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The last time a team from Cleveland won a championship

Posted by Chase Stuart on July 15, 2010

As you no doubt heard last week, the city of Cleveland hasn't celebrated a major professional sports championship since 1964. Over that time period:

  • The Cavaliers lost in three Eastern Conference Finals appearances ('76, '92 and '09) and lost in the NBA Finals in 2007. The Cavs had the best record (and SRS) in the NBA in 2008-09, led by their homegrown superstar, but lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Magic in six games. Twenty years earlier, the Cavs boasted the league's second best record (and top SRS), but lost in the first round when Michael Jordan nailed The Shot. Then, last week, Cavs fans all over the country had to deal with "The Decision," as LeBron James announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
  • The Indians didn't finish higher than fourth in their division in any season from 1969 to 1993; the 1985 (60-102) and 1987 (61-101) teams were so embarrassingly bad that they inspired the movie Major League. In 1994, the team finally appeared ready to turn their fortunes around, but the players' strike canceled the remainder of the season and the World Series. The following season, the Indians won 100 games, 14 more than any other team in the American League and 10 more than the NL's best team, Atlanta. But Cleveland lost three one-run games to the Braves in the World Series, ultimately falling in six games to give Atlanta its only World Series title. In 1997, the Indians held a 2-1 lead in Game 7 of the World Series against the Florida Marlins entering the bottom of the 9th inning. Their closer, Jose Mesa, allowed the tying run, and in the bottom of the 11th, Edgar Renteria's two-out single smashed the Indians' dreams. Cleveland rebounded with a strong season the following year, but lost in the American League Championship Series to the Yankees, despite charging out to a 2-1 series lead. In 2007, the Indians led the Red Sox 3-1 in the ALCS, before losing 7-1, 12-2 and 11-2 in the final three games. Tragedy struck off the field for the Indians, too: in 1993, pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin died during a boating accident.
  • The NHL's California Golden Seals moved to Cleveland in 1976 and became the Cleveland Barons; after two last place finishes in the Adams Division, financial difficulties forced the team to be subsumed by the Minnesota North Stars.
  • But nowhere has the tragedy and pain been deeper and more consistent than when it related to the Browns. After winning the NFL Championship in 1964, the Browns lost to the Packers in the 1965 NFL title game. Pouring salt in the wounds, reigning three-time rushing champion Jim Brown retired to star in The Dirty Dozen, and to further pursue a career in acting. The Browns had prepared for this day by trading for Brown's heir apparent three years earlier, Ernie Davis, who had followed Brown at Syracuse. But Davis died of leukemia before ever playing professional football, and was immortalized in the movie "The Express." Cleveland struggled in the 1970s, as their neighborhood rival Steelers would become the team of the decade and win four Super Bowls. In 1980, the Browns' Brian Sipe won the NFL MVP award, and Cleveland had their first legitimate contender in years. But following a botched play on "Red Right 88", Cleveland lost in the playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion Raiders. In the mid-'80s, Cleveland fans suffered through some of their most painful memories. First, the '86 Browns lost in the AFC Championship game to the Broncos and "The Drive"; the next season, "The Fumble" in the final minutes prevented the team from reaching their first ever Super Bowl. That year, the 1987 player's strike may have prevented them from winning their first (of five) ever Super Bowl. Two years later, the Browns would lose their third AFC Championship Game in four years to the Broncos. The ultimate indignity came when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 season. Then-coach Bill Belichick would go on to win three Super Bowls with the Patriots, while Modell's Ravens would win the Super Bowl following the 2000 season. The Browns "returned" to the NFL in 1999 as an expansion team, but whiffed on consecutive #1 picks Courtney Brown and Tim Couch. Cleveland has had a losing record in nine of eleven seasons as the "New Browns," with just one playoff game (a 36-33 loss to the Steelers, naturally) to show for it.

