This article details the history of the Cleveland Browns American Football Club.
1946–1949: The AAFC years
The Cleveland Browns were founded in 1944 by owner Arthur 'Mickey' McBride and head coach (and Ohio coaching legend) Paul Brown and started play in 1946. At the time, Cleveland was home to the 1945 NFL champion Cleveland Rams, led by the NFL's hottest star, MVP quarterback Bob Waterfield, who was married to star actress Jane Russell. However, fans supported the Browns over the Rams from the moment they were created, and the Rams ended up fleeing to Los Angeles before the Browns had ever played a game.
The franchise conducted a team naming contest in 1945. The most popular submission was "Browns" in recognition of Paul Brown, already an established and popular figure in Ohio sports. Brown at first objected to the name and the team selected from the contest entries the name "Panthers." However, after an area businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to the name Cleveland Panthers from an earlier failed football team, Brown rescinded his objection and agreed to the use of his name.
As a franchise, the Browns were immediately successful. Dominating the new All-America Football Conference, the Browns won all four league championships, including the 1948 season in which they became the first pro football team to finish the season and playoffs unbeaten and untied - 24 years before the NFL's first perfect team, the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Cleveland's undefeated streak (including ties) reached 29 games, including 18 straight wins. In an effort to increase league parity, the Browns were forced to relinquish the rights to some of their younger players, such as quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who went to the Baltimore Colts in 1948.
The team saw a record setting average attendance of 57,000 a game in its first season. However, by the end of 1949, Cleveland's AAFC wins had gotten to be so expected that only 22,550 Browns fans attended the 1949 championship game against the Browns' main AAFC competitors, the San Francisco 49ers. Because of this, the AAFC and the NFL agreed at the end of the 1949 season to merge, and the Browns, the 49ers and the Colts joined the NFL.
1950: The Browns won their fifth championship in their inaugural NFL season, behind a potent offense that included Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli, Frank Gatski and Lou Groza and a defense led by Bill Willis and Len Ford. After going 10-2 in the regular season, the Browns defeated the New York Giants 8-3 in a playoff game and then beat Cleveland's previous NFL tenants, the Los Angeles Rams, 30-28, in the NFL Championship game, on a last-second field goal by Groza.
1951: The Browns went 11-1, facing the Rams in a rematch. A fourth quarter, 73-yard touchdown pass by Norm van Brocklin to Tom Fears put Los Angeles in the lead for good. The 24-17 loss was the Browns first in a championship game.
1952: Finishing 9-8, the Browns faced the Detroit Lions in the championship game. A muffed punt, several defensive stands and a 67-yard touchdown run by Doak Walker all combined to help the Lions win 17-7, frustrating the Browns for the second consecutive year. On the upside, Ray Renfro became a star with 722 yards receiving and 322 yards rushing.
1953: Owner Arthur McBride sold his controlling interest in the team in June 1953 for $600,000 to a group headed by David Jones which included Ellis Ryan, an insurance man and former president of the Cleveland Indians, Saul Silberman, owner of Randall Park Race Track and Homer Marshman, the attorney who'd founded the Cleveland Rams. The price tag was twice as large as that brought by any other pro football team up until that time.
- The Browns started the season winning 11 straight games, but finished with a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the final week, and then lost the 1953 Championship game in a rematch with the Lions. The game was, however, closer than the year before. With the score tied at 10 going into the final quarter, Lou Groza kicked two field goals to put Cleveland up 16-10. But Detroit's Bobby Layne threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jim Doran with less than two minutes left and the Lions went on to win 17-16.
1954: The Browns finished 9-3 and met up with Detroit in the championship for a third consecutive year. This time, however, the Browns were relentless on both sides of the ball, intercepting Bobby Layne six times and forcing three fumbles. Otto Graham threw three touchdowns and ran for three more, en route to a 56-10 thrashing and the Browns' second NFL crown. Graham contemplated retirement after the championship but ended up returning.
1955: Another successful campaign for the Browns. Chuck Noll had a productive season at linebacker with five interceptions, Graham passed for 15 touchdowns and ran for six more, and the team, who finished 9-2-1, won their third NFL Championship game in six seasons 38-14, once again against the Los Angeles Rams in LA. When Coach Brown took out Graham late in the game, the Rams fans gave him a standing ovation.
For Browns fans, it was a bittersweet year as Graham retired after the season due to injuries, ending the greatest run of pro success ever: in ten years of existence, the Cleveland Browns reached ten championship games and won seven championships.
