I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.
What Are The Greatest Eras in Cleveland Browns History?
From their inaugural season in 1946, the Cleveland Browns established themselves as a team to beat, and that continued for the first 10 years of their history in two of the greatest eras ever in franchise history. After a brief hiatus as one of the NFL’s most elite teams, Cleveland picked up another championship in the 1960s, and they had another resurgence of success during the 1980s. The Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore in 1996, but they returned in 1999 as an expansion franchise. Since then, they’ve been unable to usher in a new era of greatness, but many believe the team is moving in the right direction. For now, let’s take a quick run down memory lane and revisit the greatest eras in Browns history.
Browns Dominate AAFC (1946–49)
- Regular-Season Record: 47-4-3
- Postseason Record: 5–0
- Championships: 4
- AP First-Team All-AAFC: Otto Graham (1947–49), Mac Speedie (1947–49), Marion Motley (1948)
When the All-America Football Conference was established for the 1946 season, there was no telling which franchises would be successful and which ones would be failures. The Browns, however, quickly proved they would be the team to beat. Led by innovative coach Paul Brown and a host of future Hall of Famers, Cleveland won four straight championships to dominate the short-lived league.
The Browns opened the 1946 season by breaking the professional football attendance record, and they treated those 60,135 fans to a 44–0 thrashing of the Miami Seahawks. The regular season ended with another whipping, this time a 66–14 domination of the Brooklyn Dodgers—which was the most points Cleveland scored in an AAFC game. The opener was the first of four shutouts for Cleveland that season, and a 12–2 regular-season record was good enough for a spot in the AAFC Championship game. There, the Browns matched up against the New York Yankees—who during the regular season were the third shutout victim in a tight 7–0 decision in Week 6. The Yankees held the lead into the fourth quarter of the championship game, but couldn’t pull off the revenge win after quarterback Otto Graham fired a touchdown pass to Dante Lavelli in the fourth quarter to seal a 14–9 Browns victory.
"Otto was sharp today," coach Paul Brown told the Cleveland Plain Dealer after the game. "I think he played the best game of his career and that goes a long way, Lavelli had two men on him all afternoon and still caught the ball somehow. And (Mac) Speedie. Well, Speedie makes catches that I don't see how he can possibly get."
In what the Plain Dealer described as a series “developing into a tremendous rivalry,” the Browns and Yankees continued their fierce play into the 1947 season. That is when the teams played a pair of tight regular-season matchups to preview a second straight AAFC Championship game. Cleveland continued its perfect start by knocking off New York, 26–17, in a back-and-forth affair in Week 6. The Browns dashed out to a 17–0 lead, but watched the Yankees come back to tie the score after halftime. Speedie then caught a touchdown pass and Lou Groza kicked a field goal down the stretch to secure the win. In Week 13, however, play was similar but different in what was then the most highly attended game ever in New York. This time, New York dashed out to a 28–0 before Cleveland got a touchdown from Bob Boedeker before halftime. The Browns then added three more touchdowns throughout the second half, giving the teams a 28–28 draw in front of 70,060 fans at Yankee Stadium.
The teams returned to New York for the championship game a few weeks later. Playing on an icy field at Yankee Stadium, the Browns came out 14–3 winners in a second straight championship win over the Yankees. Marion Motley was the star of the game with 109 rushing yards (including a 51-yard scamper that set up Cleveland's first touchdown).
The NFL does not classify Cleveland's 14–0 season from 1948 as an official undefeated season because it occurred in the AAFC. Still, one of the greatest seasons ever in professional football history is arguably the defining moment of Cleveland's time in the AAFC. Only four of the 14 regular-season games were decided by single digits, and the Browns scored at least 30 points in eight of those matchups. The most pivotal regular-season matchup came when a banged-up Graham led the 12–0 Browns against the 11–1 San Francisco 49ers in a game that would have an impact on the Western Division championship. Cleveland won an earlier matchup 14–7, and needed 21 third-quarter points to get past San Francisco in the rematch, 31–28.
The Buffalo Bills were the Eastern Division champion, despite a 7–7 record, and Cleveland made easy work of them with a 49–7 rout for a third straight title. In the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals, 7–0, to win the championship, and Philadelphia owner Alexis Thompson proposed a championship game between his Eagles and the Browns. Plans for the game were rejected by the NFL. Given the success Cleveland had at the beginning of its tenure as an NFL team, it's likely the Browns would have played competitively against the Eagles. Did NFL owners sense that possibility and nix the game to save the embarrassment of its champion losing to a team from an "inferior" league? That has to have at least been a possibility.
