Before the perpetual ineptitude since the turn of the century and before falling victim to “The Drive” and Earnest Byner‘s goal-line fumble during the 1980s, there was a time when the Cleveland Browns were associated with sustained pro football success.
Consider the following. Between 1950, their first season in the NFL, and 1972, the Browns finished with a losing record just once. They’re undoubtedly one of the league’s most successful teams during its pre-Super Bowl era. Only the Green Bay Packers (9) and Chicago Bears (8) won more NFL titles than the Browns (4) before the playing of Super Bowl I. And those two teams joined the league roughly 30 years earlier.
That 1950 team announced its arrival to the league in emphatic fashion, going 10-2 before defeating the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs en route to its first NFL championship. They went on to appear in the title game each of the next five seasons, winning it twice in that time. Later on, behind a bruising rushing attack that included the legendary Jim Brown, they played for the title three more times between 1957 and 1965, taking home their last title of any kind in 1964.
The Undefeated Cleveland Browns From the 1948 AAFC Season
The Lone Dynasty of a Short-Lived League
But prior to those exploits, Cleveland was part of a league that was one of the first to challenge the NFL’s pro football hegemony. In 1946, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) began play with the Browns among the eight original franchises. It was one of the first pro sports enterprises in the country to include teams from the Southeast and West Coast as the Miami Seahawks, Los Angeles Dons and San Francisco 49ers comprised the eight-team league.
The AAFC ultimately lasted four seasons before folding in 1949. During its brief existence, no team was more dominant than the Browns. They won all four championship games, parlaying that success into being one of three teams, including the 49ers and Baltimore Colts, that the NFL brought on after the AAFC ceased operations. The Browns clearly didn’t miss a beat upon joining the NFL considering how frequently they figured into the title conversation during the early 1950s.
From 1946-1955, the Browns played for a pro football championship every single season, going 7-3 in those games. It included one of the most historic campaigns in the annals of the sport when, in 1948, they went a perfect 15-0 en route to the title. It remains, along with Don Shula‘s 1972 Miami Dolphins, one of just two times in pro football history where a team went an entire season without a loss or tie.
The Venerable Quarterback-Coach Combination of Their Era
No discussion of the Browns’ 1948 perfect season is complete without mentioning one of the great quarterback-coach tandems of all-time. It preceded the era of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick by roughly half a century, that of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh by 30 years and just slightly preceded the run the Packers had with Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi. Indeed, one of the inviolate hallmarks of this era for the Browns was Otto Graham behind center while Paul Brown patrolled the sidelines.
Brown is well-known for leading Ohio State to its first AP national title in 1942. Two years later, he was drafted into military service with World War II still ongoing and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago. He coached the football team there which included a multitude of talented players who also got drafted. After the war wound down, the upstart team from Cleveland tabbed Brown as their first head coach and eventually named the team after him.
Graham, arguably the most famous player to come out of Northwestern, was quite familiar to Brown. During his tenure as Ohio State head coach, Graham’s Wildcats beat the Buckeyes twice in 1941 and 1943. He joined the Browns during that inaugural 1946 campaign after serving in the Navy himself. The rest, they say, is history. Graham finished with a 112.1 quarterback rating during that inaugural 1946 season which remained the highest single-season mark in pro football history until Montana exceeded it 43 years later.
The following year, Graham won the first of his five combined AAFC and NFL MVP awards. Then came that unblemished run of 15 straight wins in 1948. Both seasons saw Graham toss 25 touchdown passes during the regular season which remained the highest total of his pro career. Two of his more impressive performances of 1948 came late in the season. With the Browns facing two straight road games out west against the Dons and 49ers respectively, Graham shined. He combined for 473 yards passing, six touchdown passes and even a rushing touchdown in the two wins.
Cleveland endured a veritable gauntlet to close out the regular season with four games away from home in a row. But they emerged victorious in them all to finish things off 14-0. The only team standing in the way of an undefeated season was the first iteration of the Buffalo Bills. The Browns’ Lake Erie neighbors finished tied atop the East Division of the league with the Colts and upended them 28-17 to make the championship game. But they proved no match for the Ohio juggernaut. Though Graham completed just 11/24 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown, the Browns utilized their run game to surge to a 49-7 romp.
The two remained an integral part of Cleveland’s decade of dominance all the way up until Graham’s retirement in 1955. Even to this day, the 1965 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee remains the NFL’s all-time leader in career yards per pass attempt (9.0) and winning percentage (.814). Prior to 1948, no team in pro football history had ever gone undefeated and untied, though four teams from the 1920s (1920 Akron Pros, 1922 and 1923 Canton Bulldogs, 1929 Green Bay Packers) played to ties while winning an NFL title without a loss. All of it is a testament to the greatness of Graham, Brown and that of the team as a whole.