1956: The Browns floundered without Graham behind center. Three quarterbacks --(George Ratterman, Babe Parilli and Tommy O'Connell) -- were used, none of them throwing more touchdowns than interceptions. The team's 5-7 record saw the Browns shut out of a championship game for the first time in team history and post the only losing season in the Browns' first 28 seasons.
1957-65: The Jim Brown years
The Browns responded in 1957 when they drafted fullback Jim Brown, who easily became the NFL's leading rusher (and NFL Rookie of the Year) with 942 yards in a 12-game regular season. Once again at the top of the division at 9-2-1, they advanced back to the championship game against their nemeses from Detroit. But the Lions dominated from start to finish, causing six turnovers and allowing the Browns' two quarterbacks (Tommy O'Connell and Milt Plum) only 95 yards passing in a 59-14 rout.
In 1958 Jim Brown ran for 1,527 yards, almost twice as much as any other running back. In his nine seasons in the league, he crossed the 1,000-yard barrier seven times. The only snag in their getting back to another championship was the New York Giants. They lost to New York on the last week of the season after a spirited fourth-quarter comeback, then, due to their equal 9-3 records, faced the Giants again in a tiebreaker game with the winner going to the finals. This one was never in doubt: Jim Brown was limited to 8 yards and the team committed four turnovers as they were shut out 10-0.
In 1959 the Browns started 6-2 but finished 7-5, out of championship contention, despite Brown once again leading the league in rushing with 1,329 yards. In 1960, Plum threw for 21 touchdowns and set a record for passing efficiency that stood into the 1980s, and Brown's 1,257 yards was again best in the NFL, but the team still finished second at 8-3-1.
Art Modell purchased the team in 1961. The season otherwise was typical: a fifth consecutive league-leading season from Jim Brown and a half-decent performance in the standings, but again, at 8-5-1, they were two games out of a berth in the championship. Rumors began circulating that the problem with the team was that Paul Brown's coaching methods had become predictable. In addition, from the time of the Tittle trade, the Browns had acquired a number players and then traded or released them after just a year or two in Cleveland, allowing them to become stars elsewhere. As of the end of 1961, this group included defensive linemen Doug Atkins, Henry Jordan and Willie Davis and quarterback Len Dawson.
In 1962, the differences between Paul Brown and Art Modell came to a head. Before the season started, Brown made a secret trade without informing Modell, giving up Bobby Mitchell to acquire the rights to Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. However, when training camp started, Davis turned out to have a fatal form of leukemia and never played for the Browns, dying in early 1963. The Browns went only 7-6-1, and Jim Brown didn't lead the NFL in rushing for the only time in his career. After the season, during a newspaper strike in Cleveland (which reduced the public outcry), Modell fired Paul Brown, replacing him with his chief assistant, Blanton Collier.
The 1963 Browns started off energized and won their first six games before splitting their last eight for an overall 10-4 record and second place in their conference, losing out for the third straight year to the Giants behind Tittle, even though Jim Brown had his best season with an NFL record 1,863 yards.
In 1964, though, the Browns finally climbed back to the top in the NFL with a 10-3-1 record, winning the Eastern Conference in the final game by pummelling the Giants and Tittle 52-20, and then beating the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the championship for their fourth NFL title and eighth title overall. A key to the improvement was the addition in the college draft of Paul Warfield, who promptly became the team's leading receiver, and Leroy Kelly, a star kick returner/running back.
The 1965 Browns picked up where the 1964 Browns left off, despite an injury to Warfield that caused him to miss all but one game, rolling through their schedule with an 11-3 record and winning the Eastern Conference by 4 games. Jim Brown won league MVP for the third time with 1,544 yards, almost doubling the total of the second place finisher, and 17 rushing touchdowns. However, in the NFL Championship game in frozen Green Bay, the Packers upset the Browns 23-12.
1966-73: Playoff disappointments
As training camp was beginning in July 1966, Jim Brown shocked the Browns, their fans and the NFL by announcing his retirement. Brown, who had been filming the movie The Dirty Dozen in London, was claimed by some to have been irritated by the Browns' threats of fines for not reporting for training camp and simply retired. Leroy Kelly became the Browns' new rushing threat for the 1966 season, ably filling Brown's shoes with the first of his three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Frank Ryan's 29 touchdowns also led the league. Entering the final month of the regular season, the Browns had remained in contention, but a costly 26-14 loss in a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas put a major dent in their postseason hopes. Blanton Collier's squad placed one game behind the Cowboys with a 9-5 mark and missed the league championship game for the first time in three years.
