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The Browns Turn Back The Clock 45 Years In Draft-Day Trade With Steelers

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While the Steelers hope they just landed their next Troy Polamalu in Sharmarko Thomas, the Browns hope their draft-day trade with their arch-rivals works out as well as the last one did 45 years ago. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images
While the Steelers hope they just landed their next Troy Polamalu in Sharmarko Thomas, the Browns hope their draft-day trade with their arch-rivals works out as well as the last one did 45 years ago. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

When the Cleveland Browns traded a fourth-round pick in last weekend’s NFL Draft to Pittsburgh (which the Steelers used to take Syracuse hard-hitting SS Shamarko Thomas), it was said the Browns gift-wrapped their arch-rivals the next Troy Polamalu. Only time will tell.

But the last time these teams traded with one another -- 45 years ago, when Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office -- the Steelers gift-wrapped Cleveland two consecutive Eastern Conference championships. It came in May 1968 when Cleveland sent a pair of backups, including DT Frank Parker, to Pittsburgh for QB Bill Nelsen and DB Jim Bradshaw.

Bradshaw never played for Cleveland, but Nelsen sure did. In fact, Nelsen almost single-handedly saved the 1968 season, and made the following year a big success, too. The Browns advanced to the NFL Championship Game in both seasons and, without Nelsen, they would have struggled to finish with a winning record. Even back then, the NFL was a quarterback-driven league. A great passer meant everything to a team, and Nelsen meant everything to Cleveland.

Cleveland began 1968 with Frank Ryan as its starting quarterback for the sixth straight season. But this was not the Ryan who had directed the 27-0 upset of the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL title game by firing three touchdown passes to Gary Collins, and had been one of the league’s top quarterbacks throughout the mid-1960s with 97 scoring throws during one four-year span.

Rather, this was a beaten-up and depleted Ryan who had shoulder problems and was at the end of the line. And it showed with the way he and Cleveland’s offense performed in the first three games. After getting a hard-earned 24-10 victory over the third-year New Orleans Saints in the opener, they were stopped cold the next two weeks in losing 28-7 to Dallas and 24-6 to Los Angeles.

Granted, the Cowboys – who had been to two straight NFL Championship Games – and the Rams – who were beginning a three-year stretch during which they would go 32-7-3 – were among the top teams in the league at the time. But the Browns thought pretty highly of themselves as well, and for them to be so ineffective offensively in two consecutive games was not acceptable.

Neither was their 1-2 record.

Realizing that Ryan’s shoulder problems weren’t going to get any better, coach Blanton Collier – who had also been on the job in 1964 and had witnessed first-hand just how good Ryan could be when he was healthy – made the toughest decision of his coaching career and benched one of Cleveland’s all-time great quarterbacks.

The replacement was Nelsen, who had enjoyed little success with the Steelers in the five previous seasons after they drafted him in the 10th round out of USC in 1963. But the Steelers weren’t very good then, and the Browns thought that if they surrounded Nelsen with better skill players – such as Collins and fellow WR Paul Warfield, TE Milt Morin and RB Leroy Kelly  as well as one of the best offensive lines in the game – he would do just fine in Cleveland.

And they were right.

Nelsen’s first start – appropriately so – was against the Steelers in one of those Saturday night games at Cleveland the teams played during that era; he directed the Browns to a 31-24 win. A 27-21 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals followed, but their offense and Nelsen got on a roll after that. They captured eight in a row – their longest winning streak since 1954. It started with a 30-20 triumph at Baltimore as Cleveland handed the Colts what would be their only loss of the regular season.

The Browns did not score fewer than 30 points in the first seven games of that streak. In fact, during the end of the run, they had one of their most prolific three-game stretches in history, scoring 45 points twice and 47 once. Only a meaningless 27-16 loss to the Cardinals spoiled the fun as Cleveland finished 10-4 – its best record since 1965.

Then in the Eastern Conference Championship Game, the Browns beat Dallas 31-20 – ending a four-game losing streak to the Cowboys – before falling 34-0 to the Colts in the title game. Nelsen ended the season with 19 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions, and had an 86.4 quarterback rating. Nelsen threw for 23 touchdowns in 1969 as Cleveland nearly duplicated the year before, going 10-3-1, ripping the Cowboys 38-14 to capture the conference title and then losing 27-7 to the Vikings in the NFL Championship Game.

Nelsen also bailed out the Browns in 1971, directing them on a season-ending five-game winning streak to finish 9-5 and capture their first AFC Central title. But, by then, Nelsen’s creaky knees were completely shot; he played just one more season with Cleveland before limping into retirement. He did so, though, knowing he had done a great job in Cleveland, being just the right man at just the right time as the Browns knocked on the door of the Super Bowl for two straight years.

And it was all because they had gotten a little help from their friends in Pittsburgh.