browns and Ravens two weeks ago, chants of “Chubb, Chubb, Chubb” filled FirstEnergy Stadium as the Browns moved the ball. Seconds later, Chubb barreled past the Baltimore defense for a 14-yard touchdown, tying the game. Byner immediately tweeted.

“I know a little bit about Kevin and Earnest,” Chubb said. “I have met Kevin a couple of times. I see Earnest on Twitter sometimes.

“Best for us to kind of follow in those footsteps and keep the dynamic duo running back thing going here in Cleveland.”