Entering the 1964 Season the Cleveland Browns were already one of the most storied franchises in football history. Founded in 1945, as one of the charter members of the upstart All American Football Conference, they were the dominant team in football from 1945 to 1955. Coached from the beginning by the legendary Paul Brown, whom the team was named after, and led by Hall of Fame Quarterback Otto Graham, they won all four of the AAFC Championships. With the collapse of the league after the 1949 season, the Cleveland Browns joined the NFL in 1950. Confirming that they were the best team in football they captured the NFL Championship their first year competing, defeating the Los Angeles Rams in the Title Game 30-28. They would go on to participate in the next five NFL Title Games, winning the Eastern Division every year. They lost in the Championship Game in 1951, 1952, and 1953, before prevailing in 1954 and 1955 in overwhelming fashion, crushing the Detroit Lions 56-10 in 1954 and easily defeating the Los Angeles Rams in 1955, 38-14.
Their regular season record the first six seasons in the NFL was 58-13-1, by far the best in the NFL for those years. Otto Graham retired after the 1955 Championship, ending their reign as the best team in football. They still remained competitive, primarily because of the arrival of Jim Brown. They would reach the NFL Championship Game his rookie year in 1957 (losing to the Detroit Lions). Brown would lead the league in rushing a record eight times in his nine-year career, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, and over 100 yards a game. Brown would say “Make sure when anyone tackles you he remembers how much it hurts.”
But the early greatness of Cleveland was gradually moving towards one of mediocrity until Paul Brown was fired as head coach in a power struggle with owner Art Modell prior to the 1963 season. Replaced by Blanton Collier, the Browns would have a resurgence as a premier team in the league. Finishing second in 1963 with a 10-4 record they were one of the favorites to win the weak Eastern Division in 1964. Thus began the 1964 NFL season.
Behind Jim Brown’s two touchdowns, the Browns opened with a 27-13 win over the Washington Redskins.
Week 2 saw them settle for a 33-33 tie at home against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Week 3 in Philadelphia, after trailing at the half 13-6, they managed a 28-20 win over the Eagles, with Brown leading the way with 158 total yards.
Quarterback Frank Ryan was the difference maker in week four before 72,062 in Cleveland, passing for 256 yards and three TDs in a 27-6 drumming of the Dallas Cowboys.
Week 6 the Pittsburgh Steelers came in to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium and before more than 80,000 fans dominated the Browns, handing them their first defeat of the season, 23-7.
The next week was a rematch with the Cowboys in Dallas. Dallas jumped off to an early lead only to see Cleveland score late on a 54-yard Bernie Parrish interception return for a 20-16 win.
Week 7 was at home, the first meeting with defending Eastern Division winner New York Giants. The Browns broke open a close game late and cruised to a 42-20 victory.
This set up Cleveland’s trip to Pittsburgh for their second meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the only team to beat them this season. After battling to a 10-10 tie in first half, the Browns pulled away, avenging the earlier loss with a 30-17 triumph. Jim Brown ran for 149 yards and caught 5 passes for 37 more in the victory.
Week 9 was an easy 34-24 win over the Washington Redskins. Followed by a 37-21 mauling at home of the Detroit Lions.
Week 11 was a much anticipated match-up in Green Bay against the Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. The temperature was 15 degrees with wind chills around zero. In a tense hard fought game Green Bay handed Cleveland their second loss, 28-21.
Week 12 Cleveland rebounded to again dispatch Philadelphia, 38-24. Setting up a showdown with the second place St. Louis Cardinals. In St. Louis the Cardinals exploded for 21 second quarter points in a convincing 28-19 win.
The loss left Cleveland in need of a win in their final game to secure the Eastern Division Title. They had to travel to New York to face their bitter rival, the New York Giants. With their season on the line the Browns responded with an overwhelming 52-20 beating of the defending Eastern Division Champs.
The win over the Giants catapulted the Browns into the Championship Game at home against the Baltimore Colts (this was football before the Super Bowl and before playoffs, the winners of each division played for the Title). The conditions and the location seemed to favor Cleveland. However, coached by Don Shula, and led by Johnny Unitas, John Mackey, and Lenny Moore, the Colts were heavy favorites. The temperature was 34 degrees and the wind at 25 mph gusting to 35. The second largest crowd ever to see an NFL Championship Game was on hand in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
Winning the toss and taking the ball seemed to be a mistake in the first half as Cleveland was unable to move the ball into the fierce wind. Fortunately, the Browns Defense was throttling the high-powered Baltimore Offense. The first half ended with neither team able to score. With the wind at their back the Browns knew they had to score in the third quarter. On their opening drive they moved to the Baltimore 36-yard line, where Lou Groza then converted on a 43 yard field goal to put Cleveland up 3-0. After a short punt by the Colts into the wind, Cleveland struck for the first Touchdown of the game on an 18 yard post pattern Frank Ryan to Gary Collins. Another quick stop by the Browns defense and the Browns quickly struck again on another post route, Ryan to Collins, suddenly Cleveland was up 17-0. The Colts counted on the wind in the fourth quarter, but even with the wind at their back Unitas and the Colts could not score on the Browns defense. A 51-yard pass play from Ryan to Collins and a short field goal by Lou Groza was all the scoring in the 4th quarter and the Browns finished off an unexpected 27-0 win for another title.
The offense was very effective in the second half. Frank Ryan finished the game 11 of 18 for 206-yard and three touchdowns, all to Gary Collins. Collins finished with five receptions for 130 yards along with his three touchdowns. Jim Brown was his usual punishing self, rushing for 114 yards, adding three catches for another 37. But the key to the victory was the ferocious Brown defense. They held the Colts to 92 yards rushing, but most impressively held the great Johnny Unitas to only 95 yards passing.
Of course, this would be the Cleveland Browns last championship. To modern fans they are the laughing stock of the NFL, but the fall was not sudden. The Browns remained one of the most successful franchises for the next 25 years. Winning their division nine times and making the playoffs as a Wild Card another two. Cleveland would win the Eastern Division again in 1965 only to lose to the Green Bay Packers in the Title Game. 1965 MVP Jim Brown would unexpectedly retire after the season. He would be replaced by another Hall of Fame Running Back (LeRoy Kelly), and Cleveland would continue to be one of the NFL’s elite teams.
The Browns would be involved in three of the most memorable games in playoff history. Unfortunately, they were all heartbreaking losses for Cleveland fans. In 1980, in the final seconds of a Divisional Playoff Game against the Raiders, they had driven into field goal range down by two, when Brian Sipe threw an ill-advised pass into the End Zone that was intercepted by the Raiders Michael Davis. The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl.
John Elway became a legend by leading the Denver Broncos on what has become known as “The Drive” in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, his victim…The Cleveland Browns. The following year the Broncos again faced Cleveland in the AFC Title Game. That game would be known as “The Fumble”. Driving for the game tying touchdown late in the 4th quarter, Ernest Byner fumbled on the two-yard line ending Cleveland’s last good chance to reach a Super Bowl.
The Browns owner, Art Modell, would take his football team and leave Cleveland in 1996 to become the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens continue to be one of the upper tier teams in the NFL. They would win the 2000 and 2012 Super Bowl and continue to be one of the most stable teams in football.
Cleveland would be without a team until the Browns was reactivated in 1999. The Browns have been the worst team in the League since then. They have no Super Bowl appearances and only one Wild Card appearance. The number of head coaches and starting quarterbacks for the Browns is a running joke in the NFL. Yet, their history is rich and their players legendary. The Cleveland Browns history is a story every football fan should know.