Financial troubles and attendance woes were plaguing the AAFC before the 1949 season, and it was pretty clear 1949 was the beginning of the end. Brooklyn folded before the season, leaving the league with seven teams. Therefore, divisions were eliminated, the season was shortened by two games and four teams made the postseason, with home-field advantage going to the teams with the best records (which turned out to be Cleveland and San Francisco). The Browns actually suffered, by far, their worst loss in the AAFC when the 49ers defeated them 56–28 in Week 7, but Cleveland rebounded for a 61–14 win over the Los Angeles Dons the following week. The Browns ended the regular season with the best record (9-1-2) and defeated the Bills in the first round of the playoffs, 31–21, and the 49ers in the title game, 21–7, to claim a fourth straight championship, and ultimately, a clean sweep of every title in AAFC history.
Why This Era Ended
The AAFC folded after the 1949 season, closing the chapter on an incredible run by Cleveland. Graham had the most passing yards in league history, while Motley had the most yards rushing, Speedie had the most yards receiving and Graham kicked the most field goals. The Browns, however, were one of three teams that merged into the NFL, meaning they kept a star-studded roster in place and were off to new challenges—even if many didn't think the Browns had any chance of competing in the top league.
Browns NFL Championship Era (1950–55)
- Regular-Season Record: 58-13-1
- Postseason Record: 4–3
- Championships: 3
- First-Team AP All-Pros: Otto Graham (1951, 1953–55); Lou Groza (1952–55); Len Ford (1951–54); Frank Gatski (1952–53, ‘55); Marion Motley (1950); Dub Jones (1951); Bill Willis (1951); Tommy Thompson (1953)
- Pro Bowlers: Lou Groza (1950–55), Otto Graham (1950–54), Len Ford (1951–54), Abe Gibron (1952–55), Bill Willis (1950–52), Dante Lavelli (1951, 1953–54), Tony Adamle (1950–51), Mac Speedie (1950, ‘52), Dub Jones (1951–52), Don Colo (1954–55), Marion Motley (1950), Weldon Humble (1950), Ken Carpenter (1951), Horace Gillom (1952), Chuck Jagade (1953), Tommy James (1953), Warren Lahr (1953), Ray Renfro (1953), Pete Brewster (1955), Ken Konz (1955), Carlton Massey (1955), Walt Michaels (1955), Fred Morrison (1955)
At the time the Browns were adopted into the NFL, it was expected they wouldn’t be able to compete, but Cleveland instead went straight to work on the next era of success.
Some discounted the Browns as championship contenders when they were merged into the NFL because the AAFC was viewed as such an inferior league. Cleveland, however, put any doubts to rest by finishing 10–2 in the regular season, defeating the New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs, and beating the Los Angeles Rams, 30–28, in the NFL Championship game. By beating New York, the Browns avenged their two regular-season losses, and in the title game, they used 10 straight fourth-quarter points to erase a 28–20 deficit.
Cleveland would appear in the championship game each of the next three seasons, but they took losses to the Rams in 1951 and the Detroit Lions in 1952 and ‘53. The Browns finished 30–6 during those regular seasons, including 11–1 marks in 1951 and ‘53.
After losing two of the first three games of the 1954 season, it looked like the early NFL dynasty in Cleveland was slowing down. Eight straight wins, however, put any doubts to rest, and though the Lions beat the Browns, 14–10, in the regular-season finale, Cleveland's 9–3 record was good enough for a third straight meeting with Detroit in the NFL Championship game the following week—and the result was significantly different. Detroit struck first with a field goal, but the Browns reeled off 21 straight points to take control of the game and ultimately led 35–10 by halftime. The Lions failed to score in the second half, as the Browns rolled to a 56–10 victory. Detroit quarterback Bobby Layne threw six interceptions in the game, while Browns quarterback Otto Graham accounted for six touchdowns (three passing, three rushing).
Initially, it looked as if Cleveland’s dynasty would end following the thrashing of the Lions because Graham announced he would retire, leaving the Browns to search for a new quarterback. Luckily, some smooth talking from the organization brought the franchise one last season of success.