The last 36 years have been filled with pain and heartbreak for sports fans in Cleveland. But in 1964, the Browns won their 8th championship in 19 seasons, and fourth since leaving the AAFC for the NFL. Coached by Blanton Collier, here was the starting lineup for those Browns:

QB	Frank Ryan
HB	Ernie Green
FB	Jim Brown
FL	Gary Collins
SE	Paul Warfield
TE	Johnny Brewer
LT	Dick Schafrath
LG	John Wooten
C	John Morrow
RG	Gene Hickerson
RT	Monte Clark
LDE	Paul Wiggin
LDT	Dick Modzelewski
RDT	Jim Kanicki
RDE	Bill Glass
LLB	Jim Houston
MLB	Vince Costello
RLB	Galen Fiss
LCB	Bernie Parrish
RCB	Walter Beach
LS	Larry Benz
RS	Bobby Franklin

That full roster featured five future Hall of Famers: Jim Brown, Paul Warfield, Gene Hickerson, Lou Groza, and backup running back/returner Leroy Kelly. Quarterback Frank Ryan led the league with 25 touchdown passes and the Browns ranked third in the league in sack rate. Despite those marks, Ryan's high interception total combined with a mediocre yards per attempt average put the Browns in the middle of the pack in terms of team ANY/A (5th out of 14 teams, but only 0.1 ANY/A above average). Despite the gaudy touchdown numbers produced by Ryan, the Browns offense was driven by one man, as it had been for most of the past eight seasons. Jim Brown had his typical stellar season season: his 1,446 yards, 103.3 yards per game average, 5.2 yards per carry average and 128 yards from scrimmage per game were almost identical to his career averages. The big change was Warfield, a 22-year-old rookie who was able to stretch the field and keep defenses honest. Warfield had the finest season of any rookie wide receiver in a decade, leading the Browns with 52 receptions, 920 yards and nine touchdowns. Gary Collins, who led the league in receiving touchdowns in 1963, saw his numbers drop but proved to be a fine complement to the big play rookie. Four of the offensive linemen would make a Pro Bowl in either '63, '64 or '65, led by Dick Schafrath at left tackle and Hickerson at right guard.

The defense was aging, with the front seven the strength of the team (and producing all three of the defensive Pro Bowlers for the Browns). Eight of the regular defenders were 28 or older, with most of the players having been homegrown from drafts at the end of the '50s.

Pre-season projections pegged Cleveland as a team heavy on offense and light on defense, especially in the secondary. That analysis proved accurate through the first month of the season, as the Browns raced to a 3-0-1 record, scoring at least 27 points in each game, but settling for a 33-33 tie against the Cardinals. The pass defense ranked 3rd to last in net yards per attempt for the season, making it the team's Achilles heel in most close games. In fact, Cleveland ended the season last in the league in total yards allowed, making them one of the worst units of any NFL champion. In week five, it was the run defense's turn to be the culprit: a 34-year-old John Henry Johnson knifed through the defense for 200 yards and three touchdowns, making him by far the oldest player in history with a 200-yard rushing game. In front of their home crowd, the Browns were manhandled by the Steelers power rushing attack. At the end of the day, Pittsburgh had rushed for 354 yards on 64 carries, the most gained in a single game since 1955. The only bright side for the Browns was the anomalous nature of the game: Cleveland didn't allow even half as many rushing yards in any other game that season.

The next week, Brown carried the team with 188 rushing yards, as Ryan was just 9/20 for 95 yards with an interception. Still, Brown's heroics would have been for naught if Bernie Parrish's hadn't returned a fourth quarter interception for a touchdown against the Cowboys. Cleveland kept the streak going after forcing six Giants turnovers and scoring three defensive/special teams touchdowns in a 42-20 blowout to run their record to 5-1-1. In a rematch at Pittsburgh, Johnson still ran well (16 carries for 100 yards) but the Steelers couldn't control the clock the way they did the first time around. The pass defense shut down Ed Brown (8/23, 128, 0/2) and the Browns gave Pittsburgh a taste of their own medicine with 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Cleveland got their 8th win against the Redskins the following week, despite struggling for the third time in three years to stop ex-Brown Bobby Mitchell in games at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Browns continued their winning ways in a 37-21 shoot-out over the Lions in week 10, and led the Packers 14-7 at half-time the following week. Early in the third quarter, however, Vince Lombardi pulled an ace out of his sleeve. Facing 4th and 1 from their own 44, the Packers chose to go for it -- and really go for it. Bart Starr hooked up deep with not-yet-Super Bowl-I starr Max McGee and connected on a 59-yard pass. That play, combined with two Ryan interceptions, two Brown fumbles, and a clean turnover sheet from the Packers added up to a 28-21 Green Bay victory.

The Browns rebounded the next week with a typical 38-24 victory over the Eagles that was anything but ordinary. Backup offensive tackle Roger Shoals recovered the opening kickoff in the end zone. In the second quarter, Sid Williams blocked a punt and landed on the ball for six points. On Philadelphia's next play from scrimmage, Jim Houston picked off King Hill and returned in 42 yards to take a 21-3 lead. The Browns cruised from there, and upped their record to 9-2-1.