The 1967 Browns began the season with two losses, defeats that were quickly forgotten with nine wins in the next 11 contests to help the team finish at 9-5 for the second consecutive year. Unlike the previous season, the NFL's new realignment made that record good enough for first place in the short-lived Century Division, and a spot in the new Eastern Conference championship against the Cowboys. Unfortunately, the game between the two squads was over quickly as Don Meredith passed for two touchdowns, Dave Baynham ran for three and Bob Hayes generally made the Browns' life miserable on special teams as the Cowboys annihilated the Browns 52-14.
Following another slow start in 1968 Ryan was out at quarterback, in favor of Bill Nelsen, who had been acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason. In their October 20 game against the undefeated Baltimore Colts, the heavy underdog Browns stunned their opponents with a 30-20 win, sparking an eight-game winning streak. Nelsen's main target was fifth-year receiver Paul Warfield, who had the best season of his career, with 1067 yards and 12 touchdowns. The team finished the regular season with a 10-4 mark, good enough for another first-place finish and a rematch with Dallas in the Eastern Conference final. After four consecutive losses to their Texas opponents, the Browns ended their frustration by not allowing the Cowboys an offensive touchdown until the final minute. Leroy Kelly's two long runs for scores paced the offense, with the turning point in a 31–20 victory coming on Dale Lindsey's return of a Don Meredith interception for a touchdown early in the second half. Cleveland advanced to the NFL Championship against the Baltimore Colts. Don Cockroft had an early field goal blocked, and the Browns would not have another chance to score again. Tom Matte ran for three touchdowns as the Colts shut out the Browns 34-0 to advance to Super Bowl III.
The 1969 season produced similar results. Nelsen threw 2700 yards and 23 touchdowns (both career highs), and Warfield and Gary Collins both had at least ten touchdown catches. The team finished 10-3-1, again best in the Century Division, and once again played the Cowboys in the conference final. Nelsen threw for 219 yards and Walt Sumner returned an interception 88 yards for a touchdown as the Browns took their second straight Eastern championship by the score of 38-14. But the NFL Championship Game was another disappointment for the Browns. Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings scored on the team's first possession and another rout began. The Vikings went up 20-0 by halftime and ended up winning 27-7.
The 1970 AFL-NFL merger would see the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts move to the new American Football Conference aligned with the 10 teams of the American Football League. While the realignment would greatly benefit the Steelers, the placement of the Browns into the AFC's Central Division would not be as good. The trade of Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for a draft choice used on Purdue All American Mike Phipps did not help the Browns either. After defeating the New York Jets in the first-ever broadcast of Monday Night Football, the Browns stumbled through the season finishing 7–7.
Coach Blanton Collier retired for health reasons (deafness) was replaced with Nick Skorich before the 1971 season. The Browns improved to 9-5, and a first-place finish in the AFC Central. This placed them in the divisional playoff against the Baltimore Colts; but much like their matchup three years earlier, the game went ugly early. Backup Colts running back Don Nottingham scored two first-half touchdowns, and it was all Baltimore would need. The Browns season ended in another 20-3 disappointment.
Mike Phipps was promoted to starting quarterback over Nelsen before the 1972 season. After a sluggish start, the Browns went on an 8–1 tear. That surge was highlighted by late comeback victories against the San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers and a playoff-clinching victory at Cincinnati. A 10–4 mark earned them the AFC wild card berth and put them in a divisional playoff against the undefeated Miami Dolphins. The Browns took a lead in the fourth-quarter on a Fair Hooker touchdown catch, but Jim Kiick preserved the Dolphins' perfect season with a late touchdown run for the 20-14 decision.
In 1973, Phipps threw 20 interceptions to just nine touchdowns, and no rusher had more than 600 yards. After winning four of their first six games, the Browns slumped before bouncing back with a trio of victories, the last one a dramatic last-minute victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 25. The following week, a fourth quarter rally salvaged a 20-20 tie against the Kansas City Chiefs, but a playoff berth evaporated the following week with a 34-17 loss against the Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland ended the year at 7–5–2, good for third place in the division. Defensive lineman Jerry Sherk, made the first of four consecutive trips to the NFL Pro Bowl.
The Browns' era of success came to a crashing halt as the team dropped to 4–10 in 1974. Neither Phipps nor rookie QB Brian Sipe were effective, throwing 24 combined interceptions to only 10 touchdowns. The Browns allowed 344 points, most in the league. It was only the second losing season in 29 years of franchise history, and head coach Nick Skorich saw his tenure with the team end as a result of the collapse.
Assistant coach and former Green Bay Packer offensive lineman Forrest Gregg took over in 1975, but the bad fortunes of the team remained with an 0–9 start that finally came to an end on November 23 in a 35-23 comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Three weeks later, third-year running back Greg Pruitt paced the team with 214 yards rushing in a rout over the Kansas City Chiefs, helping the team finish the season 3–11.
