Underdogs Return – The Cleveland Browns

In 1944, Arthur B. McBride secured the right to field a Cleveland American Football team in the AAFC. Co-founder and coach Paul Brown was onboard and the team named after him, the Cleveland Browns. Out of this moment came one of the most important sports franchises, a franchise that would rise and fall, a franchise that spent years being mocked, but a franchise that finally looks to be ascending to the top once again.

Cleveland flew into action. Led by their acclaimed coach, Paul Brown, and legendary QB Otto Graham, the Browns won their first AAFC Championship on their inaugural season. In the Championship beating the New York Yankees, fitting considering Paul Brown wanted to emulate the baseball Yankees with his team. Then Cleveland continued to do something unprecedented, they won the next 3 years. This means that the Browns won the Championship in every year of their first 4, something unmatched by any franchise. This was capped by an unbeaten season in 1948, something only matched in football by the unbeaten 1972 side of the Miami Dolphins. However, the Browns success became the league’s undoing. Their dominance crushed the league which folded in 1949 but the Browns along with the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts merged with the NFL. The Browns dominance did not stop here. Cleveland won, again, in 1950. They had changed their league but not their ways. Led by the passing attack of Hall of Famer Otto Graham, the Browns returned to the NFL Championship the following 5 years, winning in 1954 and 1955. This meant that Cleveland reached the Championship match in their first 10 years, winning 7 times. They were the first true dynasty in a sport that had just started reaching its maturity. The Browns gifted the NFL its’ first stars in coach Paul Brown and QB Otto Graham, however, Graham retired after 1955 and it was possible that the end of the Browns dominance had just began.

Losing a player of Graham’s talents may have seemed a lethal blow but the Browns replaced one star with another. Fullback Jim Brown joined the team in 1957. He played for 9 years and reached 9 Pro Bowls – no wonder he is still considered one of the greatest players to ever play the game. His physical running style gutted defences and his charismatic personality helped him blossom into a star off the pitch as well as on it at a time when TV had started to display the great game across the country. The Browns bulldozed their way to wins, albeit no Championships. Especially after the growing tension between Paul Brown and the players, especially Jim Brown. But, in 1964, Paul Brown was fired, and Cleveland won a championship. However, that championship (won over future Hall of Fame duo in Coach Don Shula and QB Johnny Unitas) was to be the last peak of Cleveland for some time. Paul Brown retired in 1965 and Jim Brown followed the following year. Stars retired, the building blocks gone and the end of a dynasty for the Cleveland Browns.

A drought began. After two Conference Championship in 1968 and 1969, a streak ongoing today began. Those are the last Conference Championships Cleveland won. So often in the NFL, teams endure a cycle of success for 5-10 years before falling back for around the same period of time before rising once more. Especially with a franchise that was so full of success, that new how to win, it seemed it would only be a matter of time before the Browns rose once more. But this time did not pass quickly. Since the retirement of Graham, the QB position had been underwhelming. As the Browns found out, it’s difficult to win with subpar play at the most important position in the sport. The QB position proved to haunt the Browns for till 1985. Cleveland native Bernie Kosar was desperate to play for his hometown team and so managed to find his way into the supplemental draft rather than the regular draft in order for the Browns to draft him, instead of the Vikings who would have otherwise. As a result of this, Kosar became a home town hero and Cleveland had its QB. Kosar led the Browns to 3 AFC Championships games in 4 years, but losing all of them. This included via the infamous “The Fumble”. The Browns had their QB but kept finding different ways to lose, it had been so long since they won that it seemed they had forgotten how to even when the win was right in front of them.

In 1991, the Browns hired someone who new how to win. Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants and owning of 2 Superbowl rings. He was young but with potential. Belichick also had an eye for spotting coaching talent. The coaching and front office team that eventually called Cleveland home consisted of Nick Saban, Scott Polio, Eric Mangini, Thomas Dimitroff, Jim Schwartz and Kirk Ferentz. With a team like that, and a team with players Bernie Kosar, Eric Metcalf and Clay Matthews; the Browns looked to be rising again. Cleveland had all the right people, but sadly, at the wrong time. Kosar and Belichick had a difficult relationship. Kosar started getting injured along with his backup (who Belichick was thought to have preferred) in Vinny Testaverde. Without a QB, the Browns sunk back. Their coaching staff was too inexperienced including at the top in Belichick. He was still working out how to be a Head Coach, how to get respect from his players and work with players in different ways to extract their best. Belichick seemed to need Cleveland as a learning experience and so did defensive coordinator Nick Saban. Between the two of them, their football IQ could have exceeded the rest of the league but trying to convey that to men who did not respect them was a tougher task than they could handle at that point in their young careers. They gained a playoff win in 1994 against the Bill Parcels led New England Patriots but that was as far as they got. The early 90s were years of wasted potential for Cleveland. This once great franchise had still not risen again and its darkest days were just ahead.

