CLEVELAND, Ohio — There was a time around here when football seasons were not marked by the sad shorthand of shattered dreams. Things were different for the Cleveland Browns in the first two and a half decades of their existence.
There were drives, but they didn’t end seasons in frustration – they were engineered by quarterback Otto Graham on the way to seven championships in his 10 years in Cleveland.
There were fumbles, but they didn’t choke off title game comebacks – they were forced by the likes of stellar defensive linemen Bill Willis and Len Ford on their way to Hall of Fame careers.
There was a number 88, but it wasn’t appended to a “Red Right” play resulting in an interception that ended a magic season – it was across the broad back of Darrel (Pete) Brewster, the estimable tight end on two of the Browns’ NFL championship teams in the ’50s.
It seems strange to contemplate today, but for the first 27 years of their existence, the Browns were among the most feared and successful teams in the NFL.
From their birth in 1946, when they rolled over the old All-America Football Conference with a 12-2 record on the way to the championship, through 1972, when they nearly derailed the Miami Dolphins’ fabled 17-0 season before falling in a first-round playoff game, 20-14 – the Browns compiled a 253-91-10 regular season record.
They won eight championships over that time – four in the AAFC and four in the National Football League. They were undefeated once (14-0 in 1948) and suffered just one losing season (5-7 in 1956 – then bounced back the next year with a 9-2-1 record and played in the NFL title game).
That’s the good news. The bad news is practically everything that has happened since 1972 … a generally dreary slog across the football landscape, interrupted briefly by the Brian Sipe Kardiac Kids that flared and died in 1980, and the hard-luck Bernie Kosar/Hanford Dixon/Frank Minnifield barking “Dawgs” of 1986-89.
Given we are celebrating the Plain Dealer’s 175 year anniversary, it seems more fun to concentrate on the earlier Browns.
We can turn our attention, for example, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A trip through the shrine in Canton is a celebration of those early years. Hall voters have seen fit to select 16 Browns — 15 of them players – and all but two were from the pre-’72 era: Running backs Jim Brown, Marion Motley, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly; offensive linemen Frank Gatski, Lou Groza, Mike McCormack and Gene Hickerson; receivers Dante Lavelli and Paul Warfield; quarterback Graham; and Ford and Willis.
Of the two that played later, only tight end Ozzie Newsome spent his entire career in Cleveland. The other, guard Joe DeLameilleure, won his spot in the Hall largely for his play with the Buffalo Bills. Of the Browns since their return, only offensive tackle Joe Thomas will ever be mentioned as a Hall candidate thus far.
The 16th plaque of course belongs to Paul Brown, the first head coach, NFL trailblazer, and…