There was a time when they were tough – classic – individually and collectively. You not only didn’t beat the Cleveland Browns, you didn’t even mess with them. But that, my friends, changed with “the drive”, “the move”, and now…the real “mistake on the lake”.
The Cleveland Browns were not always The Bad News Browns, not always a football-shaped doormat on which NFL teams wiped their cleats.
And right now they are the team that makes things all better for the Cincinnati Bengals.
One upon a time, in my youth (which tell you how long ago it was), the Browns were the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ($13,500 a bottle) of pro football to the rest of the game’s Mogen David and Boones Farm wines.
When I was 6-years-old and wearing short pants to first grade in 1946, the All-America Football Conference was formed, an eight-team league formed to challenge the established National League Football League.
A guy named Paul Brown formed the Cleveland Browns and the team was as invincible as Superman on steroids. I thought they never lost as I listened to games on a plastic radio plugged into an outlet in our tiny kitchen on the east side of Akron.
And they seldom lost. The league lasted four years and the Browns won all four championships, going 47-4 in those four seasons, including 14-0 in 1948, the same year the Cleveland Indians last won a World Series.
The league folded after the 1949 season and three teams from the AAFC were absorbed into the NFL — Cleveland, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts.
The New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers were disbanded, probably because they stole their nicknames from their baseball counterparts.
But the Buffalo Bisons, Miami Seahawks, Chicago Rockets and Los Angeles Dons also became extinct.
The NFL moguls, of course, believed the AAFC vastly inferior. To teach them a lesson, to start the 1950 season they scheduled the 1949 NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles against the Browns. Final score: Cleveland 35, Philadelphia 10.
Not only that, the Browns went 10-2 and won their conference, then whipped the Los Angeles Rams, 30-28, in the NFL championship game, wearing their all-white helmets with no decals or stripes.
Fifteen people from the old AAFC are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, seven from the Browns — Coach Paul Brown, quarterback Otto Graham, fullback Marion Motley, center Frank ‘Gunner’ Gatski, defensive end Lenny Ford, placekicker Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza and guard Bill Willis. How could they leave out punter Horace Gillom and offensive ends Dub Jones and Dante Lavelli?
The Browns won three more NFL titles in championship games before the Super Bown was born in 1966. In 1954, the same year the Indians won 111 games but lost the World Series in four straight to the New York Giants, the Browns beat the Detroit Lions in the NFL title game, 56-10.
The Browns had lost to the Lions, 14-10, on a late touchdown the week before in the last regular-season game. The offense thought coach Paul Brown was too conservative in his play-calling, so they called a players-only meeting the night before the championship game. Brown sent in all the plays, but they decided if he sent in a play they didn’t like, quarterback Otto Graham would change it.
And that’s what they did as the underdog Browns (by three points) led at halftime 35-10 and outscored the Lions 21-0 in the second half. Graham threw for three touchdowns and rushed for three more as I watched in awe on neighbor Raymond Steffey’s black-and-white Zenith TV set with rabbit ears on top of it.
It was brought to us by the Dumont network and it was the first televised football game I had ever watched.
They won again in 1955 and didn’t win again until 1964, when I was a young reporter for the Dayton Journal Herald, two years out of Kent State University. And I was in the press box covering that game, a bug-eyed 24-year-old getting paid to watch my favorite team play the Baltimore Colts for the championship in Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
There were 79,544 fans with the most expensive ticket $10 and they all feared the passing combination of Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry.
The Browns shut them down like a frozen water spigot. And they scored all 27 points in the second of a 27-0 victory.
The quarterback was Dr. Frank Ryan, a mathematical genius who could explain the geometric function theory. And he knew how to find Gary Collins in the secondary. Ryan threw three touchdown passes to Collins, all in the second half. And fullback Jim Brown carried the ball 27 times for 114 yards.
Brown was my athletic god. I covered the team all season but was so in awe of Brown that I never once asked him a question. I stood on the periphery and jotted notes as other writers interviewed him. The guy was so tough I thought you could ice skate on his chest and not leave a mark.
And that was it. Draw a dark shade over the Browns after 1964. No more titles. There were, though, two close calls.
It was in January, 1987, the end of the 1986 season. The Browns were playing the Denver Broncos for the AFC title — winner to the Super Bowl.
I didn’t cover the Browns that year, but the Dayton Daily News sent me to Cleveland to cover the game.
The press box is atop Cleveland Municipal Stadium and there was no elevator. Late in games writers left the box to walk down through the stands to stand behind the end zone until the game ended so we could get into the locker room right after the game. If you stayed in the press box, you would never make it through the departing crowd after the game.
So, with about six minutes left and the Browns leading by a touchdown, several of us snaked our way to the field. I was standing behind the goal post with 5:04 left and Denver had the ball at the other end, 98 yards away. Denver offensive guard Keith Bishop supposedly said to quarterback John Elway, “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”
Slowly the Broncos came closer and closer to us. First down after first down. Elway guided the Broncos relentlessly toward us as my frozen fingers scribbled notes on my steno pad.
The Browns didn’t even force a fourth down and Elway completed an endless supply of third-down completions. With 37 seconds left the Broncos scored the tying touchdown — then won on a field goal in overtime.
It has become forever known as, ‘The Drive.’ To me, it was ‘The Twisted Dagger,’ 98 yards of pure agony.
The next season was the year I threw a Cole Haan loafer through a TV screen.
Again it was the Browns and Broncos in the AFC title game, with a Super Bowl ticket going to the winner. The game was at Mile-High Stadium in Denver, so I was home watching on TV.
With 1:12 left, the Browns trailed by a touchdown but were deep in Denver real estate. They were at the 1-yard-line. And running back Earnest Byner fumbled, dropped the ball, dropped the hearts out of every Browns fans. Denver recovered and won. That’s when I removed my loafer and threw it toward the TV. If only recent Browns quarterback could be so accurate. I shattered the picture tube. It didn’t matter. The Browns weren’t going to the Super Bowl. In Browns’ lore, Byner’s bungle became known as ‘The Fumble.’
And that’s it. Nothing more positive to talk about or write about concerning the Browns, more aptly called the Brownies.
Owner Art Modell, known in our household as Mr. Sleaze, moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season, ostensibly because Cleveland helped the Indians build a new stadium and wouldn’t build one for him. The Ravens, The Real Browns, made the playoff 10 times and won two Super Bowls.
Cleveland was granted an expansion franchise, The New but Unimproved Cleveland Browns, in 1999.
And ever since, they have been the real Mistake on the Lake. My television is safe. Pass the Mogen David.