5 Myths About the NFL in Cleveland: It’s Not Quite the Football Town You Think It Is (Or Was)

1948 AAFC Championship Game.CLE

See those empty seats in the background? This is a Browns championship game. A scant 22,891 at the 1948 AAFC title game in Cleveland watch as Marion Motley and the 14-0 Browns down the 7-7 Buffalo Bills, 49-7. Three years earlier the supposedly less-liked Cleveland Rams drew 50% more fans to a taut 1945 NFL Championship Game, in arctic weather that was nearly 30 degrees colder and as servicemen were returning from World War II.

Historical facts often are no match for the selective memories of football fans and the relentless myth-making machine of the National Football League. Think Cleveland is a football town nonpareil, conceived by a sainted Browns playoff juggernaut of long ago? After debunking these 5 myths about the NFL in Cleveland you may think the real story is a little more…uh, complicated.

Myth #5:
That the Rams (or even the Browns) were Cleveland’s first NFL franchise

I’ve come across this myth at least two times of late. Bonus points for even knowing about the Rams — but no. Three NFL teams actually predate the Rams and the Browns: an NFL charter franchise called first the Tigers, then the Indians, from 1920 to 1921; a Canton Bulldogs / Cleveland Indians blend (1923-27) newly christened the Cleveland Bulldogs, who were NFL champs in 1924; then, for one single season financially underwritten by the league, another version of the Indians that was a bit of a basketcase — disbanded after one season and a 2-10 record.

Myth #4:
That the NFL has been a rock-steady presence in Cleveland

Take a look at the timeline below. See those gray areas? They represent 18 years — nearly 20% of the seasons since the league started ninety-five years ago — that the NFL has taken a vacation from Cleveland due to (respectively) a franchise closure, a franchise closure, a franchise closure, World War II, Dan Reeves moving his championship Rams to Los Angeles, and the trauma called Art Modell. (Note the neat symmetry between Reeves moving the Rams after the 1945 season and Modell moving the Browns after 1995. They’re like mid-century and end-of-century bookends.)

NFL CLE timeline
Admittedly many markets went through franchise gyrations in the league’s early years, notably Detroit. But the Lions? Steady as they go since they arrived in the Motor City from Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1934. And the Packers? They made overtures once or twice about moving to Milwaukee, even played a few games there, but otherwise have been housed nonstop in Green Bay since 1921.

Myth #3:
That the Rams were a lousy team no one was interested in

In actuality the Rams were a classic rags-to-riches story, a start-up team in an era of virtually no league parity that began horrifically but by their eighth season had worked their way to dominance over the bullying Bears, Giants, Packers and Redskins. There’s a little bit of Browns-inspired sour grapes in downgrading the Rams, wouldn’t you agree? One girl dumps us so we fixate on the next one — and hey, she’s even hot and sexy, for a while anyway (and as noted in the photo caption above, Cleveland started to become apathetic about the Browns and their gilded AAFC championships as early as 1948).

Cleveland news media of more recent eras — especially during their long-lasting romance with Modell and his Browns organization in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — seem to be particularly apt to downplay the Rams’ championship and legacy. Cleveland was excited about the coming of Paul Brown and his Browns, no doubt, but nowhere in my dozens of hours researching news accounts from 1945 and 1946 have I detected the Cleveland public saying glad-to-see-you-go to the Cleveland Rams. At minimum many Clevelanders expected to be treated to a toe-to-toe fight between the two leagues and two top-notch organizations, and may the best man win. At worst, the Rams’ move was a sudden and unexpected abandonment by a major-league franchise made all the worse by having just (finally) won a championship.

Won Loss tableFor the record, care to know which sustained era of NFL football in Cleveland has been the worst? You guessed it, we’re living in it: Toss out the one-year basketcase 1931 Indians and it’s Cleveland Browns II (1999-2014) standing as the losingest Cleveland NFL team of all time. Who said things get better with time?

Myth #2:
That the “old” Browns were something of a playoff juggernaut

The original Cleveland Browns had their era of NFL championship glory for sure, though on closer scrutiny it did not last as long as most Clevelanders seem to remember it: largely 1950 to 1955, when the Browns won three of their four titles. They lost the championship game to Detroit in 1957; got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in 1958; missed the playoffs completely in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, and 1963; and pulled off a huge upset of Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts in the 1964 title game. Since then it’s been pretty much nothing but heartbreak for Cleveland fans. Consider these facts about the Browns since they joined the NFL in 1950:

  • They’ve won only two playoff games on the road in their entire history. All-time playoff road record: 2-14 (.125). Last playoff road win: 1969 at Dallas.
  • They’re the Buffalo Bills of conference championship games. They’ve had five shots at a Super Bowl berth and blew them all.
  • Remarkably, they’ve lost nearly two-thirds of their playoff games, dating even to the Otto Graham / Lou Groza era.  All-time NFL playoff record: 11-20 (.355)

Clevelanders need to shift their perception of what were the good old days. The true glory years of Cleveland football actually were 1920 to 1965: six NFL championships in 40 years (see timeline above). Since then it’s been 0 championships in 50 years. With NFL championship rings not exactly in long supply, Clevelanders’ ignorance of the Rams’ (and Bulldogs’) titles is all the more puzzling.

Myth #1:
That Cleveland is primarily a football town

Or is it more of a partying town?

Okay, so a little bit of a polemic on this one, but as a certain hoodie-wearing former head coach of the Browns once said, I can only go by what I see. I recently came across a note written to the sports editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1938 essentially asking, Why don’t you cover football more? Baseball coverage six months out of the year is plenty. It’s a good reminder that while the National Football League was trotting out six franchises for the Cleveland public’s consideration in less than 80 years — and taking the equivalent of nearly two decades off to get its financial and ownership houses in order, five different times — Major League Baseball was operating continuously in Cleveland since 1901.

By the way, guess which of the two major sports has the better all-time record in Cleveland? Baseball, by a nose.

Baseball Football records

And to think there was a time when the locals were grateful that Modell was Municipal Stadium landlord to the then-pathetic Indians because he was helping to “save” baseball in Cleveland. NFL, thou too art mortal.

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