The Stingy Defense That Also Played a Key Role in Perfection
It’s an oft-used cliche but that’s because it’s true. Football is a team sport. As good as Otto Graham was, there’s no way the Browns could’ve pulled off their exploits during his time with the team by himself. And in keeping with that other common cliche of “defense wins championships,” the Browns’ stoutness on that side of the ball also played a key role. That’s particularly evident considering they led the AAFC in points allowed during all four years of its existence. It includes conceding a minuscule 9.79 points per game during that inaugural championship season in 1946.
The Browns also excelled at forcing mistakes out of opposing quarterbacks. They finished no worse than second in interceptions during three of their four seasons in the AAFC. Given the commonality of ironman football during this time period, even Graham got in on the action. He picked off five passes in 1946 including one he took all the way for a score in a 34-0 win over Miami on December 3rd. Tom Colella led the AAFC with 10 interceptions that year and added eight more over the next two seasons. But two players stood out on the interception front in 1948: Cliff Lewis and Lou Saban.
Lewis actually started the first three games of the 1946 season at quarterback as Graham didn’t get discharged from the Navy until late that summer and needed time to familiarize himself with the offense. The two also played in the secondary with Lewis equalling Graham’s total of five picks. In 1948, Lewis added nine more which was second in the league behind the New York Yankees’ Otto Schnellbacher. Saban tallied six of his own that year. It included a pick six in the championship game against the Bills, a team he’d later coach to two AFL titles nearly two decades later.
Marion Motley and Bill Willis: Trailblazers for Equality
The late 1940s were a pivotal era in the history of American sports. For it was on April 15, 1947, that Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers thus shattering the Major League Baseball’s color barrier. But the AAFC was ahead of both baseball and the NFL in providing opportunities to make an on-field impact regardless of race. Seven months before Robinson’s debut, on September 6, 1946, two African-American players took part in the first game in league history. In front of 60,135 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, then the largest ever crowd to see a pro football game, running back Marion Motley and defensive lineman Bill Willis played for the Browns in a 44-0 demolition of the Miami Seahawks.
Both would prove crucial cogs in the Browns machine that dominated the AAFC and NFL over the next decade. Motley scored 26 touchdowns during Cleveland’s four seasons in the AAFC and led the league with 964 rushing yards in 1948. Against the Bills in the championship game, Motley accounted for 133 of the Browns’ 215 yards on the ground. It included turning the game into a rout with second-half touchdown scampers of 29, 31 and five yards. Two years later, in Cleveland’s debut NFL season, Motley’s 810 yards was good enough to win the rushing title.
As impressive as the exploits of Graham and Motley on offense were, the Browns’ bread and butter came on the defensive side of the football. The aforementioned interception and scoring defense numbers lend credence to this notion. But they also finished no worse than second defending the pass during their tenure in the AAFC, a testament to the pressure created up front that Willis played a part in. The argument could be made that going 15-0 in 1948 was given a significant boost due to their defensive prowess. That year, they led the AAFC in both rushing and total defense and finished second in yardage conceded through the air. Willis’ teammates continually raved about his quickness off the snap, something that contributed greatly to the Browns’ success during this decade of dominance.
Contextualizing the 1948 Cleveland Browns’ Place in Pro Football History
The 1948 Cleveland Browns certainly have their own unique place in the history of the game at professional level. The fact that only one other team in the nearly 100-year history of pro football has an unbeaten and untied season on its resume makes that readily apparent.
However, that doesn’t mean they won’t get their fair share of detractors. Some will undoubtedly decry the level of play in the AAFC, especially given the final score of the championship game that year. While it’s fair to point that out, Cleveland unquestionably proved their worth with that 1950 NFL title to cap off their first year in the league. And since the NFL instituted a championship game in 1933, the Browns are the only team in league history to make six consecutive appearances in it. This obviously includes the Super Bowl era.
One thing that practically everyone can agree on is that it’s now an extremely distant memory. Gone are the days when the Browns instilled a sense of dread and envy among opposing fans. Nowadays, the sentiment directed towards the team oscillates between pity and downright condescension.
Are times a changing? The team did appear to hit the 2018 off-season out of the park both via free agency and the draft. They have a general manager at the helm in John Dorsey who boasts a track record of success during his previous stint with the Kansas City Chiefs. In the end, only time will tell if Baker Mayfield is anywhere near the level of Bernie Kosar, let alone Otto Graham.