Cleveland Browns

How, exactly, does one review a team such as the Cleveland Browns? Do I play the same little game the NFL does with them, which is to pretend they never left Cleveland and merely “suspended operations” for two years? Do I consider the current Browns’ past to be their real past? Do I review them as the Baltimore Ravens? God, this is so stupid. I have a ton of other teams to get around to writing about, so in order to save confusion, I’m going to play the NFL’s cute little game with the Browns and act like the Cleveland Browns of today are the team of Otto Graham, Jim Brown, and Paul Brown and not a bunch of replacement players whose field generals have included Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel.

Although the Browns have been an important civic institution in Cleveland ever since their founding, they were founded later than most people realize and were only the second professional football team in Cleveland. Cleveland’s first pro football team was an NFL outfit called the Rams which was started in 1936 and ran until 1945, when they won their first title and immediately bolted to Los Angeles. And subsequently to St Louis. And then back to Los Angeles. Yeah, you know them. They’re the asshole team. Anyway.

In any case, the original Browns weren’t even a member of the NFL. They were created as a charter member of the All-America Football Conference, which was openly trying to challenge EVERYONE – college and professional – to become the most dominant football league in the country. The AAFC nearly brought the NFL to its knees because it had a lot of rich backers and a ton of talent. One of those rich backers was Mickey McBride, a businessman in Cleveland who liked going to Notre Dame football games to support his kid, who played for the Fighting Irish. He originally tried to buy the Rams, but settled for the AAFC Cleveland team after getting rebuffed. After being awarded the franchise, McBride then asked Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter John Dietrich who his head coach should be. Dietrich responded by giving McBride the name of the coach who brought Ohio State its first Championship: Paul Brown. Brown was so popular with fans that they started calling for the team to be named after him, a wish McBride granted even though Brown himself hated the idea.

Brown immediately started calling in favors from his Military connections and college football connections to form the most unbeatable football machine ever seen back then. The first signing was quarterback Otto Graham, a star at Northwestern University who was serving in the Navy at the time. Then came Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley, and others who became the cogs of Brown’s team. By the time of their first game ever on September 6, 1946 against the Miami Seahawks, the Browns were damn near invincible. They killed the poor Seahawks 44-0, and a tone was set. The AAFC lasted for four years, from 1946 to 1949, and during those four years, the Browns compiled an incredible 52-4-3 overall record and won every championship along the way. The Browns were SO good, in fact, that they became victims of their own success. Fans of the AAFC started tuning out because if the Browns were going to win – probably in a lopsided way – what was the damn point? Attendance dropped. Also there was something to do with a war for players between the AAFC and NFL which raised the players’ salaries and swallowed profits which didn’t help. The AAFC ended up dissolving, and the Browns got admitted to the NFL along with the Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers.

During the AAFC years, the Browns regularly dropped a gauntlet in the NFL’s direction. The NFL chickened out every time, which probably didn’t help its teams’ cases very much when the Browns were pulled in. The NFL was convinced that the old AAFC teams were going to be fodder, but that line of bullshit was brought back to Earth when the Browns beat up the Philadelphia Eagles in their first ever NFL game. Cleveland went 10-2 that year, killed the New York Giants in the playoffs, and won their first NFL title against the Rams. The Rams and Browns tangled again in the 1951 Championship, but the Rams came out on top. The Browns lost the next two Championships as well, both to the Detroit Lions, but returned to title form again for the following two years. The Browns had now been around for ten years, playing in two different leagues, and they had won seven Championships.

Age came and victimized the Browns’ stars, which happens with all great sports dynasties. Most of the original Browns were starting to retire by 1957, and the team started struggling to find the new shoes to fill the old. What does a coach in a situation like that do next? He drafts the greatest football player to ever walk upon god’s green Earth, that’s what he fucking does! In the 1957 draft, Paul Brown drafted Syracuse University fullback Jim Brown. Combining the speed of a Ferrari with the power of a panzer, Brown quickly established himself as a star by leading the league in rushing during his rookie year. Once again, that set a tone. Brown was a marvelous athlete who, in addition to football, was also a brilliant track star and basketball player, and his accomplishments in lacrosse were so ridiculous that he was included in the Hall of Fame for that fine, underrated sport. His accomplishments in football are insane: Nine Pro Bowls; eight First Team All-Pros; eight times the league’s leading rusher; five times the touchdown leader; four times the MVP. 12,312 career rushing yards; 5.2 rushing average; 106 to rushing touchdowns; 262 receptions; 2499 receiving yards; 20 receiving touchdowns. And THAT was all in a nine-year career which took place entirely in an era of 12-game seasons. To say the least, Jim Brown was a specimen. Defending players all over the NFL quivered and melted with fear knowing that they would be tasked with taking down this monster if he got the ball. And he was gonna get the ball!