Cleveland showed marked improvement with a 9-5 mark in 1976 as Brian Sipe firmly took control at quarterback. Sipe had been inserted into the lineup after a Mike Phipps injury in the season-opening win against the New York Jets on September 12. After a 1–3 start brought visions of another disastrous year, the Browns jolted the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers with an 18–16 victory on October 10. Third-string quarterback Dave Mays helped lead the team to that victory, while defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones' pile-driving sack of quarterback Terry Bradshaw fueled the heated rivalry between the two teams. That win was the first of eight in the next nine weeks, helping put the Browns in contention for the AFC playoffs. A loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the regular season finale cost them a share of the division title, but running back Greg Pruitt continued his outstanding play by rushing for exactly 1000 yards, his second-straight four-digit season.
The Browns continued to roll in the first half of the 1977 NFL season, but an injury to Brian Sipe by Pittsburgh's Jack Lambert on November 13 proved to be disastrous. Cleveland won only one of their last five games to finish at 6-8, a collapse that led to Forrest Gregg's dismissal before the final game of the season. Dick Modzelewski served as interim coach in the team's 20–19 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
On December 27, 1977, Sam Rutigliano was named head coach, and aided a healthy Sipe in throwing 21 touchdowns and garnering 2900 yards during the 1978 NFL season. Greg Pruitt and Mike Pruitt led a rushing attack that gained almost 2500 yards, but problems with the team's dismal pass defense resulted in the Browns finishing 8-8 on the year.
The 1979 campaign started with four consecutive wins, three of which were in the final minute or overtime. Four more games were won by less than a touchdown. This penchant for playing close games would later earn them the nickname "Kardiac Kids". Sipe threw 28 touchdown passes, tying him with Steve Grogan of New England for most in the league, but his 26 interceptions were the worst in the league. Mike Pruitt had a Pro Bowl season with his 1294 rushing yards, while the defense was still shaky, ranking near the bottom in rushing defense. The team finished 9-7, behind division rivals Houston and Pittsburgh in a tough AFC Central.
The Kardiac Kids
The 1980 season is still fondly remembered by Browns fans. After splitting the first six games by going 3-3, the Browns won three straight games (against Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Chicago) with fourth-quarter comebacks, and stopped a late comeback by the Baltimore Colts to win a fourth. The Browns won two more games in that fashion by the end of the season, and even lost a game to the Minnesota Vikings on the last play when a Hail Mary pass was tipped into the waiting hands of Ahmad Rashad. Sipe passed for 4000 yards and 30 touchdowns with only 14 INTs (enough for him to be named the NFL MVP), behind an offensive line that sent three members to the Pro Bowl: Doug Dieken, Tom DeLeone and Joe DeLamielleure. The "Kardiac Kids" name stuck. A fourth-quarter field goal by Don Cockroft in the final game against the Cincinnati Bengals helped the Browns capture the division with an 11-5 mark, with the Oakland Raiders their opponent in the team's first playoff game in eight years. However, a heartbreaking end of this dramatic season came in the closing seconds when Sipe called what became known as "Red Right 88" and passed toward the end zone, only to watch Oakland's Mike Davis intercept the ball. The pass play had been decided on after several botched attempts at a field goal. The Raiders won 14-12 and went on to win the Super Bowl. "Red Right 88" has numbered among the list of Cleveland sports curses ever since (see: The Drive; The Fumble; The Shot by Michael Jordan; 1994 Major League Baseball strike; Cleveland State basketball coach Kevin Mackey's arrest and conviction for cocaine and Game 7 of the 1997 World Series).
If 1980 was a dream season, then 1981 was a nightmare. Sipe threw only 17 touchdowns while being picked off 25 times. The Browns went 5-11, and few of their games were particularly close. Tight end Ozzie Newsome, their only Pro Bowler, had 1004 yards receiving for six touchdowns.
In 1982 Brian Sipe split quarterbacking duties with Paul McDonald, and both put up similar numbers. The Browns had little success rushing or defending against it, finishing in the bottom five teams in both yardage categories. Despite going 4-5, Cleveland was able to make the playoffs due to an expanded playoff system in the strike-shortened year. They were matched up with the Raiders in the playoffs, but were easily defeated 27-10.