The Browns lured Graham out of retirement for the 1955 season by paying him a league-high salary of $25,000, and he delivered one final year to remember. For the second straight season, Cleveland dropped the season opener, but six straight victories showed the league the Browns were still contenders. A loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and a tie against the Giants were mixed into the final stretch of the season, but at 9-2-1, Cleveland was matched with the Rams in the NFL Championship game and given a chance to avenge its loss in the 1951 title game. By scoring the first 10 points of the game, the Browns never trailed, and they built up a 38–7 lead in the fourth quarter before closing out the 38–14 win. The defense was again superb, intercepting Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin six times, and Graham was also sharp, accounting for four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing).
Why This Era Ended
Graham stayed retired following the 1955 season, and losing a quarterback who had played in 10 straight championship games proved too much for the Browns to overcome. They suffered the first losing season in franchise history in 1956 (a 5–7 finish).
Browns Last Championship Era (1963–65)
- Regular-Season Record: 31-10-1
- Postseason Record: 1–1
- Championships: 1
- First-Team AP All-Pros: Jim Brown (1963–65), Dick Schafrath (1963–65)
- Pro Bowlers: Jim Brown (1963–65), Dick Schafrath (1963–65), Bill Glass (1963–64), Jim Houston (1964–65), Frank Ryan (1964–65), Galen Fiss (1963), John Morrow (1963), Bernie Parrish (1963), Dick Modzelewski (1964), Paul Warfield (1964), Gary Collins (1965), Gene Hickerson (1965), Paul Wiggin (1965), John Wooten (1965)
The same season Otto Graham retired, the Browns drafted their next superstar in running back Jim Brown. Cleveland maintained a winning record each season throughout Brown’s tenure, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the franchise returned to the upper echelon of the NFL.
In 1963, the Browns won 10 games for the first time in more than a decade, but couldn’t end a four-year playoff drought. The following season, however, would become one of the memorable—and most discussed—in franchise history. Quarterback Frank Ryan, Brown and rookie receiver Paul Warfield formed an offensive nucleus that was among the NFL’s best, and a 10-3-1 record gave the Browns the East Division title. In the NFL Championship game, Cleveland faced the favored Baltimore Colts and their top-ranked scoring offense, but controlled the game from start to finish in a 27–0 victory.
For the city of Cleveland, the championship stood as the last one won by a professional team there until 2016—when the Cavaliers won the NBA title. Because of the championship’s role in the Cleveland sports curse, the game has been remembered for more than just being among the NFL’s all-time great upsets. The Browns have enjoyed several seasons of success since the 1964 title, but they’ve yet to play for another NFL championship since losing the 1965 title game to the Packers.
Why This Era Ended
Much like the 1950s dynasty, the ‘60s mini-run of success ended with the retirement of the team’s best player. Brown called it quits after the 1965 season, and while Cleveland remained at .500 or better for the next seven years, the Browns weren’t able to make it back to a championship game.
Kardiac Kids (1979–80)
- Regular-Season Record: 20–12
- Playoff Record: 0–1
- First-Team AP All-Pros: Lyle Alzado (1980), Brain Sipe (1980)
- Pro Bowlers: Tom DeLeone (1979–80), Mike Pruitt (1979–80), Joe DeLamielleure (1980), Doug Dieken (1980), Brain Sipe (1980)
The Browns earned the moniker of “Kardiac Kids” during the 1979 season, when they rallied late to win several games, and a 9–7 overall finish set the tone for a playoff spot in 1980. The team was so exciting that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was pariodied as “The Twelve Days of a Cleveland Brown Christmas” in 1980.
1979 Comeback Victories
Starting with the season opener, the 1979 Browns proved they would play hard until the final whistle blew. In that first game, Cleveland’s Don Cockroft kicked a game-tying field goal with 4 seconds to play, and then booted a game-winning field goal with 15 seconds to play in overtime for a 25–22 win over the New York Jets. That was the first of 12 one-possession games Cleveland would play in 1979. A week later, the Browns blew a 20–0 lead in the second half, but scored a touchdown with 52 seconds left on the clock in a 27–24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland then beat the Baltimore Colts 13–10 in Week 3 and the Cincinnati Bengals 28–27 in Week 8.