Going into week 13, Cleveland held a 1.5 game lead on NFL East rival St. Louis (7-3-2). The two teams met at Busch Stadium in a game filled with playoff implications, a rematch of the high-scoring tie from early in the season. Cardinals quarterback Charley Johnson stole the show in the middle quarters: he threw for two scores and chipped in two yard-one rushing scores to give St. Louis a 28-9 lead in the third quarter. Fortunately for the Browns, they ended the season against the league's worst team, the New York Giants. Cleveland crushed New York at Yankee Stadium 52-20, as Frank Ryan was 12-of-13 for 202 yards and five touchdowns, and ran in another score. The game was notable for several reasons: it was the last game ever played by Y.A. Tittle, who finished 10/15 for 93 yards, with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. The game also gave Cleveland some measure of revenge for what happened in 1958, when they lost to the Giants in the final game of the season and the tie-breaker playoff game, both in Yankee Stadium. New York went on to play the Colts in what would be remembered as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Six years later, the Browns avenged the ghosts of Yankee Stadium past, as a championship showdown against the Colts would finally come to fruition.

In 1964, Baltimore was the clear best team in the league (although if not for Paul Hornung's miserable season, the Packers could have given them a run for their money). The Colts pulled off the rare triple crown, boasting the league's best record at 12-2, scoring the most points, and allowing the fewest. Baltimore also led the NFL in the less traditional categories of SRS score (+15.9), offensive SRS score (+9.5), and defensive SRS score (+6.4). The Colts had AP, UPI and Bert Bell MVP award winner Johnny Unitas; the Newspaper Enterprise Association NFL MVP Award went to Baltimore running back Lenny Moore, who led the league with 19 touchdowns. The defense was led by defensive end Gino Marchetti, who earned his seventh first-team AP All-Pro honor that season. Left cornerback Bobby Boyd had 9 interceptions and led the league in interception return yards, en route to his own AP first-team All-Pro nod. The team was coached by 34-year-old Don Shula.

The Colts were heavy favorites entering the game, and not just because they were The Colts. As we've detailed before on this blog, the NFL West (of which, confusingly enough, Baltimore was a member) was quite a bit stronger than the NFL East in the late '50s and early '60s. And from 1957 to 1963, the NFL West won six of the seven championship games, with an average margin of victory of 16 points:

	West	East	WP      EP	
1963	CHI	NYG	14	10
1962	GNB	NYG	16	 7
1961	GNB	NYG	37	 0
1960	GNB	PHI	13	17
1959	BAL	NYG	31	16
1958	BAL	NYG	23	17
1957	DET	CLE	59	14

Then, in 1964, the West went 10-4 against the East, with an average score of 27.8 to 19.9. Against that backdrop, it's easy to see why the Colts -- the class of the league, anyway -- were heavy favorites. And, of course, the Colts were manned by a man who couldn't win the big one. The Browns won their 7th title in ten years in 1955, and drafted Brown in the 1957 draft. But despite adding arguably the game's greatest player ever to the league's most successful dynasty, Cleveland always seemed to come up short beginning in the late '50s. In '57, the Browns lost as heavily favorites to the Lions in embarrassing fashion. The next season, the Browns lost the tiebreaker playoff game against the Giants 10-0, and Brown was held to just 8 yards on 7 carries. That began the mark of the Giants reign in the NFL East, as they won the division five of six seasons from '58 to '62. Cleveland had a winning record every season, but never made it back to the NFL title game. Finally, in '64, Brown would get his chance. And he made the most of it.

The game took place in Cleveland, as the location of the championship game rotated yearly between the two divisions. It was a cold, windy day in late December -- and neither team scored in the first half. Groza hit a 43-yard field goal early in the third quarter to take a 3-0 lead, and the Browns shut down the Colts on their ensuing possession. On the Browns next drive came, according to Jonathon Rand, the 57th best play in pro football history. Brown took a pitch out on the left side, raced around the edge, cut inside and gained 46 yards on a game-changing play. On the next play, Ryan hit Collins for an 18-yard touchdown, the first of three such connections in the second half. When the final gun sounded, the Browns had won 27-0, and had captured their eighth championship. The city of Cleveland hasn't been the same since.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 15th, 2010 at 7:07 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.