Sipe and the Browns got some of their spark back in 1983. Sipe had 26 touchdown passes and 3566 yards, while Mike Pruitt ran for 10 scores on 1184 yards. Cleveland even won two games in overtime and another in the fourth quarter. A fourth-quarter loss to the Houston Oilers in their second-to-last game dashed their playoff hopes. At 9-7 the Browns finished one game behind the Steelers, and lost out on a wild-card spot due to a tiebreaker.
1984 was a rebuilding year. Brian Sipe defected to the upstart USFL after the 1983 season, and Paul McDonald was named the starting quarterback. Mike Pruitt missed much of the season and later ended up on the Buffalo Bills. Coach Sam Rutigliano lost his job after a 1-7 start as Marty Schottenheimer took over. The Browns coasted to a 5-11 record.
1985-90: The Bernie Kosar years
In 1985, the Browns selected University of Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar in the Supplemental Draft. As a rookie, Kosar learned through trial by fire as he took over for Gary Danielson midway through the 1985 season. Progressing a bit more each Sunday, the young quarterback helped turn the struggling season around, as the Browns won four of the six games Kosar started. Two young rushers, Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack, played a large part in the teams success as well; each ran for 1000+ yards. The Brown's 8-8 record gave the team the top spot in a weak AFC Central, and they looked poised to shock the heavily favored Miami Dolphins in the 1986 Divisional Playoff game with a 21-3 lead at halftime. It took Dan Marino's spirited second-half comeback to win the game for Miami 24-21. While the Browns faithful may have felt the initial sting of disappointment, there was tremendous upside in the loss: Schottenheimer's team, with Kosar at quarterback, reached the playoffs each of the next five seasons, advancing to the AFC Championship game in three of those years.
The Browns broke into the ranks of the NFL's elite—particularly on defense—with a 12-4 showing in 1986. Behind Kosar's 3,854 yards passing and a defense with five Pro Bowlers (Chip Banks, Hanford Dixon, Bob Golic , Clay Matthews and Frank Minnifield), the Browns dominated the AFC Central with the best record in the AFC, and one of the NFL's stingiest defenses. With these on their side, the Browns clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. In the 1987 Divisional Playoff game, the Browns needed some serious heroics (and a bit of luck) to overcome the New York Jets. The Jets were leading 20-10 with less than four minutes to play, with the Browns in a dire 3rd and 24 situation. As fate would have it, Mark Gastineau was called for roughing the passer, which gave Cleveland a first down. The drive ended with Kevin Mack running into the endzone for a touchdown. After going three-and-out the Jets went back on defense, but allowed the rejuvenated Browns to again drive the ball deep into their end of the field. With 11 seconds remaining in regulation, Mark Moseley kicked a field goal to tie the game. In the first of two ensuing overtime periods, Moseley missed his next attempt, but later redeemed himself by ending the game in what had become the second-longest game in NFL history. Final score Browns 23, Jets 20.
The 1987 AFC Championship game saw the Denver Broncos arrive in the windswept, hostile confines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium. No one knew at the time, but the Broncos would become Cleveland's arch-nemesis of the Kosar era. As it had been the previous week, the showdown proved again to be it was an overtime heart-stopper. But this time, it was John Elway and the Broncos who came away the victors. Pinned in on their own two yard line with 5:11 left to play and the wind in his face, Elway led his now infamous (or, for the Bronco's fans, 'legendary') 98-yard drive, which is now known by NFL historians as simply "The Drive"). With 37 seconds on the clock, Elway's 5-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson tied the game at 20 apiece. The 79,973 Browns fans in attendance were silenced when Rich Karlis' field goal attempt just made it inside the right-side upright to win the game for Denver early into overtime.
The Browns success was replicated in 1987, with 22 touchdown passes and 3000 yards for Kosar, and eight Pro Bowlers: Kosar, Mack, Dixon, Golic, Minnifield, linebacker Clay Matthews, wide receiver Gerald McNeil and offensive lineman Cody Risien. At 10–5, the Browns won the AFC Central again. Cleveland easily defeated the Indianapolis Colts 38–21 in the divisional playoff and travelled to Denver for a rematch with the Broncos in the AFC Championship. With the score 21-3 in favor of the Broncos at halftime, Kosar led a third-quarter comeback with two touchdowns by Earnest Byner and another by Reggie Langhorne. Early in the fourth quarter, Webster Slaughter's 4-yard touchdown catch tied it at 31-31. The Broncos regained the lead with a 20-yard Sammy Winder touchdown with less than five minutes to go, setting the stage for another Browns comeback...or so they thought. Kosar drove the Browns to the Broncos' 8 yard line with 1:12 to go, and handed off to Byner. When it looked like he had an open route to the end zone, he was stripped of the ball by Jeremiah Castille. The Broncos recovered what became known as "The Fumble". After taking a safety, the Broncos shocked the Browns again, 38–33.
