The Best Browns Teams Ever? 1950, 1964 And 1987
By Steven King
They had the ability to score points – lots of points. They also featured great quarterbacks. And they were each bedeviled by one opponent. That’s what the greatest Cleveland Browns teams of all-time have in common.
To sort out the best of the best in franchise history, we took one club from way, way back in the day, in 1950. We selected another team from way back in the day, in 1964. And finally we picked one from more recent times, in 1987.
The 1950 and 1964 Browns are among the four teams in franchise history that have won NFL championships. And while the Browns have never been to the Super Bowl, they were about as close as you can get in 1987.
Let’s take a closer look at all three clubs:
1950 –The Browns had waited for the 1950 season for a long time. While they were marching through the All-America Football Conference like a hot knife through butter from 1946-49, winning all four of its titles and essentially putting the league out of business with their dominance, the hard-liners in the more established NFL scoffed. They were not shy about saying they thought Cleveland was the champion of nothing in beating up a bunch of rag-teams in a rag-tag league.
That made Browns coach Paul Brown and his players seethe. They knew they were as good – or better – than any NFL team and they also knew the AAFC was a better league overall. They eagerly awaited the day when they could prove all that.
It came in 1950 after the AAFC disbanded and the Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts were absorbed into the NFL. Carrying its own reputation and that of the AAFC on its shoulders, Cleveland began silencing its critics. With Pro Football Hall of Fame QB Otto Graham leading the way, the Browns tore through the NFL just like they had done in the AAFC. They blasted the two-time defending league champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10 in the opener – on the road – and just kept going.
The only blemishes in a 10-2 regular-season finish were close losses to the New York Giants, who they turned around and defeated 8-3 in a special playoff to win the American Conference title and advance to the NFL Championship. There they beat Cleveland’s former team, the Rams – now based in Los Angeles – by a score of 30-28. Graham engineered a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback and Lou Groza kicked a 16-yard field goal with 28 seconds left to win it.
Why does this team get the nod as opposed to some of the other great Browns clubs from that era?
There are two reasons. For one, the 1950 players were a marked bunch. Every NFL team wanted to pop their bubble. As such, Brown did his best coaching job by making sure his guys were ready week after week. In addition, all the great players from those first Cleveland teams had arrived by 1950, and most of them – such as Graham, Groza, Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli, Frank Gatski, Mac Speedie, Horace Gillom, Dub Jones, Warren Lahr and Tommy James – were in their prime.
1964 –In just a 14-game season, the Browns scored a team-record 415 points. They had all kinds of weapons with the running of Jim Brown and Ernie Green and the passing of QB Frank Ryan to WRs Gary Collins and Paul Warfield, a rookie from Ohio State. Brown topped the NFL with 1,446 rushing yards and Ryan led it with 25 touchdown passes.
Cleveland tied the St. Louis Cardinals 33-33 in Week 2 and lost to them 28-19 in Week 13. Other than that, the club mostly breezed through the schedule, going 10-3-1 to win the Eastern Conference title for the first time since 1957. To add an exclamation point to what they did, the Browns clinched the crown in the finale by going over the half-century mark in a 52-20 rout of the arch-rival Giants on national TV on the road.
But the 1964 Browns are not remembered for what they did during the regular season, but rather for what they did against the Baltimore Colts in the championship game. Cleveland had a lot of Hall of Famers, but the Colts had more. The Browns were very good statistically, but the Colts were better, leading the NFL in most points scored and fewest points allowed. That’s why Baltimore was an 11-point favorite.
However, on this day – Dec. 27, 1964 – Cleveland was the better team and that is meant in the purest sense of the word. Coach Blanton Collier used to say, “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when everyone checks their ego at the door,” and this game was the epitome of that. Every player from the great Jim Brown on down did exactly what they were asked to do, exactly how they were asked to do it. Everybody bought in completely and willingly to the team concept.
Indeed, it was the greatest overall team effort in team history, as evidenced by the overwhelming 27-0 victory fueled by Ryan’s three touchdown passes to Collins and a smothering defense that never let QB Johnny Unitas, RB Lenny Moore, WR Raymond Berry and TE John Mackey breathe.
1987 – In one of the best periods in their history, the Browns qualified for the playoffs five straight seasons from 1985-89, won four Central Division titles and made three trips to the AFC Championship Game. The top team during that run was in 1987. With basically the same cast of characters, it was just like the 1986 team, only better. It scored one less point (390) than in 1986, but that came in one less game (15; due to a players’ strike). The defense was much better, giving up 70 fewer points (239) than the 1986 edition. The result was a 10-5 finish.
The ringleader was QB Bernie Kosar. When the Youngstown Boardman (Ohio) High School product arrived in 1985, the franchise took a meteoric leap forward. His best season was 1987, when he passed for 22 touchdowns with just nine interceptions for a 95.4 quarterback rating. It earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl. It would be 20 years before a Cleveland quarterback would be so honored.
Like the 1964 team with the conference title, the 1987 Browns clinched the division crown with a victory over the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, 19-13, in a nationally-televised Saturday afternoon game on the road. They then ran past the Indianapolis Colts 38-21 in the divisional playoffs, sending them to the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos for the second straight year – only this time in Mile High Stadium.
Just like in 1986, the game went down to the end. And also just like in 1986, Cleveland lost in agonizing fashion, 38-33. This is “The Fumble” game when RB Earnest Byner coughed the ball up at the Denver 3 with a minute left when he was ready to score the tying touchdown. It’s tough to blame Byner for the loss, however, because his overall efforts kept the team in the game.
For the second consecutive season, the Browns were stopped on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, so close to the big game that they could almost touch it, smell it and taste it. And they did so firmly convinced they were a better team than the Broncos.