Art Modell, the owner since 1961 was fed up with Cleveland. He wanted to move to greener pastures, and announced a move to Baltimore in 1995. The players and franchise left Cleveland to become the Baltimore Ravens. Some coaches followed, others such as Belichick, did not. This was the end of football in Cleveland, football’s first great dynasty, home to some of its first stars had seemingly ended. To make matters worse, the fans stood by to watch the Baltimore Ravens win a Championship in the 2000/01 season. Their team had left and started to win.

But all was not lost, the team returned 1999 but stumbled, some might say “fumbled” their way through the seasons. The Browns were not good. There winning seasons in 2002 and 2007 their only bright spot since their rebirth, excluding being the “good guys” in the 2014 film Draft Day”. If that is all a team has to cling to, not a lot has gone its way. Again, Cleveland was haunted by their lack of a QB. 29 different QBs started a game between 1999 and 2018. That’s almost 1.5 a season. The Browns were the laughing stock of the league, still not won a Playoff game since 1994 and not ever really looked close. In 2018, the Browns held another early 1st round pick in the draft, this time first overall. With it they picked Baker Mayfield out of Oklahoma. Despite inconsistency in his first 2 years, Mayfield was the best QB they had seen since Kosar, for the first time Cleveland has hope they may ascend once more and in 2020, 2 hiring’s seemed to make the difference.

Andrew Berry was hired to be GM, the youngest in the league at only 32. Along with him, Kevin Stefanski the former offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings was hired to be Head Coach. The two of them hit free agency and hit it smartly. Suring up the O-Line to help their young QB by signing Jack Conklin. He made holes for Derrick Henry in Tennessee, he can do so once again, this time for Nick Chubb (best pure RB in the game?). They then set out and signed Austin Hooper, TE from the Falcons. A young pass catching TE with Superbowl experience. Another weapon for Mayfield. In the draft they selected Jedrick Wills to play LT who instantly seemed like a veteran, finally an honourable replacement for long retired Joe Thomas. To add to this a great safety in Grant Delpit (injured for his rookie receiver) and a swing at Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR who can learn behind Landry and OBJ. The draft showed a great understanding of the team. The Browns have long had a good D-Line and skill positions and so drafted away from that. Protecting their QB not only through protection but also addition by helping the running game and allowing inexperienced rookies to learn behind established teammates. Last years draft seemed to be the best that Cleveland have had in a while. It showed.

Cleveland ended with an 11-5 record, their best since rebirth in 1999. They were in the Playoffs and has a chance to avenge so many past losses in facing division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had been everything Cleveland wasn’t. Despite a slow start as a franchise, they had turned into a dominant team. A 70s dynasty not eclipsed till the 20-year Patriots dynasty. Further success in the 2000s led by Ben Rothlisberger. A never-ending run of historic coaches and playoff appearances. Also, and most importantly, 6 Superbowls. A feat equalled only by the Patriots. They had bullied and humiliated the Browns since 1999. The record since 1999 stood at 34-3-5 in favour of the Steelers. This was no rivalry; it was a twice-annual workover for the Steelers. And now, they hosted the Browns in the playoffs.

It was the end of the first quarter and the game was already over. One team down 28 points, humiliated with no way back. This was the last game they would play in the 2020 season. Sitting at home after testing positive for Covid was Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, side-lined for his first playoff game as Head Coach; he was powerless. He watched his team play against their bullies, a team that had feared Cleveland for so long. But despite not having their coach, Cleveland had belief for the first time since the 90s, and before that the 60s. It showed. The Browns dominated. The underdogs were going to win and embarrass their tormentors. The revamped secondary receiving 4 INTs whilst the offense held onto possession and bulldozed their way to victory behind the improved O-Line. Mayfield threw for 3TDs proving to be the QB the Browns had long needed. This was not the Browns team of old. Berry and Stefanski had created a team of underdogs that weren’t afraid to fight and it led to the Browns claiming their first playoff victory since 1994. The Browns had done it, they had started to rise once more.

Another plucky performance against the defending Superbowl Champions in the Kansas City Chiefs had ended in defeat, but they had almost won. Only foiled by a completion on a 4th and 1 from backup QB Chad Henne (probably the only “backup” QB to not have played for the Browns at some point in his career). The season may have ended in a loss but it was a season the Browns had won. Stefanski won Coach of the Year honours and Berry completed another successful draft. This time somehow picking up Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah in the 2nd round to make the Browns defence seemingly impenetrable. The Browns now enter the 2021 season as 2nd favourites, only slightly behind the Baltimore Ravens. They finally have a GM, Head Coach and QB to go and succeed. They finally look to have a team built for success. They finally seem to be ready to ascend to the great heights they entered the league at, they can reach the top of the NFL, they can win a Superbowl. And, I am sure that almost every fan of the league will want that to happen, will cheer them on in the Superbowl (unless they play your particular team). The Browns deserve your support. The turnaround that has taken place is quite amazing. One of the most historical and legendary franchises of the NFL is seems about ready to regain its rightful place, battling for Championships against the best of the best in the NFL.

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