It had been a while.
In a relative sense -- relative, at least, to that time in team history -- the Browns hadn't done much since 1965, when they lost to the Green Bay Packers 23-12 in the NFL Championship Game.
They finished 9-5 in 1966 and '67, but made the playoffs only in the second year. However, it was a short stay, as the Dallas Cowboys blew them out 52-14 in the Eastern Conference Championship Game.
So the Browns changed some things - thinking-wise and personnel-wise - heading into the 1968 season, hoping to get back into serious title contention. It worked.
After a slow start in which they lost two of their first three games and three of their first five, the re-tooled Browns won eight in a row before falling 27-16 to the St. Louis Cardinals in a meaningless game in the regular-season finale. The result was a 10-4 mark, the Century Division crown (by the slimmest of margins over the 9-4-1 Cardinals) and a spot in the conference title game again opposite those same Cowboys.
Only this time, the Browns advanced, beating Dallas 31-20 to get to the league title game against the Baltimore Colts. The Colts, returning to Cleveland Stadium, where they were stunned by the Browns 27-0 in the championship contest four years before, got revenge with a shutout victory of their own, 34-0.
So it was the Colts and not the Browns who headed to Super Bowl III, where they were stunned once more, this time by the New York Jets, 16-7.
The key to the Browns' turnaround was the insertion of Bill Nelsen at quarterback early in the season. Nelsen replaced Frank Ryan, the architect of that victory over the Colts in 1964. By '68, though, he was really banged up, battling shoulder problems.
Nelsen had arrived in an offseason trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was invigorated by going to a team that had a chance to win. At the time, the Steelers were in the midst of a 39-year run without a playoff appearance.
Nelsen made an impact right away, helping to beat the Colts 30-20 to hand Baltimore its only loss in a 13-1 season.
After being outscored 113-89 in the first five weeks, including drubbings of 28-7 by the Cowboys and 24-6 by the Los Angeles Rams in consecutive weeks, the Browns really took off. During that eight-game winning streak, they scored 289 points, an average of 36.1 per contest, while giving up just 133 (16.6). They tallied 45 or more points in three consecutive weeks for the first - and only - time in team history, beating the Steelers 45-24, the Philadelphia Eagles 47-13 and the New York Giants 45-10.
The only team that really had the Browns' number consistently that year - remember, the Browns avenged their regular-season loss to the Cowboys by defeating them in the playoffs - was the Cardinals. In addition to the season-ending 27-16 win in St. Louis, the Cards also triumphed in Cleveland, 27-21. St. Louis used those two victories to put heat on the Browns in the Century race.
For the season, Nelsen threw for 19 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions for an 86.4 quarterback rating. Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield had a team-leading 50 receptions, 12 of which went for TDs, and another Hall of Famer, running back Leroy Kelly, had his best season as a pro, establishing career highs in both rushing yards (1,239) and rushing TDs (16).
But while the offense gelled, you can't discount the defense, either. The Browns set a team record with 32 interceptions in just a 14-game season, with cornerback Ben Davis getting eight and safeties Mike Howell and Ernie Kellerman having six each. The Browns were so good at thievery that Bill Glass - an end - had two picks.
In the end, it was a good season, one that delivered the Browns back to where they were used to being -- among the top teams in the league.
|9/15||W 24-10||at New Orleans Saints||74,215|
|9/22||L 7-28||at Dallas Cowboys||68,733|
|9/29||L 6-24||Los Angeles Rams||82,514|
|10/5||W 31-24||Pittsburgh Steelers||81,865|
|10/13||L 21-27||St. Louis Cardinals||79,349|
|10/20||W 30-20||at Baltimore Colts||60,238|
|10/27||W 30-7||Atlanta Falcons||67,723|
|11/3||W 33-21||at San Francisco 49ers||31,359|
|11/10||W 35-17||New Orleans Saints||71,025|
|11/17||W 45-24||at Pittsburgh Steelers||41,572|
|11/24||W 47-13||Philadelphia Eagles||62,338|
|12/1||W 45-10||New York Giants||83,193|
|12/8||W 24-21||at Washington Redskins||50,661|
|12/14||L 16-27||at St. Louis Cardinals||39,746|
|12/21||W 31-20||Dallas Cowboys||81,497|
|12/29||L 0-34||Baltimore Colts||80,628|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||248||259|
|Total Net Yards||4,861||4,208|
|Avg. Per Game||347.2||300.6|
|Avg. Per Play||5.8||4.7|
|Net Yards Rushing||2,031||1,842|
|Avg. Per Game||145.1||131.6|
|Net Yards Passing||2,834||2,248|
|Avg. Per Game||202.4||160.6|
|Net Punting Avg.||63/35.4||60/38.3|
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