On Sunday, October 24, 2010, the Cleveland Browns went to New Orleans and stunned the Saints with a 30-17 upset victory over the defending Super Bowl champs.
The Browns aggressive defense sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times and pressured him into tossing four interceptions – two of which were returned for touchdowns by the Browns’ 33-year old veteran linebacker, David Bowens.
Bowens celebrated his second touchdown with perhaps the worst somersault into the end zone in NFL history. But Browns fans, starved for gridiron glory, nonetheless flipped for Bowens’ endearingly enthusiastic but awkward flop. We’ll take it.
And we’ll take the win.
That the downtrodden 2-5 Browns should knock off the celebrated New Orleans Saints was a shocking turn of events — but few NFL fans realize that Cleveland has now defeated the defending Super Bowl champs for the third straight season. That’s right, buddy. The Browns beat the NY Giants in 2008, our rival Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009, and now the Saints in 2010. Only seven NFL teams have scored that unlikely trifecta.
Browns fans have had precious few accomplishments to cherish since 1964 when Cleveland won its last NFL championship – back in the Mud and Ice Age before indoor stadiums and Super Bowls.
Full disclosure: I have a soft spot in my heart for the Saints because my father was born and raised in New Orleans. (Click here for that story.) Until recently, it has been my misfortune to suffer perennial heartbreak in both the AFC and NFC – and I’ve never had to worry about my two favorite teams meeting in a Super Bowl.
While living in Chicago in the mid-1980’s, I gleefully jumped aboard the Bears bruising bandwagon just in time to experience Sweetness, Iron Mike, the Punky QB, Refrigerator Perry and the Super Bowl Shuffle in 1985.
But that was borrowed glory.
So was the Saints Super Bowl championship last year.
Cleveland is my hometown — so I am first and foremost a Cleveland Browns fan.
The Browns dominated professional football in the postwar period, from the mid 1940’s to the early 60’s like no other team before or since. And while much of these laurels were earned before my birth in 1958, the Browns — led by the Greatest Football Player of All Time, Jim Brown — were still an NFL powerhouse in my youth.
I was six and a half years old on December 27, 1964 when Gary Collins caught three touchdown passes from Frank Ryan to defeat Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts 27-0 and win the Browns’ fourth NFL championship in front 79,544 freezing but frenzied fans at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. It was the first NFL title game to be televised by CBS. That legendary victory was also the Browns high water mark.
My connection to that hallowed 1964 team was made even more personal by the fact that my varsity football coach at Cleveland Central Catholic High School, Stan Sczurek, appeared in 14 games for that ’64 Browns title team. I still remember seeing Coach Sczurek wearing his NFL championship ring. A two-way star at Purdue, Stan Sczurek was taken by the Browns in the 4th round of the 1962 draft and played in 34 games for Cleveland between ‘63 and ‘65 before being sent to the NY Giants in ’66. We didn’t win many football games at CCC, but I can always say that I played football for a guy who wore Browns jersey #38 in 1964.
For the next 46 years, golden memories of Otto Graham, Mac Speedie, Jim Brown, Ernie Green, Leroy Kelly and Paul Warfield have faded as the Browns have been buffeted by infamous moments of near greatness in the 1980’s, shamed by The Pass, The Drive, The Fumble, and the ignominious loss of the franchise when traitorous owner Art Modell announced that he was relocating the Browns to Baltimore for 1996 season. Modell literally absconded with the team in the middle of the night, bound ironically for the city we’d bested on that glorious December day in 1964.
All you really need to know is that Cleveland is the only current NFL city whose franchise has neither played in, nor hosted, a Super Bowl.
Alas, it was not always so.
As Cleveland Browns supporters celebrate our team’s recent moment of upset glory in the Big Easy, it’s time to remind NFL fans of the hallowed history of the great Cleveland Browns, whose history makes lesser franchises like the Cowboys and Patriots look like Johnny-come-lately flashes-in-the-pan.
Founded in 1944 by owner Arthur ‘Mickey’ McBride and head coach Paul Brown (whom the fans voted to name the team after), the Browns began playing in 1946. At the time, Cleveland was also home to the 1945 NFL champion Cleveland Rams, whose star quarterback Bob Waterfield was married to movie star Jane Russell. The Rams left for Los Angeles before the Browns ever played a game. (I hate to brag again, but my high school athletic director, Len Janiak, played for the Cleveland Rams from 1940 to ‘42. It wasn’t until I got to high school and learned Len Janiak’s story that I knew why the football team at Rhodes High School in my neighborhood was called the Rams – and why their helmets looked just like the ones worn by Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones and the rest of LA’s Fearsome Foursome.)
