This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
To see all the category page for this series, of which there will be one for every franchise, click here.
Cleveland simply cannot catch a break.
‘The Drive,” ‘The Fumble,” and “Red Right 88.”
Or more recently ‘Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Courtney Brown.”
And even worse, owner Art Modell packed up and moved the original Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
Now Cleveland watches the “Modell Organization” contend perennially while Bill Belichick, who bombed in his tenure with the Browns, ends up as a coaching legend with another organization.
Everyone gets their shots in on Cleveland. Check out Bengals coach Sam Wyche after one too many snowballs landed on the field one day in Cincinnati…
With the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in their division, the Browns have become the Baltimore Orioles of the NFL, a bad organization in a division in which there is no sympathy. Even the Bengals wound up making the playoffs this year, which gave the Brownies six playoff opponents to face in their division alone.
Of course the argument can be made whether this is a case of the rest of the AFC North fattening up on the Browns, or the Browns stumbling against superior competition, or just a combo of the two.
But there was a time when it was not nearly this bad in Cleveland. In 1946 Paul Brown was named the first coach of the franchise, which was then based in the All-American Football Conference. Before moving to the NFL in 1950, the Browns won titles in all four years in the AAFC, as Brown was an innovator and far ahead of his time in his philosophies as a pro football coach – whether it was his recruitment of players or using game film to scout opponents.
And the franchise also just happens to have a projected top seed in MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player tournament…
Brian Sipe (QB 1972-83)
The pinnacle of his career was during the Sam Rutigliano regime in 1979-80, when Brian threw 58 TD passes. Sipe’s lone All-Pro season was 1980 where he had by far the best numbers of his career (91.4 QB rating). Of course, that year ended with the infamous “Red Right 88,” which floated into the frozen Cleveland air and was picked off by Oakland safety Mike Davis.
Paul Warfield (WR 1964-69, 1976-77)
A local product, Warfield chose the Browns over the Buffalo Bills after being selected in both the AFL and NFL Drafts. Warfield averaged more than 20 yards per catch in his final four seasons with the Browns (and seven straight seasons overall) and scored 22 times in 1968-69 combined.
Seen here with a 1988 Sports Illustrated pre-season prediction than didn’t quite pan out, Bernie graduated from the University of Miami a year early specifically so he could be drafted by the Browns in the 1985 Supplemental Draft. Kosar became a local icon but, like Brian Sipe, surprisingly only earned one Pro Bowl bid in his career. Only threw for 20+ TD passes in the Pro Bowl season (22 in just 12 games in the 1987 strike season) but rarely threw picks – Kosar finished with 124 TD’s vs. just 87 picks.
Marion Motley (RB 1950-53)
One of pro football’s first African-American stars (Paul Brown broke the code against teams not employing black players), Motley actually had his best years during the team’s AAFC run. Motley still had something in the tank leading the league rushing for 5.8 yards per carry in 1950.
Gary Collins (WR 1962-71)
Caught 10+ TD passes on four occasions during his career and was MVP of the 1964 NFL Championship game scoring three times, the final occasion that a Cleveland-based franchise won a professional championship in any sport. Also the team’s punter, Collins led the league averaging 46.7 yards a kick in 1965.
Michael Dean Perry (DE 1988-94)
The younger brother of William “The Refirgerator” Perry, Michael Dean actually had a better career, earning Pro Bowl selections in five of his seven seasons with the Browns. During his Cleveland career MDP was also honored with a McDonald’s item in his name, it was a triple-decker version of the Big Mac which also included bacon.
Greg Pruitt (RB 1973-81)
One of the more explosive backs of the mid-1970’s, Pruitt also returned kicks and also had one other distinction, he won ABC’s Superstars competition in 1979.
Ernie Davis (RB 1962) COURAGE SELECTION
The 1961 Heisman Trophy winner never played a down in an NFL uniform, as he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after the 1962 NFL Draft and passed away at age 23 in May 1963. Davis’s legendary Syracuse career was chronicled in the 2008 film The Express, though suggestions of racial tension (a supposed game vs. West Virginia and the 1960 Cotton Bowl vs. Texas) depicted in the movie were later proved to be somewhat inaccurate.
Dante Lavelli (WR 1950-55)
Another staple of the original powerhouse Browns, Lavelli was a three-time NFL Pro-Bowler and caught 11 passes in the Browns epic 30-28 victory over the Los Angeles Rams to win the league championship in Cleveland’s first year as an NFL franchise.