Despite Brown playing the role of the team steamroller, the Browns began to take on an identity that was more mortal than what they had been before. In 1958, they lost a shot at the Championship to the Giants. They were good the next couple of years, but not dominant. Part of this was undoubtedly because Brown and, uh, Brown (Jim and Paul) weren’t getting along. Paul’s disciplinary methods weren’t getting the desired reactions from his players anymore. Then in 1960, one of the people that started listening to Jim was a 35-year-old TV executive named Art Modell who bought the Browns. Remember that name; it’s going to become important later. Modell was closer to the players’ ages than to Paul’s, and so the relationship between Modell and Paul also got very strained very quickly. Paul made a trade for running back Ernie Davis without telling Modell, which soon went south when Davis caught leukemia. By 1963, things between Paul and Modell broke down completely and Paul was out. The Browns had existed for 17 years by then, and Paul had coached for all 17 of them. Despite their bad relationship, even Jim respected him.

New coach Blanton Collier finally brought back some of that old Browns dominance in 1964. Jim Brown led the league in rushing again, receiver Paul Warfield caught 52 passes, and quarterback Frank Ryan won his spot as the starter. Yet, the Browns were still the underdog when they went into the Championship game against Baltimore. A quick defensive switch worked when it forced Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas to do a lot of scrambling, and Cleveland left Cleveland Municipal Stadium with a 27-0 rout and their eighth championship – a rather seminal moment in the history of Cleveland sports, because it was the last title they won in anything until the Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA title. The Browns returned to the Championship the next year, losing to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in the final NFL Championship game played before the beginning of the Super Bowl era.

It was also the start of the slow descent into irrelevance that the Browns endured. Brown retired after 1965. Hot on the heels of Brown’s retirement was the retirement of Lou Groza, the only remnant of the original Browns, who was now acting as the placekicker. Things weren’t bad at first, but Cleveland had to get used to seeing the Browns suffer repeated losses in the playoffs. By the 70’s, the Browns had fallen into good-but-merely-good territory. They were a good team – competitive and exciting to watch, but nothing special. The word “transition” seems a good fit here. The Browns finished 1974 with their second-ever losing record, and losing was something the Browns started doing with an alarming regularity to close out the 70’s. 1980 introduced the Kardiac Kids, a team that won a lot of close games. Although the Kardiac Kids are still beloved in Cleveland, they were also responsible for a play that visitors to Cleveland should never bring up: Red Right 88. Down 14-12 in the last minute of a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, the Browns had the ball and were in perfect position – Oakland’s 13-yard line – to win the game on a field goal. Coach Sam Rutigliano told quarterback Brian Sipe to run a pass play, also instructing him to “throw it into Lake Erie” if the Raiders did anything other than open a path with dancing bunnies. During the play, Sipe tried to force a pass to tight end Ozzie Newsome. But Raiders safety Mike Davis cut in front, grabbed the ball, and that was the game. The logic behind trying for the touchdown was that kicker Don Crockroft wasn’t exactly 100 percent. During the game, he missed two field goals, had an extra point blocked, and aborted another after the snap flubbed. The weather was also the worst weather ever seen in a football game since the Ice Bowl of 1967. Crockroft later said he wasn’t in very good physical condition – he had two herniated disks and needed four epidurals to endure the season.