From the start, the Browns dominated the new All-America Football Conference, winning all four league titles. In 1948 the Browns became the first pro football team to finish the season and playoffs unbeaten and untied: 24 years before the NFL’s first “perfect team”, the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
How good was that Browns team? They were so good the league had to break them up.
When The Browns’ ran up their undefeated streak to 29 games — including 18 straight victories – they were forced to give up the rights to some of their younger players, including the future Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who was sent to the Baltimore Colts in ‘48. (Why is it always Baltimore?) Can you imagine such a scenario today?
Before the decade was out, the Browns’ dominance led to the AAFC’s merger with the NFL. At the end of the 1949 season, the Browns, the 49ers and the Colts joined the NFL. The 1950 Browns wasted no time showing they were still the best – winning the NFL championship in their first year in the league.
Throughout this heady period, the Browns were led on the field by quarterback Otto Graham – who (I must brag again) played for my alma mater Northwestern University as a tailback, graduating with the school record of 2,938 total offensive yards, a record which stood until 1964. Head coach Paul Brown turned Graham into a quarterback in 1946 – and the rest became NFL Hall of Fame history.
Cleveland was the center of the football universe. In fact, in the 1950 championship game the Browns faced none other than the former Cleveland Rams, now located in Los Angeles. The Browns won 30-28 on a last-second field goal by Lou Groza. Lou “The Toe” Groza was still kicking game-winning field goals when I was a kid. Incredibly, Lou didn’t hang up his spikes until 1967. To young Browns fans like me, Lou was a living legend.
Lou’s teammates on those great Browns teams of the 1950’s crowd the Hall of Fame today: Otto Graham, Marion Motley (#76 at left), Dante Lavelli and Len Ford, among others. In 1951 and ’52, they reached the championship game and lost – and in ’53, after winning 11 straight games, they lost again in the NFL title game.
Then in 1954, not long after the mighty Cleveland Indians (with their lofty 111-43 regular season record) suffered one of the most embarrassing defeats in the history of The World Series at the hands of Willie Mays and the NY Giants – the Browns reasserted their NFL dominance, crushing the Detroit Lions 56-10 in the NFL title game.
The Browns intercepted Lions quarterback Bobby Layne six times and forced three fumbles. Otto Graham tossed three touchdowns and ran for three more. The next year, the Browns won their third NFL championship, beating the former Cleveland Rams 38-14 in Los Angeles.
Suffering from injuries, the truly legendary Otto Graham retired after the ‘55 season. Thus ended the greatest run of success in the history of professional sports.
In their first decade as a franchise, the Cleveland Browns reached the championship game all ten years – and won the league title seven times. Even the vaunted New York Yankees have never done that. It’s safe to say no sports franchise will ever equal the record of the Cleveland Browns from 1946 to 1955.
In 1956 the post-Otto Graham Browns recorded the only losing season they would suffer in their first 28 seasons as a franchise. However, further football glory in Cleveland was assured in the ’57 NFL draft when the Browns took fullback Jim Brown out of Syracuse.
Jim Brown was the NFL’s leading rusher – and its Rookie of the Year — in ’57, grinding out 942 yards in a 12-game regular season. (NFL teams now play 16 regular season games, so 1,000-yard rushing seasons are common.) Brown led his team back to the NFL championship game for the 11th time in 12 seasons, but they lost to Detroit.
Jim Brown ran for 1,527 yards in ’58 — nearly twice as much as any other NFL running back. In ’59, he led the league again with 1,329 yards. And in 1960, Brown’s 1,257 yards were once again tops in the NFL — but the team still finished in second place at 8-3-1. With the greatest running back in the history of the game setting records that would never be broken, the Browns has still managed to miss the NFL championship three years in a row. It was unheard of. Something had to give. Enter Art Modell.
Modell bought the team in 1961, and that year Jim Brown led the league for a fifth consecutive season while the Browns finished two games out of a spot in the championship game. Relations between Modell and Coach Paul Brown deteriorated quickly.
Before the ’62 season started, without telling Modell, Paul Brown made a secret trade for the rights to another Syracuse running back, Ernie Davis — the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.
The ’62 Browns finished 7-6-1, and Jim Brown failed to lead the NFL in rushing yards for the only time in his career. Modell capped that dismal season by firing Paul Brown and replacing him with Brown’s assistant, Blanton Collier.
Jim Brown had his best season in 1963 with an NFL record 1,863 yards. Imagine that. That’s an average of 155 yards a game! But it wasn’t until ’64 that the Browns returned to their rightful place at the top of the NFL heap.