In Week 10, the Browns went back to their late-game heroics, with Mike Pruitt rushing in the game-winning touchdown with 52 seconds to play in a 24–19 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles that pushed them to a 7–3 record. After a loss, Cleveland was at it again, getting a game-tying touchdown with 1:21 to play in regulation against the Miami Dolphins and scoring on their first drive in overtime for a 30–24 victory. The following week, a fourth-quarter touchdown was the difference in a crucial 14–7 victory over the 10-win Houston Oilers that put the Browns squarely in position to make the postseason with two games to play. "Not only are we playoff contenders, but if we get in and the defense continues to play like it did today, we can get to the big one," quarterback Brian Sipe said after the game on his team’s chances of making the Super Bowl. The magic, however, would run dry, as the Browns lost the final two games of the season by single digits to fall short of a playoff berth, but they did build a foundation for a special year in 1980.
1980 Cleveland Browns
The 1980 season was an exciting one in Cleveland, as fans expected the Browns' momentum from the 1979 season to carry over into more success. Two straight losses to open the year, however, raised a level of concern. But the Browns would win eight of the next nine games to solidify themselves as a playoff contender—and as the same magical team that could pull out heart-stopping victories late in the game.
Five wins in that nine-game stretch were decided by a single possession, and included a four-game streak that saw the Browns win by thin margins over the Green Bay Packers (26–21), Pittsburgh Steelers (27–26), Chicago Bears (27–21) and Colts (28–27). Cleveland later beat both the Oilers and Jets in back-to-back games by a 17–14 score, and finished off an 11–5 regular season with a 27–24 win over the Bengals that was decided on Cockroft’s 22-yard field goal with 1:25 to play.
As champions of the AFC Central division, the Browns returned to the postseason for the first time since 1972, but a meeting with the Oakland Raiders would become one of the most remembered games in franchise history for the wrong reason. In bitter weather, the Raiders secured a 14–12 lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Kardiac Kids had time for one last drive. Quarterback Brian Sipe—who was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player—pushed his team down the field and into scoring position with less than a minute to play. The Browns could have attempted a field goal to take a lead, but Cockroft had already missed a pair of field goals and an extra point in the game. So instead, on a third-down play called “Red Right 88,” Cleveland went for the touchdown, but Sipe’s throw to tight end Ozzie Newsome was intercepted in the end zone by Mike Davis to end the season.
Why This Era Ended
The Browns continued to find themselves entrenched in numerous close games during the 1981 season, but limped to a 3–5 record in games decided by one possession on the way to a 5–11 overall record.
Bernie Kosar’s Browns (1985–89)
- Regular-Season Record: 49-29-1
- Playoff Record: 3–5
- First-Team AP All-Pros: Hanford Dixon (1986–87), Frank Minnifield (1988), Michael Dean Perry (1989)
- Pro Bowlers: Clay Matthews (1985, 1987–89), Frank Minnifield (1986–89), Bob Golic (1985–87), Hanford Dixon (1986–88), Chip Banks (1985–86), Cody Risien (1986–87), Kevin Mack (1985), Ozzie Newsome (1985), Bernie Kosar (1987), Gerald McNeil (1987), Mike Johnson (1989), Michael Dean Perry (1989), Webster Slaughter (1989)
Led by a young, gunslinging quarterback in Bernie Kosar, a pair of intimidating defensive backs in Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, and a new coach in Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns of the late 1980s were a perennial playoff contender that had the talent to reach the Super Bowl but never did.
The Browns drafted Bernie Kosar with the No. 1 pick in the 1985 NFL Supplemental Draft, and by Week 6 of the season, he was elevated to starter. In conjunction with one of the NFL’s 10 best defenses, Kosar and the Browns finished 8–8 to win a weak AFC Central division and make the playoffs. Once there, Cleveland showed flashes of what the new era was going to be about.
In their third postseason appearance of the decade, the Browns matched up with the heavily favored Miami Dolphins and took a 21–3 lead in the third quarter before surrendering 21 unanswered points in a tight loss. The defensive implosion was a disappointment, but for a rookie quarterback to put his team in a position to compete for a victory in a road playoff game was an impressive feat.
A year later, the Browns posted a 12–4 regular-season record for their best finish in the ‘80s and won a second straight AFC Central championship. They then produced an exciting—albeit disappointing—journey through the playoffs.
In the Divisional round against the New York Jets, the Browns faced a 10-point deficit with less than 3 minutes to play, but rallied for a touchdown and a field goal to force overtime. It would take double-overtime to secure the win, but it was a 27-yard field goal from Mark Moseley that ended the third-longest game in NFL history in favor of the Browns, 23–20. The following week’s AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos brought just as much drama. Cleveland led by a touchdown with 5:32 to play and had pinned Denver’s offense at the 2-yard line. Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, however, methodically picked away at the long field to tie the game in an infamous series known as “The Drive.” The Broncos kicked a field goal in overtime to advance to the Super Bowl and spoil the game for the hometown Cleveland fans.
