The Cleveland Browns were once a model NFL franchise, one that routinely contended for championships.
Seriously. They were.
It’s been about 25 years since the Browns flirted with the possibility of playing in a Super Bowl let alone with winning a title. The team was relocated to Baltimore in the 90s, a business decision from which the city of Cleveland still hasn’t recovered. Only once have the Browns played in the postseason since returning to the league in 1999.
They lost that one game; to hated rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Lost on many who are unaware of the team’s past achievements is that some of the all-time greats to ever play the game suited up for the Browns. Last summer, Cleveland.com ranked the website’s 100 greatest Browns players through a fan vote. It’s from that list that I created the brackets for this simulation.
#8 Dick Schafrath vs. #1 Otto Graham
Schafrath was one of the premier run blockers of his time. He opened up holes and made life on the football field easier for the likes of Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly, and he was also a dependable pass blocker. Schafrath was named to every Pro Bowl squad from 1963 through 1968. He was a four-time All Pro.
That he isn’t in the Hall of Fame is an oversight.
Nobody reading this piece, not even a sports fan who stumbled upon it by accident, should need me to explain how Graham is ranked #1 on the list. With Graham leading the way, the Browns won seven championships. No quarterback in Cleveland history has come close to matching his accomplishments. I know some analysts who believe that Graham is the greatest quarterback in the history of all professional football, including the days before the NFL existed.
#7 Dante Lavelli vs. #2 Jim Brown
The numbers don’t do justice to what Lavelli meant to those Browns teams of old. “Gluefingers,” as he was known, had a hand in Graham leading the Browns to all of those championships back in the 40s and 50s, and the Cleveland offense helped revolutionize the sport with its aerial attack. Graham’s legacy casts a massive shadow, and thus too many underestimate just how great a player Lavelli was throughout his career.
No knowledgeable football fan fails to give credit and praise to Brown. I laugh off suggestions that, no disrespect to any of these players intended, somebody such as Walter Payton, Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith could possibly be the best running back ever. They and others have earned every honor bestowed upon them, but the mold was forever broken when Brown was created.
#6 Marion Motley vs. #3 Lou Groza
Motley is often fondly remembered as somebody who broke the color barrier. While that is accurate, he was also an incredible player. Motley was a bruising and powerful runner, and he led the AAFC once (1948) and the NFL once (1950) in rushing yards. He was also a very good linebacker, one who may have made the Hall of Fame just for defensive play had the Browns not wanted to save his legs for RB duties.
It’s somewhat ironic that Motley and Groza get paired together. Groza, “The Toe,” is regarded by many as the greatest kicker in football history. The annual award given to the best college football kicker each a season is named after Groza, who was also a dominant left tackle. Like Graham and company revolutionized NFL offenses, Groza changed the way placekickers were viewed and utilized. When he retired, Groza possessed every pro football record that could possibly be held by a kicker.
In an era during which kickers routinely missed half of the attempts that they took, Groza honed his craft and became the best of them all. Every current NFL kicker who is a millionaire owes Groza and big time.
#5 Gene Hickerson vs. #4 Bill Willis
Hickerson, listed at 6’3″ and around 260 pounds during his playing days, would make for a very talented tight end in the modern NFL. As he was, he was probably the best pulling guard of his time. Hickerson possessed remarkable speed, quickness and agility for his size, and his athleticism aided him in being a dominant run blocker. He was also a reliable pass blocker.
While no voting process involving human beings will ever be perfect, it’s close to criminal that Hickerson wasn’t enshrined in Canton until 2007.
Willis, like the previously mentioned Motley, played a role in breaking the color barrier in pro football. That alone isn’t why he is so high on a list of all-time great Browns players. The Graham of the Cleveland defense, Willis was a force on the defensive line despite being undersized for a guard (Pro Football Reference has Willis at 6’2″ and 213 pounds, but he may have been smaller). His ability to make plays up front and when dropping back in pass defense made him an all-around threat on defense, and Willis was named an All-Pro on three occasions.
Maybe it’s that Hickerson was snubbed by the Hall of Fame for so long. Maybe it’s that Willis only played in eight pro seasons, while Hickerson played from 1958 to 1973. For the first time in this bracket, I’m going with the upset pick.
#5 Gene Hickerson vs. #1 Otto Graham
Oh, if only Hickerson had been born a decade before he was. Had that occurred and had his life gone down a similar track, he would have played with Graham during all of those championship seasons. Hickerson also likely would have received more love from Hall of Fame voters who miscued when filling out their ballots year after year after year back in the day.
None of that actually happened, though, and thus you do have to look at the scoreboard – or the resumes in this case – and pencil Graham into the Final. Some of the most memorable football conversations I’ve been blessed to have had involved individuals who watched Graham play. I can only imagine that they felt about Graham as I do when I speak about sitting in the stands and watching Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning play.
#3 Lou Groza vs. #2 Jim Brown
Groza vs. Brown makes for a figurative main event in any arena in the country. Groza played a lot more pro football than did Brown, but that was by Brown’s choice. Truth be told, a lot of running backs in the league today could benefit from making career decisions similar to the ones made by Brown and Barry Sanders.
Thanks to the beauty of technology and people touching up old films, I’ve been able to watch plenty of Brown’s highlights during the past decade or so. He was a running back not for his time, a nearly unstoppable player up through his final season, in which he led the league in rushing yards.
#1 Otto Graham vs. #2 Jim Brown
The difference between Graham and Brown can be simply explained: Graham was a great player for his time. I have no doubt that an in-his-prime Jim Brown could start and excel in the NFL in 2014. I rate Brown as the greatest running back of all time, the greatest football player of all time, and one of the greatest American athletes the public has ever seen.
Any NFL running back who doesn’t pick Brown’s brain as often as possible is doing himself a disservice.
Winner: Jim Brown