Day 194: Back When The Browns Could Win

originally published July 12, 2012

It’s that time of year again. Three and a half weeks until the Hall of Fame Game welcomes the end of a long drought for American football fans. It’s a time of anticipation, of team loyalty, of wondering how well the Cleveland Browns will do this year (spoiler! They’ll suck again).

I don’t mean to pick on the Browns. I love the Browns. They are everything an NFL team needs to be – outdoors in cold weather, feeding a frenzied, maniacal fanbase, and adorned with nothing more than a blank orange canvas on their helmets. In simplicity there lies perfection. Just not on the football field. But it wasn’t always this way.

In June of 1944 Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, the guy who invented baseball’s All-Star Game, decided it was time for a new football league. Ideally, he’d hoped for a World Series of football between his new league and the NFL.

Naturally, the NFL wasn’t pleased. But they probably weren’t worried either. Rival football leagues have a tendency to come and quickly go (remember the XFL?). But the All-America Football Conference had a few edges:

  • That’s Arch Ward. As I mentioned, he was the sports editor at a major Chicago paper. Free press is good press.
  • All eight owners were wealthy millionaires, while a number of NFL owners were struggling to make it.
  • The war was over in time for their inaugural season, which meant tons (literally, though they didn’t usually measure them that way) of able-bodied players.
  • The NFL was still bunched up in the northeast. Air travel was now possible, so the AAFC opened branches in Florida and California.

Heading into the 1946 season, no one really knew what would happen to pro football with two major leagues; the NFL had not agreed to a World Series pitting of the two champions against one another, and three cities (New York, Chicago, L.A.) would now feature teams from both leagues – Chicago boasting three teams in total. The 1945 NFL champs, the Cleveland Rams, opted not to compete with their new AAFC counterparts. The new team had brought in Ohio college football legend Paul Brown to coach the freshman team, so the NFL Rams packed up and shipped out west to Los Angeles before the ’46 season.

The eight AAFC teams that would launch the league were the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, Buffalo Bisons, Miami Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Dons, Chicago Rockets, and the team led by a college football visionary, the Cleveland Browns.

The first game was a 44-0 blowout by the Browns over the Seahawks. Astute gamblers no doubt took note of the likelihood of a Browns championship. Either that or they might have predicted the flimsy fate of the Miami Seahawks, who delayed two games due to hurricanes, ran up an enormous debt and limited ticket sales, and were bumped out of the league after a year.

The championship game saw the Browns edge the Yankees 14-9. Because salaries in both leagues were skyrocketing as teams competed for available players, the only two clubs to turn a profit in ’46 were the two champions, the Browns and the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

In 1947 the Buffalo Bisons were renamed the Bills and the Baltimore Colts franchised replaced Miami. The same two teams appeared in the championship game, with the Browns winning 14-3. The league was an attendance success, but it was still losing money, and there was no end to their rivalry with the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns of 1948 won all 14 games, as well as the championship over the mediocre Buffalo Bills by a score of 49-7. No pro football team since then, apart from the Miami Dolphins in 1972, would win every single game in a season. Not one.

By the end of another money-hemorrhaging season, the two leagues decided to talk. The AAFC was willing to surrender if the NFL would admit four of their teams. The NFL agreed to admit only San Francisco and Cleveland. That gulf meant the fight was on for one more year.

The two struggling New York teams merged and became the Brooklyn-New York Yankees. With only seven teams, the AAFC tried to cut losses even further by trimming their schedule down to 12 games. The playoffs were also restructured, meaning that the perennial #2 team in the Western Division, the San Francisco 49ers, finally got their shot at a title against the team that consistently edged them in the standings, the Cleveland Browns. They lost. Cleveland finished four years with four championships and a 52-4-3 record.

And with that, the AAFC collapsed. A compromise of three teams (Cleveland, San Francisco, and Baltimore) were admitted to the NFL, the L.A. Dons merged with the Rams, and the rest of the teams folded.

The AAFC’s legacy is still felt in pro football. Cleveland coach Paul Brown brought concepts like facemasks, game-film analysis and the X’s and O’s chalkboard to the league. Also, they named the team after him, and that team is still around. The AAFC inspired the NFL to become a coast-to-coast league, and to start riding planes instead of trains from game to game. Fifteen alums from the league are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Browns QB Otto Graham.

Buffalo eventually rebooted the Bills in 1960 for the next great shot at NFL competition, the American Football League. This time the team stuck around. The Baltimore Colts lasted one season in the NFL before falling apart. Another Colts team showed up in Baltimore in 1953, and this one survived (though after their 2011 season, I’d say just barely). The 49ers took about 30 years to really ramp up and become consistently competitive, but those Browns.

Oh, those Browns.

After winning four straight AAFC titles, they found themselves once again in contention for a championship, this time up against the L.A. Rams, the team they had effectively booted from Cleveland. They won the emotional match 30-28 on a last minute field goal, prompting NFL Commissioner Bert Bell to call the Browns the greatest team to ever play football. They went on to appear in the next four consecutive championship games, winning two of them. That’s 7 league victories and ten championship game appearances in ten years.

So what happened? The Browns haven’t been a force in the NFL since the Bernie Kosar days of the 1980s, and even then they never made it to a Super Bowl. The team got moved to Baltimore then rebooted in Cleveland in the 90s, and they’ve appeared in one playoff game since 1994.

I don’t care. I’m still a fan. And even if this isn’t their year, Browns fans are loyal to the end.

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