Let us give thanks for the Browns of nearly 6½ decades ago, and especially for what they did during Thanksgiving week that year.
The 1948 Browns are one of just two teams in mainstream pro football history to have finished their season with a perfect record -- no ties or losses -- and also win a league championship. They were 15-0 after capturing their third straight All-America Football Conference title with a 49-7 rout of the Buffalo Bills.
It would take 24 years for a perfect season to happen again when the 1972 Miami Dolphins finished 17-0 and won Super Bowl VII, and it hasn’t occurred since.
But as amazing of a feat as that is, what is even more so is what the 1948 Browns did during Thanksgiving week. In fact, it may be the most impressive accomplishment not just in team history, but also in pro football annals as well.
The Browns won three games in eight days – and on opposite coasts against their three biggest rivals at the time, no less. Yes, you read that correctly in that the club, in off-the-charts fashion, really did notch three victories from one Sunday to another.
It would be like today’s Browns defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals on Thanksgiving and then the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday. But it wouldn’t happen now. It will never happen again. Nobody would even think of doing it. It’s simply too much football in too short of a span. The human body -- even the finely-tuned ones of pro football players -- aren’t built for that.
To call it grueling -- pro football’s version of the Ironman triathlon -- would not be an exaggeration.
It began on Sunday, Nov. 21 when the Browns went to Yankee Stadium and defeated the New York Yankees 34-21. The Browns had edged past the Yankees 14-9 and then 14-3 in the first two AAFC title games in 1946 and ’47, so the 13-point spread represented a big victory.
Then the Browns traveled all the way across the country to the West Coast to roll past the Los Angeles Dons 31-14 three days later, on Thanksgiving, at Memorial Coliseum.
In an attempt to compete with the NFL’s Detroit Lions’ annual tradition of playing on Thanksgiving that started in 1934, the AAFC had begun staging its own game on the holiday in 1947. The Browns also played the Dons at L.A. that year and won 27-17.
The Dons were no pushovers, having dealt the Browns two of their first three losses ever, 17-16 at Los Angeles in that inaugural season of 1946 and then 13-10 at Cleveland in ’47.
The trip mercifully came to an end three days after that, on Sunday, Nov. 28, as the Browns journeyed up the coast to beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-28 at Kezar Stadium in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
Maybe the biggest of Cleveland’s three rivals, the 49ers had given the Browns their other loss in 1946, 34-20, and fell just 14-7 to head coach Paul Brown’s club on three different occasions, once each in 1946, ’47 and ’48. The last win, before a Cleveland Stadium crowd of 82,679 that stood as a Browns home record until 1960, came a week before the Browns began their Thanksgiving week odyssey. Thus, to have played the 49ers as an appetizer, so to speak, only serves to add even more luster to what the Browns did.
Although they certainly needed it, the Browns didn’t get a week off after their three-game, eight-day pilgrimage, having to go the following Sunday, Dec. 5, to Ebbetts Field, where they beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 31-21 to end their regular season at 14-0.
They finished their perfect year two weeks later, on Dec. 19, by handing the Bills that 42-point loss.
But it was what the 1948 Browns did during Thanksgiving week that showed how truly great they were. Years later, Browns Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Dante Lavelli, a Hudson (Ohio) High School graduate, told of players stretched out in the aisles of the plane on the trips from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then especially on the long ride back to Cleveland, so they could rest their battered, bruised and aching bodies.
The Browns also played on Thanksgiving in their 1949-regular-season finale, defeating the host Chicago Hornets 14-6 to put their record at 9-1-2. They finished the year by topping the Bills 31-21 in the first round of the playoffs and then the 49ers 21-7 in the league title game, giving Cleveland all four of the AAFC crowns handed out.
The league was dissolved after that season, with three AAFC teams -- the Browns, 49ers and Baltimore Colts -- being absorbed into the NFL for 1950. The Browns would go on to make six straight NFL Championship Game appearances from 1950-55, winning three crowns. That ended an unprecedented streak in which the Browns, beginning in 1946, played in 10 consecutive title contests and captured seven championships.
But it would be over a decade and a half before the Browns played again on Thanksgiving Day. It came on Nov. 24, 1966 when they were the opponents in the first of the Dallas Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving games. Despite having lost 30-21 a month earlier at Cleveland, the Cowboys won the rematch 26-14 to take control of the Eastern Conference race en route to dethroning the two-time defending conference champion Browns.
The game drew 80,259 to the Cotton Bowl, the Cowboys’ home for their first 11 years of existence before Texas Stadium was opened in 1971, and stood as the Cowboys’ largest home crowd until Cowboys Stadium was unveiled in 2009.
The Browns have played twice on Thanksgiving since then, losing 31-14 to the Cowboys on Nov. 25 at Texas Stadium in the strike-shortened 1982 season, and then 13-10 to the Detroit Lions on Nov. 23, 1989 at the Silverdome.
But it was that victory over the Dons in 1948, and the games before and after it in the most physically demanding week in modern pro football history, that will forever be the benchmark for the Browns when it comes to Thanksgiving Day memories.