The Best Offenses, Defenses And Special Teams In Browns History
By Steven King
Great football teams are made up of not just outstanding players, but also of outstanding units. It’s when those players work together that extraordinary things happen. As such, the best offensive, defensive and special teams units in Cleveland Browns history have come from clubs that either made the playoffs or came extremely close to doing so.
Here’s a look at the six best units in franchise history – two each on offense, defense and special teams:
1968 – After a slow start due to quarterback problems, Cleveland inserted Bill Nelsen and the team – and offense – really took off. Taking over when the Browns were just 1-2 and had lost two straight in which they scored a combined 13 points, Nelsen led them to nine wins in 10 games, including eight victories in a row.
In the first seven games of that winning streak, Cleveland put together one of its best and most consistent offensive showings ever. The team never scored fewer than 30 points and totaled 45 or more points in three straight weeks. Despite playing a 14-game schedule, the Browns ended up with 394 points overall – the fourth-highest total in their history.
Acquired in an offseason trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Nelsen threw 19 touchdown passes with just 10 interceptions. WR Paul Warfield caught 50 passes for 12 touchdowns and was the first Brown ever to go over 1,000 receiving yards (1,067). Milt Morin – the best tight end in franchise history before Ozzie Newsome – had 43 receptions for five scores.
All this occurred despite the fact that WR Gary Collins, Cleveland’s career receptions leader, missed almost the entire year with an injury.
The passing game was supplemented by the running of Leroy Kelly, who had 1,239 yards and 10 touchdowns, both NFL highs. The result was a 10-4 finish, a Century Division title and a trip to the league championship game.
1980 – The “Kardiac Kids” were the most exciting team in franchise history because 13 of their 16 regular-season games – 14 of 17 counting the playoffs – were not decided until the final two minutes. But the fact their offense was explosive didn’t hurt, either. They could beat defenses in a variety of ways, and they usually did en route to finishing 11-5 and winning their first AFC Central title in nine years.
QB Brian Sipe, the first Brown to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award in 15 years, broke almost every single-season team passing mark by throwing for 4,132 yards and 30 touchdowns. He spread the wealth around as Cleveland became the first team in league history to have five players with at least 50 receptions.
RB Mike Pruitt, who also rushed for 1,034 yards, led the club with 63 catches. WR Reggie Rucker tallied 52, WR Dave Logan and Newsome had 51 each and RB Greg Pruitt 50. RB Calvin Hill was sixth with 27 receptions, including a club-best six for touchdowns.
1951 – The Browns have been known for their offense through the years. After all, 13 of their 15 players enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame come from that side of the ball. That was especially true in the early years when the offense was stacked with Hall of Famers such as QB Otto Graham, RB Marion Motley, WR Dante Lavelli, LT Lou Groza and C Frank Gatski, WR Mac Speedie and WB Dub Jones.
But what gets lost is just how good the Cleveland defenses were back in the day. In 1951, when the Browns won their last 11 after losing their season opener and made it to the NFL Championship Game for the second straight season.
Led by a pair of Hall of Fame linemen in MG Bill Willis and DE Len Ford, the defense gave just 152 points (12.7 per game) and posted a club-record four shutouts, including two over the Pittsburgh Steelers. CB Warren Lahr tied S Cliff Lewis for the team interceptions lead with five and returned two for touchdowns. A backup cornerback by the name of Don Shuila was next with four interceptions.
1994 – Looking back now, it seems almost unfair that the Browns had two tactical geniuses working on the same staff in coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Nick Saban. It’s not surprising, then, that the defense gave up just 204 points – still a franchise record for a 16-game season – and held opponents under 10 points six times. No team scored more than 26 points during the regular season and only three totaled more than 20.
With the likes of LBs Pepper Johnson and Cark Banks, DT Michael Dean Perry, DEs Rob Burnett and Anthony Pleasant and FS Eric Turner, Cleveland bullied its opponents with physical play. Turner tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions.
The Browns finished 11-5 and, as a wild card, made it to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
1965 – On the way to finishing 11-3 and advancing to the NFL title game for the second straight year, the Browns were special, in more ways than one. The special teams had a big hand in that.
Although Collins was known mostly as a prolific wide receiver, he was also a great punter. He led the league that year with a team-record 46.7-yard average.
Kelly, who would begin a Hall of Fame career as a running back the following season after the retirement of Jim Brown, topped the NFL by averaging 15.6 yards per punt return and brought back two for touchdowns. He also averaged 25.9 yards per kickoff return, while Walter “The Flea” Roberts averaged 27.4. Groza made 16-of-25 field-goal attempts and all 45 of his extra-point tries.
2007 – The Browns didn’t win the AFC North or even a wild-card bid – losing out on tiebreakers in both regards – but they finished 10-6 and might have had their best overall performance of the expansion era. Helping to drive that was the play of their special teams.
Continuing the franchise’s great lineage of kickers, Phil Dawson made 26-of-30 field-goal tries for a team- and career-high 120 points. The best returner in team history, Joshua Cribbs, averaged 30.7 yards on kickoffs and returned two for touchdowns. He also managed an exceptional 13.5-yard average on punt returns and returned one for another score.
And when the team’s career punting leader Dave Zastudil missed the first part of the season with an oblique injury, well-seasoned Scott Player – he of the single-bar facemask – stepped in and averaged 45.6 yards per attempt.