Injuries to Kosar and two of his backups sidelined them for much of the 1988 season, but the Browns still finished 10–6. A final-week comeback victory in a snowstorm at Cleveland Stadium over the Houston Oilers clinched them a wild-card playoff spot, and a home game rematch against the Oilers in the first round. After Mike Pagel, in for Kosar, threw a touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter late in the fourth quarter to pull the Browns within a point at 24-23, the Browns had three chances to recover an onside kick (due to penalties), but the Oilers recovered and stopped the Cleveland comeback.
Coach Marty Schottenheimer left the Browns by mutual agreement with Modell shortly after the loss to the Oilers. Modell was tired of losing in the playoffs and Schottenheimer was tired of what he perceived as Modell's interference with his coaching personnel and game strategy. Schottenheimer was quickly hired by the Kansas City Chiefs for the 1989 season. Bud Carson was his replacement in Cleveland, but his tenure was short - only one and a half years. The 1989 season, headlined by Slaughter's Pro Bowl-worthy 1236 yards receiving, was a success at 7-3 until a 10-10 tie with Schottenheimer's Chiefs in November led to a 3-game losing streak. Two comeback wins over the Minnesota Vikings and Houston Oilers in the season's final two weeks kept them in the playoff race. The tie ended up being the Browns' saving grace, with their 9-6-1 record winning them the AFC Central title and first-round bye over the Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers at 9-7. The Browns narrowly survived a scare from the Buffalo Bills in their divisional playoff game, when Scott Norwood missed an extra point that would have pulled Buffalo within 3 points and, later, when Jim Kelly's desperation pass to the end zone on the final play of the game was intercepted.
Cleveland's 34-30 win set them up for a rematch with the Broncos in Denver for the AFC Championship. While their two previous matchups went down to the wire, this one was never in doubt. The Broncos led from start to finish, and a long Elway touchdown pass to Sammy Winder put the game way in the fourth quarter. Denver easily won 37-21.
In 1990 things began to unravel. Kosar threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (10) for the first time in his career; and the team finished last in the league in rushing offense, and near the bottom in rushing defense. Carson was fired after a 2-7 start, and the team finished 3-13, second-worst in the league. After the season Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator of the then-Super Bowl champion New York Giants, was named head coach, setting off a chain of events that some fans believe led to the demise of the original franchise.
1991-95: Bill Belichick and Modell's move
The Browns saw only a slight improvement under Belichick in the 1991, finishing 6-10. Kosar was markedly better, with a ratio of 18 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, and Leroy Hoard had a breakout season.
The 1993 season saw Belichick make the decision to bench Bernie Kosar in favor of Vinny Testaverde, who had been signed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In spite of his diminishing football skills, Kosar was immensely popular in the local fanbase. His subsequent release by the team, prompted a heated reaction from fans, mostly aimed at Belichick. Cleveland won only two of its final nine games after Testaverde took over under center, finishing 7–9 once again.
Cleveland managed to right the ship in 1994, although the quarterback situation hadn't quite improved, a solid defense led the league for fewest yards allowed per attempt, sending four players (Rob Burnett, Pepper Johnson, Michael Dean Perry and Eric Turner) to the Pro Bowl. The Browns finished 11-5, making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. In the AFC Wild Card game against the New England Patriots, the Browns' defense picked off Drew Bledsoe three times, with Testaverde completing two-thirds of his passes, to win 20–13. Arch-rival Pittsburgh ended the Browns' season the following week, however, with a 29–9 blowout in the AFC Divisional game.
Team owner Art Modell announced on November 6, 1995, that he had signed a deal to relocate the Browns to Baltimore for 1996. The very next day, on November 7, 1995, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly approved an issue providing $175 million in unguaranteed tax dollars to refurbish the outmoded and declining Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
The relocation announcement was met with unprecedented hostility from Browns fans, with over 100 lawsuits filed by fans, the city of Cleveland, and a host of others. Death threats issued against Modell and his family prompted him to leave the city to ensure his own safety. Not wanting to be targeted by fan ire or face threats against their own employees, many of the team's corporate sponsors pulled their support, leaving Cleveland Municipal Stadium devoid of most advertising during the team's final weeks.
The 1995 season was a disaster on the field, too. After starting 3–1, the rumors of relocation, and the eventual announcement, cast a pall on the team, who finished 5–11. When the Dawg Pound became unruly during their final home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, destroying sections of the stadium and raining debris, beer bottles, and entire sections of seats and bleachers onto the field, action moving towards that end zone had to be moved to the opposite end of the field to ensure the safety of the players and associated personnel, protecting them from injury. The Bengals lost the game, giving the Browns their only win following the announcement of the impending move.