The Kardiac Kids were one of those one-year wonder teams. The Browns didn’t really hit it big again until 1985 saw them draft quarterback Bernie Kosar. Between Kosar and the talented players on both sides, the Browns were constantly playoff contenders through the late 80’s. Unfortunately, they also fell one single win short of the Super Bowl three times. The first time was in 1986, when the Browns were up 20-13 against the Denver Broncos with 5:32 left in the AFC Championship. The Broncos were pinned at their own two, but a certain John Elway led them on a powerful 98-yard drive for the tying touchdown. Denver then kicked Cleveland out of the playoffs in overtime. 1987 set up a rematch in the same game against the same team. Although Denver ran up 21-3 by halftime, the Browns came back and were down by seven with 1:12 left in the game and the ball on Denver’s eight. Kosar handed the ball off to running back Earnest Byner, who was stripped of the ball just before breaking into the end zone. The 1989 season saw Cleveland and Denver meeting a third time in the AFC Championship, and surely you’re sensing a pattern here. There wasn’t a heartbreak moment for Cleveland like The Drive or The Fumble this time, though! Nope, this time the Broncos finally had the courtesy to smack down the Browns and lead them honestly through the entire game, with ended with a final score of 37-21.

In 1991, the Browns hired Bill Belichick as head coach. This is the point where I would ordinarily tell you to keep that name in mind because it will soon be important, but Belichick’s talent for coaching never got a chance to materialize in Cleveland. He fought hard to remake the team, and succeeded in a couple of ways – he reformed their scouting methods and tried to make them into a strong cold-weather team. But his methods weren’t translating to immediate success, and he lost his audience when he benched Kosar, an Ohio native who grew up loving the Browns and turned down big money contracts elsewhere to keep playing for them. Belichick finally took the Browns to a glimmer of success in 1994, but there was something brewing behind the scenes that year which was just plain nasty. It started because Art Modell was the proper owner and operator of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He had access to all the money the stadium raked in, and in return he was paying a rent that was disproportionately low even by Rust Belt standards. Unfortunately, Modell’s parents apparently never taught him how to share. Modell kept all the money from the suites. That pissed off MLB’s Cleveland Indians, who also played at Cleveland Municipal and weren’t getting their cut. In 1990, the Indians were fed up and managed to talk Cleveland into spending its taxpayer money on a stadium they could have to themselves, revenue control and all. The city built new arenas for both the Indians and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers in a single swoop called the Gateway Project, which Modell decided not to partake in because he didn’t think his profits would fall. But when money brought in from one of the biggest sports in the country drops because the team walked off, you tend to notice, and Modell lost a shitload when the Indians were gone. Oh, and this happened when player salaries were starting to jump and Modell had deficits to pay off.

Modell suddenly decided he needed a government bailout. And wouldn’t you know it? The municipal government was more than happy to throw it at him! Unfortunately, the government which had that kind of scratch to toss around happened to be the one in Baltimore which, for you geography geniuses out there, is two states to the east of Cleveland. In November of 1995, Modell announced he signed a deal with Baltimore to move the team there. The next day, the people of Cleveland voted to give Modell his bailout cash in a landslide. I can’t find the details about what happened between Cleveland voting in favor of of helping Modell out and his moving the team that he didn’t pull out of his deal in Baltimore, but I do know the uproar over the move was damn near apocalyptic. Modell was sued by the City of Cleveland for breach of lease, and an injunction was filed o keep the Browns in Cleveland until at least 1998. Fans and season ticket holders also filed lawsuits, and Congress even held hearings on the whole fiasco. Popular comedian and Cleveland native Drew Carey went back to Cleveland to protest the move. Browns fans held a protest in Pittsburgh during a game against the Steelers, during which they were joined by an army of Steeler fans who believed the move was robbing the Steelers of one of the NFL’s legendary rivalries. (ABC was showing the game, but didn’t show a single shot of the protest.) On the field, the Browns lost their way after the announcement and stumbled to a five-win year in which they managed to lose two games against the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. The NFL and the Browns took so much (well-deserved) shit for the move that they came to a unique agreement: The team and personnel would move to Baltimore and start its own history there as a brand new franchise called the Ravens. The history, legacy, colors, name, and overall trademark of the Cleveland Browns would stay in Cleveland. The official status of the team would simply read “deactivated” for a few years, which would give Cleveland the time to build a new stadium. And if Art Modell ever set foot in Cleveland again, his murderer would receive the Key to the City and a day in his honor. (I might have made that last one up.)

