Photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Bengals
TALK OF FAME NETWORK
by Ron Borges
Whenever the discussion turns to dynasties in the NFL, the greatest of them all seems to be forgotten.
There have been endless debates over whether Vince Lombardi’s Packers trump Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain or if the 49ers of the 1980s’ led by Joe Montana outstrip the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s with their Hall of Fame “triplets”: Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith.
And what of Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, who have been to five Super Bowls since 2001 and won three? Many today would argue Brady is the greatest winner of all-time, surpassing even his boyhood idol, Montana.
While all are memorable teams and rulers of their time, none is equal to the Cleveland Browns of the post-World War II era (1946-1955). That team was the finest football juggernaut in history, led by the winningest quarterback of all-time, “Automatic Otto” Graham.
In 10 years the Browns reached their league’s championship game 10 times and won seven, but there’s the rub. The first four came when the Browns were members of the All-America Football Conference, a league that was absorbed by the NFL in 1950 but left its record book behind. In short order, the NFL wished it had left the Browns behind as well.
The assumption was that the AAFC was inferior to the NFL which, at the time, was dominated by the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions. To prove it, the Browns’ first game in the NFL was against the defending NFL champion Eagles, who were supposed to crush them. Instead, they lost 35-10 and the legend of Cleveland’s innovative coach, Paul Brown, began.
With Graham under center and Brown calling the plays, Cleveland dominated the NFL just as it had the AAFC, going 10-2 in 1950 to earn a playoff spot against the only team to have defeated them that season, the New York Giants. With that game tied 3-3 in the fourth quarter, Graham gained 45 yards rushing on Cleveland’s frozen field to set up a 28-yard field goal by Hall of Famer Lou “The Toe” Groza. A safety after the ensuing kickoff led to the final 8-3 margin for the Browns.
A week later, on Christmas Eve, Graham would lead the Browns to their fifth straight championship game victory (the first four being in the AAFC), a 30-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams in a game in which he would pass for 298 yards, run for 99 and produce four touchdowns.
A year later the Browns went 11-1 in the regular season but lost the first of three straight NFL title games, this one to the Rams and the next two to the Detroit Lions. The 1952 Championship Game loss was an oddity in that Cleveland outgained Detroit 384-258, yet came up short, 17-7.
Despite a 8-4 record in 1953 the Browns reached the NFL title game again, losing to Detroit by the thinnest of margins, 17-16. That year Graham was the league’s MVP and leading passer. Yet after throwing two interceptions against the Lions, he said he wanted “to jump off a building,” because he felt “I was the main factor in losing.”
If he was it didn’t happen often. Graham came back in 1954, saying it would be his last season. The Browns were starting to age and seemed a team in transition, losing two of their first three games before righting the ship. They won eight straight games, again facing the Lions for the NFL title. This time Graham was everything he felt he hadn’t been the previous year, running for three touchdowns and passing for three more in a 56-10 rout.
Many felt that marked the end for the Browns, but when they struggled to replace Graham the next summer, he was convinced to come out of retirement for $25,000, then the highest salary in the league. After losing the season opener to Washington, Cleveland trampled the rest of the league, finishing 9-2-1 and winning the NFL championship by shellacking the Rams 38-14 in a game in which Graham ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more.
That victory effectively ended the Browns’ dynasty. Graham retired with a record of 114-20-2, including 9-3 in the playoffs. His winning percentage of 81.4 has never been surpassed. In 10 seasons, he never missed a game and led the Browns to the championship game every year.
With Graham in retirement the Browns fell to 5-7 the next year. Paul Brown never won another championship.
The Browns’ decade of dominance was not simply that they won seven championships in 10 years. It was how they did it. Their offense was never ranked less than fourth in scoring and was in the top three eight of those 10 years. Their defense was never ranked lower than SECOND in points allowed and was first eight times, including four of the final five years of their NFL reign. Oh, and did I mention the 1948 Browns, like the ’72 Dolphins, went their entire season undefeated, finishing 15-0 with a win in the AAFC title game?
Certainly the Lombardi Packers were one of pro football’s greatest teams, appearing in the NFL championship game six times in eight years and winning five. So, too, were the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in six years. But how do you top going to the championship game 10 straight seasons and winning seven times?
You don’t. Which is what makes the 1950s Cleveland Browns the greatest dynasty since the Ming Dynasty.