Through threats of litigation led by Mayor Mike White, Cleveland accepted an unprecedented legal settlement that would claim to keep the Browns legacy in Cleveland. In February 1996, the National Football League caved in to media and litigation pressures by announcing that the team would merely be 'deactivated' for three years, and that a new stadium would be built for a new "reactivated" Cleveland Browns team that would begin play in 1999. Modell would in turn be granted a new "expansion" franchise for Baltimore, the Baltimore Ravens, retaining the current contracts of players and personnel.
1999–2004: Rejoining the NFL
In early 1998 the National Football League began its search for an owner for the reactivated Browns, finding one later in the year in Al Lerner, a former limited partner and a friend of Art Modell. Ironically, it was Lerner who was the primary catalyst for Modell's move to Baltimore. Lerner was the winning bidder against a number of others who sought the team, including cable TV magnates Charles Dolan and Larry Dolan, Cleveland real estate developer Bart Wolstein and New York developer Howard Milstein. During the period from 1996-1998 other franchises, such as Tampa Bay, blackmailed their home cities with the possibility of moving to Cleveland in order to put pressure on their respective cities to get more governmental funding for their own stadiums. Lerner died of cancer in October 2002, coincidentally four years to the day he was awarded the reactivated Browns franchise. Upon his passing, the team went into trust, controlled by his son, Randy.
The new team arrived with high hopes and expectations, featuring deep-pocketed ownership and what appeared to be solid general management in the form of former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy, general manager Dwight Clark and head coach Chris Palmer. But with poor players selected in the 1999 expansion draft and 1999–2004 college drafts, the team floundered. Palmer was dismissed after the 2000 season and Policy and Clark were forced out in 2003. The 2001 season nearly saw the Browns achieve a playoff berth, but the Week 15 game with Jacksonville saw their chances evaporate after a disastrous ruling by the referees that a Cleveland pass was incomplete, awarding the Jaguars a 1st down. Infuriated Browns fans pelted them and the visiting team's players and staff with bottles and other debris. With the crowd on the verge of starting a riot, the officiating crew called an end to the game with 48 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter. Commissioner Paul Taliagube then called them on the phone and ordered the game to be completed. After most of the fans had left, the Jaguars and Browns returned to the garbage-strew field to complete the final seconds of the match. With Jacksonville winning 15-10, the Browns were removed from playoff contention and finished the season at 7-9. Palmer was succeeded by former University of Miami coach Butch Davis. Despite a 2002 AFC Wild Card qualification, the team saw a dismal record during the next two seasons leading to Butch Davis' resignation in December 2004. Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie, was named interim head coach for the remainder of the 2004 season.
As Super Bowl XXXIX approached, there was much speculation over who would become the new head coach. On January 6, 2005, it was announced that Phil Savage signed on as general manager. Savage was previously an administrative member for the Baltimore Ravens and the Browns before 1995. After the New England Patriots victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at the Super Bowl, Patriots' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel signed on as the 3rd head coach for the new Browns. Robiskie was kept on as part of Crennel's staff.
With the Browns acquiring Trent Dilfer from the Seattle Seahawks and Reuben Droughns from the Denver Broncos, the Browns began 2005 on the wrong foot, losing 27-13 at home to their in-state rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. They would go on the road and pick up their first win of the year against the Green Bay Packers, 26–24. After losing to the Indianapolis Colts , they used their Bye Week to regroup and pick up a comeback victory against the Chicago Bears. However, the Browns couldn't keep the momentum going from their win and dropped four of their next five games. A promising 22–0 shutout of the Miami Dolphins proved to be a mirage when the team lost its next three straight games. In the team's final five games, rookie Charlie Frye served as the team's starting quarterback, winning two of those contests. However, the two victories produced limited offense, while one humiliating 41-0 loss came at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 24. The Browns ended their 2005 campaign at 6–10 in last place in the AFC North.
Just prior to the Browns' final game of the 2005 NFL season, the team's front office became embroiled in a major controversy that threatened to once again send the team into rebuilding mode. A reporter for ESPN went public with a story that Team president John Collins was going to fire general manager Phil Savage. The resulting uproar from fans and local media was so strong that it was Collins who resigned on January 3, 2006. The role of team "President and CEO" was vacated, with owner Randy Lerner filling in as de facto CEO for the time being.