The NFL made good on the promise to return to Cleveland in 1999. They came, an expansion draft was held, and the team was even given the first pick of the regular NFL draft that year, which was used on quarterback Tim Couch. Couch was a decorated SEC quarterback, but as we know, college football success doesn’t necessarily translate to professional success, and Couch had the misfortune of joining a brand new team that was cut and pasted together in a hurry. Although Couch is regarded as one of the most notable draft busts in history, the poor guy wasn’t given a real chance to step up and shine. He showed flashes of brilliance, and he’ll always have the 2002 NFL season, where he led the Browns to nine wins and their only playoff appearance of the millennium. He was also plagued with injuries and involved in a quarterback controversy which was resolved after he got benched in 2003, and it became obvious that his coach wasn’t going to give him another chance. Strangely, for a couple of years, the Browns DID appear to be a team on the rise, but after Couch was benched, well…

The Browns have never been able to recreate the magic of their 2002 playoff appearance. They did manage to go 10-6 one year, but it was only their second winning record since their return, and they were kept out of the playoffs by their tough conference. Everything since then has been messy. There’s been quarterback turnover, coach turnover, general manager turnover, each leaving a worse trash fire than the last. It seems that for every step forward the new Browns take, they take ten backwards, making shit draft picks and hiring coaches and assistants who are sought after by pretty much no one else. At one point, ESPN leaked that the team president was going to fire the general manager over “philosophical differences” (the exact term used), and the fans raised such a ruckus that the team president resigned. Players like Kellen Winslow and Derek Anderson would come along and show promise, only to be undone by injuries. In 2008, players started suffering from staph infections, which raised questions about how clean the practice facility was. They had a GM who was fired for getting into an angry email exchange with a fan. Players have been so bad that fans look with fondness at Tim Couch now. The team went from the inconsistent Couch to Charlie Frye and Brady Quinn, who were just plain bad; to Brandon Weeden, a case of a team trying to outsmart itself because Weeden was already pushing 30 when the Browns drafted him in the first round; to Johnny Manziel, an expected franchise savior who couldn’t stay away from the sauce or the clubs or the bars or eventually rehab. A frustrated comedian and Browns fan named Mike Polk made a video of himself shouting at Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2012 which concluded with him yelling, “You are a factory of sadness!” which went viral. Browns fans love their team and are devoted to it; they seem happy to just have the team now. But they haven’t forgotten that their true football heritage, their REAL team, was stolen to Baltimore, where it became a two-time Super Bowl Champion.

The Browns have retired five numbers: Those of Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Don Fleming, and Lou Groza. Davis is there for sentimentality – he died of leukemia before his pro career ever started. Otto Graham is another noteworthy name. Graham was the quarterback of the original Browns teams, and one of the most dominant players of his era. He led his teams to the Championships every year between 1946 and 1955, won seven of them, and held just about every quarterbacking record in NFL history that meant anything at some point. There’s a sound case for calling him the greatest quarterback of all time, and he would probably hold the winning percentage record and record for championships if the NFL wasn’t so hell-bent on keeping its head up its ass and keeping AAFC records off its charts. The last notable name on that list is, of course, Jim Brown. I already covered Brown’s statistical achievements above, but allow me to expand a little bit further: Brown played 118 games in the NFL, total. His yards-per-game average was 104, and his average yards per carry total was 5.2. The only runner to even approach Brown is Barry Sanders of the Lions, who topped out at 99 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry. Brown is second to Sanders for a handful of less significant records, like most games with 150 rushing yards. And Sanders needed 16-game seasons to approach Brown’s totals. Off the field, Brown has done a lot of great things. He does a lot of work with kids who got trapped in gangs and teaches them the life management skills they need to remake themselves. He also sued EA Sports for using his likeness in a video game without his permission. He still works for the Browns, and he’s also still involved with lacrosse as a part owner of Major League Lacrosse’s New York Lizards. Unfortunately, there’s a significant downside to Brown’s off-field character too: He beat women. He faced charges for violence against women at least eight times, and one of those instances saw him put in prison after he refused counseling. Abuse is widely considered one of the more heinous crimes one can commit. I’m not saying Brown’s crimes completely undermine the good he’s done as a person, but it’s frustrating to see the rest of society trying to wash them out. Football people and media people are all trying to hold him up as that elusive perfect athletic hero, which is a concept that doesn’t exist and never has. If anything, it’s a reason why we need to quit holding up athletes as role models just because they run fast.

