Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Dawg Pound Blues

One can only imagine what Jim Brown felt watching the Browns take on the Seattle Seahawks this past Sunday.  The young Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel offered some hope on an opening drive that led to a touchdown, but after that it was all Seattle and the Browns may wind up with the worst record in the NFL.

The Cleveland Browns have always bit a bit of an enigma.  The history surrounding their nickname is shrouded in mystery.  Some say the team was named after Joe Lewis, the legendary "Brown Bomber," who dominated heavyweight boxing for many years.  Others say the team was named after its first owner Paul Brown.  One might be forgiven for thinking the moniker belongs to Jim Brown, who carried the team on his shoulders back in the late 50's and ealry 60's, but the Browns' best run was a few years before when they were led by Otto Graham, winning the NFL Championship in 1954 and 1955.

The team came up through the All-America Football Conference, replacing the Rams in 1950, which had moved to Los Angeles.  Paul Brown was co-owner and coach. They had dominated the AAFC and quickly established themselves as a dominant team in the NFL, winning the championship their first year in the league.  They would win three more over the next 15 years.

Otto Grraham breaking aaway
However, the team didn't fair so well after the merger with the American Football League in 1966, unable to get to the Super Bowl over a 30 year period, before owner Art Modell decided to move the team to Baltimore in 1996.  Cleveland wouldn't let him take the name or the colors with him, regaining a team in 1999.  a three-year slumber that left Browns fans literally in the "dawg pound."

Modell had long been a controversial figure.  He took over the team in 1961 and fired Paul Brown as head coach in 1963.  It seemed like fortunes improved as the Browns won the NFL title again in 1964, but when Jim Brown announced his retirement at the peak of his career, the Browns went into a tailspin.  Modell was not content to stay in the front office.  He battled players and coaches alike over contracts and decision making.  He battled the city over improvements to the stadium, culminating in a nasty dispute which eventually led to him moving the team to Baltimore.

Bernie Kosar in 1987
There were some good teams during that period, but Cleveland was unable to get past Pittsburgh, its arch-nemesis in the AFC.  The move to Baltimore filled a void left by Jim Irsay, who had taken the Colts to Indianapolis following similar disputes over stadium improvements.  The relocation of these legendary teams inspired owners to make similar moves, essentially pitting cities against each other to build better stadiums to host NFL teams.  New stadiums began to pop up everywhere, each striving to be the most state of the art.  If a city didn't ante up, it would have a hard time holding onto its team.  Green Bay is the only city that actually owns its team.

Why others didn't do the same is anyone's guess.  It would saved a lot of heartache.  Los Angeles has been without a football team since 1995, when the Rams moved to St. Louis and the Raiders returned to Oakland.  There is talk now that the Rams will return next year, as St. Louis has apparently lost interest in its ball club, no longer willing to be held hostage by the owner.  The city had lost its Cardinals to Arizona back in 1988.

As John Oliver noted in his piece, Stadiums, a city finds itself having to appease owners in all sorts of strange ways and rarely gets a return on its massive investment.  The NFL owners have successfully been able to create an oligarchy that even has a federal tax exemption, although it is now willing to give that up, as it has drawn severe criticism over the years given the massive revenues the NFL teams generate.

In many ways, Art Modell is your prototypical NFL team owner.  He was only 32 at the time, he led a group of investors who bought the Browns for $4 million in 1961, which was considered a king's ransom back then.   This was a seven-fold increase over the Browns' value in 1953.  By 1995, Baltimore had built a $200 million stadium at Camden Yards to lure the Browns, as Modell wasn't able to negotiate the deal he wanted in Cleveland.

One would think that Cleveland would have followed the Green Bay model after losing its franchise, but instead turned to billionaire Al Lerner to finance a new team.  The Browns  have been unable to capture the former magic.  In 2012, Jim Haslam bought the team for $1 billion and the struggles continue.  One has to hand it to the devoted Browns' fan base for continuing to fill the stadium, a 92 per cent attendance rate, otherwise these owners probably would have sought greener pastures as well.

The reason Cleveland took the Browns moniker is that the team wanted a name associated with a winner, either in the famous "Brown Bomber" or Paul Brown or even Jim Brown, but its name has sadly become synonymous with a perennial loser.

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