Joe Thomas (OT 2007-present)
Have to give one of my homies some love. Actually if I were to include only the current expansion Browns, Thomas would be the UFP in a landslide, earning All-Pro selections in each of his five seasons in the league thus far. If there is any justice, one of the great linemen of the current era will eventually be rewarded with a playoff-caliber team around him. Before the 2011 season, Cleveland wisely locked Thomas up with a seven-year/$84 million contract. Playing one of the most critical positions in the game (left tackle), Thomas just misses my Final Five and is on pace to someday be enshrined in Canton.
LeRoy Kelly (RB 1966-71)
His predecessor wasn’t too bad, but when that player walked away from football to pursue a movie career just before the start of the 1966 season, there was a very capable replacement ready who ultimately would also earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kelly averaged well over five yards per carry during the time frame of 1966-68. Kelly also was a tough choice to leave on the cutting room floor, but I left him out because his numbers fell drastically later in his career.
THE FINAL FIVE
Clay Matthews Jr. (OLB 1978-93)
Perhaps the greatest all-time football family. Clay’s dad played in the league during the 1950’s while brother Bruce Matthews is one of the game’s all-time great offensive linemen. And then there is Clay Matthews III, whose career has not gotten to a bad start. Clay and Bruce Matthews both ended up playing in the league for 19 years each, Clay Jr. added three years with the Atlanta Falcons after leaving Cleveland. Clay Jr. was a Pro Bowl fixture during the late 1980’s and recorded over 100 solo tackles eight times in his Browns career. Maybe not a HOF’er, but longevity alone gets Clay listed as a finalist.
Otto Graham (QB 1950-55)
Coach Paul Brown had Automatic Otto pegged as his No. 1 project while coaching the Great Lakes Naval Station during World War II. In his years with the Browns, Graham would lead his team to his league’s championship game in all 10 seasons. Graham also played one year of professional basketball early in his career, and, you guessed it, that team won a league title.
If you’re wondering why Graham wore No. 60 for most of his career, the AAFC’s uniform numbering system ran opposite than the NFL, skill position players wore numbers from 50-79 while linemen wore numbers between 20-49. Later in his NFL career Graham switched to No. 14. For his NFL career, Graham was 57-13-1 as a starter, is ranked ninth all-time on Pro Football References EloRater, and sixteenth on the NFL Network’s all-time list.
Ozzie Newsome (TE 1978-90)
His numbers never got ridiculous, but Newsome goes down in history as one of the game’s best tight ends ever. His touchdown numbers (47) were somewhat lacking, but at the peak of his career (1981-84) Ozzie was good for 1,000 yards per year. Newsome would go on to play 198 consecutive games for the Browns franchise. Newsome’s legacy to Cleveland is bittersweet, however, as he remained with the Modell Organization and eventually became general manager for the Baltimore Ravens, and gets much of the success for that franchise’s excellent drafting and player development during the past 15 years.
Lou Groza (OT/K 1950-59, 1961-67)
He played in an era when players moonlighted as kickers while playing other positions, long before kicking “specialists” were thought of, and before kicking “soccer-style” was proved to be the best and accurate mode of kicking a football. Still, his kicking was legendary for his era, and his 1953 season in which he made 23 field goals in 26 attempts would be considered excellent even today. But while he was a good enough kicker to have a college award in his name today, Groza was just as great playing the offensive line, earning nine Pro Bowl selections during the 1950s. He is ranked No. 41 on the Pro Football Reference EloRater.
Jim Brown (RB 1957-65)
A half-century later, Brown’s devastating combination of speed and power remains arguably the best in NFL history. For his career, Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and his 12,312 career yards in just 118 career games still ranks ninth all-time (as of the end of the 2011 season). Remember, the NFL regular season was only 12 GAMES for four of Brown’s nine years.
In all Brown only carried the ball 2,359 times while all-time leader Emmitt Smith had 4,409 carries, and Brown is the only runner to AVERAGE 100 yards per game during a career. Retiring for good at just age 29, Brown is ranked No. 1 on the Pro Football Reference EloRater, No. 2 on the NFL Network’s list of the top 100 players ever, and No. 4 on ESPN’s SportsCentury list (all athletes) in 1999.
AND THE WINNER IS…
Score one for the old school here. When the entire 64-player field is announced, Otto Graham will with little doubt earn an at-large selection. But with all due respect to Otto and everyone else on this list, there is clearly a Lonely ONE who stands far beyond the Dirty Dozen here.
The Cleveland Browns’ representative for MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player Tournament and projected No. 1 seed is…