Things run in cycles.
Yes, what goes around, comes around -- even in football.
Just as 1967 was the last full year for Browns quarterback Frank Ryan before Bill Nelsen took over, so, too, was 1971 the last full season for Nelsen before Mike Phipps took over.
Nelsen, obtained from the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 1968 season in one of the best trades in club history, had directed the Browns to back-to-back NFL Championship Game appearances in his first two years with the club. A tremendous leader, he was also as courageous and gutsy of a player as the team has ever had, playing on knees that were in worse shape than those of Joe Namath.
Those knees finally started to get the best of him as the 1970s arrived. Nelsen's 1971 numbers weren't pretty -- he had 10 more interceptions (23) than TD passes (13) after throwing for 58 TDs and 45 picks the previous three years -- but he was able to make plays exactly when the Browns needed them.
And just as the 1967 Browns returned to the playoffs following a one-year absence, so, too, did the '71 club, which was in its first season under new head coach Nick Skorich after Blanton Collier's final team in 1970 had finished just 7-7, ending a string of three consecutive postseason berths.
As was the case in 1967, the '71 Browns went 9-5 and won a division crown. They captured the AFC Central for the first time, finishing three games in front of the soon-to-emerge Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8).
The Browns started fast - winning four of their first five games, including a 14-13 road decision over the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts - and finished fast, capturing their last five, including a 20-13 road verdict in the season finale over the playoff-bound Washington Redskins.
But in between, the Browns really struggled, losing four straight and being outscored by 97-30. Actually, in the first three games of that stretch, the margin of deficit was even worse, 84-23.
These 1971 Browns were the predecessors of the Kardiac Kids a decade later, for they were involved in six games decided by seven points or less, winning five, including three in a row at the end of the year. They beat the division rival Cincinnati Bengals twice by a combined total of seven points, 27-24 and 31-27.
After blowing out another Central foe, the Houston Oilers, 31-0 in the opener, their largest margin of victory the rest of the year was 20 points in a 27-7 home triumph over the Patriots, who were in their first year of going by the New England moniker after being known as Boston for the first 11 years of their existence.
And yes, the 1967 team had a similar resume, being involved in seven games decided by seven points or less.
But regardless of the margin of victory or the way they did it, the bottom line is that the Browns were winning again in 1971. They had recaptured the winning tradition they had had in their successful run through the 1960s.
Running back Leroy Kelly was on the downside of his Pro Football Hall of Fame career, but he did manage to rush for 865 yards and 10 touchdowns -- still good for a 14-game season, Wide receiver Fair Hooker led the team in receptions with 45.
Just as was the case in 1968, when the Browns pulled off a 30-20 upset at Baltimore during the regular season and then were beaten decisively by the Colts -- 34-0 -- at home in the playoffs, the host Browns fell 20-3 to Johnny Unitas and the Colts in the divisional round at Cleveland after upsetting them by a point at Baltimore in the regular season.
The Browns, who had been so hot at the end of that 1971 regular season, suddenly could do nothing right that day against the Colts, especially offensively, as they got just 165 total yards. Nelsen was intercepted three times and had a quarterback rating of only 18.8.
The way things ended is the last correlation between the 1967 and '71 seasons. The 1967 Browns finished strong, winning four of their last five, then got whipped by the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs 52-14.
The one-sided loss to the Colts in the 1971 postseason was the first for the Browns since Week 9 of the regular season.
|9/19||W 31-0||Houston Oilers||73,387|
|9/26||W 14-13||at Baltimore Colts||56,837|
|10/4||L 20-34||Oakland Raiders||84,285|
|10/10||W 27-17||Pittsburgh Steelers||83,391|
|10/17||W 27-24||at Cincinnati Bengals||60,284|
|10/24||L 0-27||Denver Broncos||75,674|
|10/31||L 14-31||Atlanta Falcons||76,825|
|11/7||L 9-26||at Pittsburgh Steelers||50,202|
|11/14||L 7-13||at Kansas City Chiefs||50,388|
|11/21||W 27-7||New England Patriots||65,238|
|11/28||W 37-24||at Houston Oilers||37,921|
|12/5||W 31-27||Cincinnati Bengals||82,705|
|12/12||W 21-17||at New Orleans Saints||72,794|
|12/19||W 20-13||at Washington Redskins||53,041|
|12/26||L 3-20||Baltimore Colts||74,082|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||231||232|
|Total Net Yards||3,857||4,194|
|Avg. Per Game||275.5||299.6|
|Avg. Per Play||4.5||4.9|
|Net Yards Rushing||1,558||2,227|
|Avg. Per Game||111.3||159.1|
|Net Yards Passing||2,299||1,967|
|Avg. Per Game||164.2||140.5|
|Net Punting Avg.||67/36.5||66/37.0|