Cleveland’s 1987 season played out much the same as the 1986 campaign did, only with a little less playoff drama. The season was shortened by a game due to a strike, but the Browns finished 10–5 to win a third straight AFC Central title and set up a playoff matchup with the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional round.
The Browns outscored the Colts 28–7 in the second half of a 38–21 victory that set up a rematch with the Broncos for the AFC championship. The teams once again traded blows to set up a close finish, but this time, it was the Browns who were in position to secure a late score and spoil the game for the hometown Denver fans. Cleveland rallied from an 18-point third-quarter deficit to tie the game at 31 in the fourth quarter, but the Broncos scored again to take a 38–31 lead. The Browns were on the verge of scoring, but with 1:12 to play, running back Earnest Byner fumbled at the 3-yard line in a play now known as “The Fumble.” Denver took a safety with 8 seconds to play and a last-second pass by the Browns was unsuccessful to give the Broncos a 38–33 victory.
The toughest year in the stretch of success in the late ‘80s came in 1988 when a regular-season injury to Kosar lingered into the postseason. Yet, the Browns still nearly managed to pull out a win few would have expected in the first round of the playoffs. In a rematch of the season finale, the Browns and Oilers battled all the way to the fourth quarter in a Wild Card matchup, with Houston prevailing, 24–23. The game saw the fifth Browns quarterback of the season suffer an injury when veteran Don Strock was knocked out of the game in the second quarter. Despite those setbacks, the Browns rebounded for the 1989 season, determined to improve on their playoff showing and 10–6 regular-season record.
In 1989, the Browns opened the season with a resounding 51–0 win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, and three weeks later, they defeated the Broncos, 16–13, in a tough test against the team that had given them fits during the era. Cleveland improved to 7–3 before a rough stretch of the season saw the Browns play to a tie against the Kansas City Chiefs and lose three straight games to drop to 7-6-1. An overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15 set up a crucial matchup against the Oilers in the regular-season finale. After building a 17–0 lead against Houston, it looked like Cleveland would easily wrap up the division title, but the Oilers came back with 20 unanswered points. A late fourth-quarter drive ended with a Kevin Mack touchdown and the last division title the Browns have won (as of the start of the 2021 season).
Cleveland defeated the up-and-coming Buffalo Bills in the opening round of the playoffs, 34–30, but once again ran into Denver in the AFC Championship game. Unlike the previous two matchups, there is no special name for why Cleveland lost. The Broncos were just better and never trailed in their 37–21 victory, but they lost the Super Bowl again, never winning it all in any season they advanced by beating the Browns.
Why This Era Ended
Kosar and the rest of the Browns experienced a sharp decline in 1990, falling from a playoff hopeful to a team with 3–13 record and a mid-season coaching change. Kosar threw a career-high 15 interceptions and his completion percentage was 54.4% (he had completed 59.7% of his passes from 1986–89). The Browns were shut out three times in 1990, triple the number of times a Kosar-led offense had previously been held scoreless. Defensively, Cleveland allowed 462 points—the most any team in the 1990s would surrender in a single season. The Browns eventually recovered to make the postseason with a new-look roster in 1994, but the franchise moved to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
When Will The Browns Usher in a New Era?
The Browns have been in a seemingly perpetual rebuild since returning to the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1999, but the current version of the team has kindled hope among fans that the long drought of mediocrity may be ending. Coaching changes and shuffling of executives have still plagued the Browns in recent years, but since 2017, the team has drafted and signed numerous players to form a core that in 2020 resulted in only the second playoff appearance since the 1999 return (the first was a one-off appearance in 2002).
Not only did the 2020 Browns make the postseason as a wild card, they knocked off the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, 48–37, in a thrilling first-round victory. Facing the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the second round, the Browns nearly pulled off what would have been one of the biggest upsets in recent NFL history. The Chiefs led 19–3 at halftime, but Cleveland rallied back to just a 22–17 deficit with 11:07 to play—however, neither team would score again.
With high hopes and a roster dotted with superstars, the Browns and their fans hope that was the first of many postseason appearances to come. And for the first time in over 30 years, there is reason to believe it's possible.
© 2021 Andrew Harner