Paul Brown was one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFL. Although he was coaching back in the 40’s, he’s responsible for a lot of coaching developments which are still in use to this day. He was the first coach to use game film to scout his opponents, hire full-time assistant coaches, and test players on how well they knew the playbook. He invented the face mask, practice squad, and draw play. He also played a huge role in bringing down football’s segregation. His methods of coaching his players, though, were mainly of the Drill Sergeant type. He wanted abstinence from all vices before games, ridiculed players who screwed up, and refused to hold up flights for players who were late during road trips. His methods back then were obscured by the fact that his teams won a lot of games, but they also made him quite a few enemies among his players. When he returned to coaching with the expansion Cincinnati Bengals, he had less success with them than he ever did in Cleveland, and that’s probably the reason why. Now try to imagine a coach like Brown handling players like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson. They’d laugh in his face.

The Browns are known for their passionate fan base. The bleacher section behind the east end zone in the Browns’ stadium is called The Dawg Pound. A former cornerback with the Browns, Hanford Dixon, said the name sort of originated with him when he gave his defensive the name “Dawgs” as a way of firing them up just before the 1985 season. Dixon and Frank Minnifield came up with a scenario where the defensive line was the dog and the quarterback was the cat. The defensive line and linebackers got into the habit of barking after sacks, and during training camp, the attitude carried up into the stands where the fans were watching. The fans started barking along with the players, so before the first preseason game that year, Dixon and Minnifield put up a giant banner on the bleachers that said “DAWG POUND.” The already-vocal fans latched on to the idea, and ever since then, they created an identity around it where they show up for game day wearing dog noses, dog masks, and other similarly-themed costumes. Back in the day, fans in The Dawg Pound would shower the visitors with Milk-Bones, so the team had to ban dog food from being carried into the stadium. In 1989, The Dawg Pound had an impact on the outcome of a game. Playing against the Broncos, the rain of debris was so bad that an official had the teams switch sides to get them away from the east end, which put the wind at the Browns’ back and made it easier for their kicker to make a field goal.

As for fans who don’t bother with the elaboration with dog masks and visiting Cleveland, it’s hard to tell just how large the worldwide fan base is. But there is an organization called Browns Backers Worldwide, which is the world’s largest organization of Browns fans. They have around 305,000 members in every major city in the United States, and a huge foreign presence in places like Egypt, Japan, and even McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The two largest branches are in Alon Shvut in Israel and Niagara Falls, Canada. The latter there is particularly surprising because it’s a clear encroachment inside the Buffalo Bills’ territory. One former Browns owner, Randy Lerner, bought the prominent English soccer team Aston Villa. Aston Villa outlets suddenly started selling Cleveland Browns merchandise, and it created a link between the two teams and piqued interest in England. Villa supporters created a branch called “Aston (Villa) Browns Backers.” Among the most famous Browns fans was The King himself, Elvis Presley.

The Browns have one of the most unique uniforms in sports. First of all, those colors: Brown and orange. Anyone who tried to pull off such a combination in a fashion design class would probably be expelled. Second, there’s a bluntness to the uniforms which is so simple that it’s almost elegant. There’s no try at flash or dazzle here – the helmet doesn’t even come with a logo. On a lot of officially licensed merchandise, the helmet itself serves as the logo.

Being a fan of the Cleveland Browns these days can mean two things: You love football and you’re not asking for a whole lot outside of a team with a great fan base. Since there’s no reason to think the Browns are going to be contenders anytime soon, what they have going for them is that you’re not going to find a whole lot of fellow fans who hopped on because the team suddenly got good.

Pros

A large fan organization means you don’t have to suffer alone; if they ever rise up, it won’t be taken for granted; fascinating in that train wreck sort of way; at least history is on their side

Cons

Christ, do I REALLY… The NFL discounts a lot of their early achievements; are pretty much FUBAR thanks to years of mismanagement; have a weird Back to the Future Part II timeline split where the team is stuck on the fake timeline while the actual Browns are a two-time Super Bowl champion somehow called the Baltimore Ravens

Should you be a fan?

Aside from Browns fans being extremely prominent despite in spite of their team being a shell of itself, the best thing you can say about Browns fandom is that it will numb you to such an extent that you won’t feel any heartbreak if they ever become good again only to lose a Super Bowl by two points.

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