In the ’64 college draft, the Browns chose Ohio State receiver Paul Warfield in the first round, who immediately became their leading receiver, and the team used it 8th round pick to land Morgan State’s Leroy Kelly, a kick returner and running back who would eventually succeed Jim Brown. (Two future Hall of Famers in the same draft. Not bad, huh?)
After the 1965 season in which Jim Brown was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the third time with 1,544 yards, the Browns lost the NFL Championship game 23-12 to Coach Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr’s Green Bay Packers in frozen Lambeau Field.
Then, suddenly and shockingly…
…the Browns lost Jim Brown.
Brown had been filming the now-classic World War II movie The Dirty Dozen in London – and, in an unprecedented move for an athlete of his caliber in the prime of his career — Jim Brown, the greatest player to ever step between the lines on a football field — decided to “go out on top”.
There would be more thrills and glory to come, but the Cleveland Browns two incredible decades of pro football supremacy were over.
Two years later, led by Jim Brown’s stellar backfield successor, Leroy Kelly and the great Paul Warfield catching passes from quarterback Bill Nelsen, the Browns reached the 1968 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts. The Colts shut out the Browns 34-0 to go to Super Bowl III.
In 1969, the Browns offense was as potent as ever, as Nelsen threw for 2700 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead his team to a 10-3-1 record. Alas, the Browns lost the NFL championship game 27-7 to Joe Kapp and the Minnesota Vikings. 11 years old at the time, I was starting to feel the pain of playoff disappointment.
After the gridiron heroics of the 1940’s and 1950’s — and the glory and near-glory of the 1960’s – the next four decades of Cleveland Browns football were more about frustration that exultation.
In 1970, the AFL-NFL merger put the Browns, Steelers and Colts in the new American Football Conference – and the trade of Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for a draft choice to get Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps – were dual body blows to the once-proud franchise. After beating the New York Jets in the first Monday Night Football broadcast, the Browns stumbled through the season finishing 7–7. In fact, they would stumble through much of the next 40 years.
In the 1980, “The Kardiac Kids” wrote their fond footnote in Browns history.
Led by League MVP quarterback Brian Sipe, who passed for 4000 yards and 30 touchdowns, the resurgent Browns faced the Oakland Raiders in their first playoff game in eight years. Known for their late-game heroics, it was sadly ironic that The Kardiac Kids’ season ended in heartbreak on a play in the last minute of the game.
A play forever after infamous as “The Pass”.
On that fateful play, with the Browns trailing 14-12 on the Raiders’ 13 yard line — easily in range of a game-winning field goal — Coach Sam Rutigliano inexplicably called for a pass play “Red Right 88“. Sipe’s unnecessary pass into the end zone was intercepted. The Raiders won the game – and went on to win the Super Bowl.
In 1985, University of Miami quarterback and hometown boy, Bernie Kosar, was the Browns #1 draft pick and took over the starting job midway through the season. With Kosar under center, the Browns would reach the playoffs each of the next five seasons, getting to the AFC Championship game in three of those years. For the Browns, the Kosar years would be their last grasp at NFL glory. And they would be remembered for a bittersweet a series of stunning, heartrending defeats.
In 1986, with Kosar slinging the ball for 3,854 yards and a dominant defense manned by five Pro Bowlers (Chip Banks, Hanford Dixon, Bob Golic , Clay Matthews and Frank Minnifield), the Browns ran up the best record in the AFC, and advanced to the AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Browns were defending a 7-point lead, and the Broncos were pinned on their own 2-yard line with 5:11 left to play.
Then, John Elway led his team on “The Drive“.
After taking the Broncos down the field, there were just 37 seconds on the clock when Elway threw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 20-20. Minutes later in overtime, 79,973 stupefied Browns fans watched in insufferable silence as the Broncos kicked a field goal to win the game.
The following year, the Browns looked like they were rolling to a championship again, led by eight Pro Bowlers: Kosar, Mack, Dixon, Golic, Minnifield, Clay Matthews, wide receiver Gerald McNeil and offensive lineman Cody Risien. The season culminated in Denver with a rematch against the Broncos for the AFC Championship.
This time, down by 3 points with 1:12 to go in the game, the Browns were on the Broncos’ 8-yard line, when Kosar handed off to his dependable warhorse, running back Earnest Byner — who rumbled toward the end zone.
In the 22 years since “The Fumble”, Browns fans have had little to cheer about. In the years since the Kardiac Kids and Kosar and company rattled our collective nerves, we’ve come to almost cherish the kind of late-game championship heartbreak we suffered in the 1980’s.
And then came last Sunday’s beat-down of the New Orleans Saints.
Could it be that the Cleveland Browns — one of the NFL’s greatest franchises — is poised for a return to glory?
After “The Pass”, “The Drive” and “The Fumble” – why not…