In the 2007 season, the team saw a remarkable turnaround on the field. After opening the season with a 34–7 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns traded starting quarterback Charlie Frye to the Seattle Seahawks, with backup Derek Anderson assuming the starting role. In his first start, Anderson led the Browns to a surprise 51–45 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, throwing five touchdown passes, which tied the franchise record. The Browns finished the 2007 season 10–6, their best record since 1994, when they went 11–5. Six players earned Pro Bowl recognition. Coach Crennel agreed to a two-year contract extension.
In 2008, however, the Browns crashed back to ground, finishing 4–12 and coming in dead last in the AFC North. The Browns never contended during the season, and closed out the 2008 campaign with six consecutive games wherein the Browns failed to score a single touchdown. The season was punctuated in Week 16 by an embarrassing 14–0 shutout at Cleveland Stadium at the hands of the two-win Cincinnati Bengals, who with 24 players on injured reserve and starting 2nd stringers on both lines, a backup quarterback, a discarded free-agent running back, and reserve receivers and secondary, completely and thoroughly dominated the game. A 31–0 shutout against Pittsburgh in the season finale closed out the dismal season, resulting in the firing of Crennel and GM Savage.
In 2009, Eric Mangini was hired as head coach, but the Browns showed little sign of improvement as the season progressed. They defeated the Buffalo Bills 6-3 in Week 5, but after that were hammered repeatedly, scoring an average of 15 points per game. The lowest ebb was a 16-0 shutout on Monday Night at the hands of Baltimore. Afterwards, they faced the equally hapless Detroit Lions, losing by one point in an epic 38-37 game that few saw due to being blacked out on local television. Redemption finally came in Week 14, when Cleveland hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers, and despite all odds, beat their unprepared opponent 13-6 in frigid weather conditions. This would prove a major morale booster to the Browns, whose last win over the Steelers had been in 2003. Although no longer able to achieve a playoff berth, Cleveland won its final three games. The season ender saw them trump the Jaguars to finish 5-11.
During the 2010 off-season, Cleveland conducted a total overhaul of its QB corps. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson were traded to Denver and Arizona. Meanwhile, Jake Delhomme was acquired from Carolina and Seneca Wallace from Seattle. They also drafted Colt McCoy from the University of Texas. With Delhomme starting, the Browns dropped three in a row against Tampa Bay, Kansas City, and Baltimore before beating Cincinnati in Week 4. After this, they fell to Atlanta, and then were routed by Pittsburgh. In Week 7 however, Cleveland gained an upset 30-17 victory over the Saints, marking the third year in a row that they beat a defending champion. After their bye week, the Browns pulled off another upset by beating New England 34-14, now with McCoy starting. For Eric Mangini, this game was personal owing to his past relations with Patriots coach Bill Belichick (Mangini had revealed the New England videotaping scandal in 2007, earning him the lasting enmity of Belichick). Cleveland next hosted the Jets and after a valiant effort, brought the game into overtime with a 20-20 tie. New York ultimately won on a touchdown with 20 seconds left on the clock.
- The Browns are one of only four current NFL teams (along with the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans) never to have played in the Super Bowl.
- Cleveland is the only current NFL city whose franchise has neither played in, nor hosted, a Super Bowl. Due to the fact that Cleveland Browns Stadium is open-air, combined with Cleveland's typically cold winters, and the fact Cleveland lacks enough hotel rooms for such an occasion, it is highly unlikely that Cleveland will host a Super Bowl. As of February 2007, 20 franchises, Cleveland, New York Giants, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers have never hosted a Super Bowl. (The 49ers hosted Super Bowl XIX in January, 1985, even though it was played in Stanford Stadium rather than the 49ers' usual home field then known as Candlestick Park. The Rams hosted two Super Bowls at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while the team played there.)
- Levy, Bill (1965). Return to Glory: The Story of the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Co. LCCN 65-23356.
- Neft, David S., Cohen, Richard M., and Korch, Rick. The Complete History of Professional Football from 1892 to the Present. 1994 pg. 194
- Pro Football Hall of Fame - History: Franchise Nicknames Accessed September 25, 2008.
- Levy, op cit, p. 117-118.
- "Lerner buys Browns for $530 million". The Cincinnati Post (Associated Press) (E. W. Scripps Company). 1998-09-09. Archived from the original on 2005-02-25. http://web.archive.org/web/20050225105419/http://www.cincypost.com/sports/1998/browns090998.html.
- "Browns long snapper Pontbriand named to Pro Bowl". USA Today. January 28, 2008. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/2008-01-28-3488501906_x.htm. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
- Cleveland Browns, Derek Anderson, Joe Thomas, Shaun Smith, National Football League - CBSSports.com
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