It had to happen sometime.
After all, it happens to every pro sports team that has enjoyed success for a long time.
Because of getting low draft picks for all those years -- the best teams choose last -- and thus thinning the talent level, a club's extended run at or near the top eventually ends.
And it ended -- in a big way, at that -- for the Browns in 1974.
With the exception of 1956, when the retirement of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham left the offense without its unquestioned leader and the team went a bad-but-not-horrible 5-7, the Browns had had a great stretch since their inaugural year of 1946.
In the first 10 seasons alone, they accomplished the unprecedented feat of going to the league championship game 10 straight times, winning seven of them. They advanced to the NFL title game again in 1957, '65, '68, '69 and '64, winning that one as well. They also made it to the playoffs in 1967, '71 and '72 and just missed doing so a number of other times.
Even in 1970, when they went 7-7 for their second-worst season since '56, they missed winning the AFC Central by only a game.
Down the stretch in 1973, after they had completed a three-game winning streak with a thrilling, 21-16 come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh, the Browns were sitting pretty at 7-3-1, running neck and neck with the Steelers in the division race with three weeks to go.
Then the roof caved in with a tie and two one-sided losses, forcing a 7-5-2 finish that eliminated the Browns from any playoff contention -- even of the wild-card variety.
"Oh, well," the Browns thought, "we'll come back next year and finish the job and get back to the playoffs."
After all, they had always quickly rebounded from any struggles.
The key word in the Browns' thought process was "finish," for though no one knew it at the time, their great run was finished. Over.
The nose-dive at the end of 1973 bled directly into the '74.
The Browns finished 4-10 that year and did not look good doing it. All those great players who had led the Browns to much success through the 1960s and the early part of the '70s, either had retired or were ready to do so. And, as mentioned, since the Browns had been picking at the tail end of the draft for so long, they had little in the way of reinforcements to step into those stars' shoes.
With the exception of the Denver Broncos, who had a modest 7-6-1 record, none of the teams the Browns defeated in 1974 finished above .500. The Browns topped the Broncos 23-21 by scoring two unanswered touchdowns at the end of the game behind a backup quarterback by the name of Brian Sipe. They beat the 7-7 Houston Oilers 20-7, the 7-7 New England Patriots 21-14 and the 6-8 San Francisco 49ers 7-0 in a tundra-like setting after one of the worst snowstorms in Northeast Ohio history.
Otherwise, it wasn't good. The Browns offense couldn't score enough points behind the direction of quarterback Mike Phipps, taken with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft that was acquired when the club dealt HOF wide receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins. And the defense had trouble stopping people.
The Browns got off to a 1-5 start, getting humbled 33-7 by the Cincinnati Bengals in -- by far -- the most lopsided opening-day loss in franchise history to that point -- and losing by 22 points (29-7) to the St. Louis Cardinals and by 16 (40-24) to the Oakland Raiders.
They also were thumped by 24 (41-17) by the Dallas Cowboys in the next-to-last game of the season.
But pride is a hard thing to totally extinguish. The Browns players left from those great teams still had it, and despite the lack of overall talent on the club, it helped them to stay close in some other games.
They gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers all they could handle in both meetings, losing 20-16 and 26-16), lost by 10 points (34-24) in the rematch with the Bengals, fell by five (15-10) to the 9-5 Buffalo Bills, lost 36-35 to the San Diego Chargers when Sipe fumbled the snap as the club was positioning the ball in the middle of the field for Don Cockroft to kick a game-winning field goal on the final play, and were beaten by four (28-24) in the rematch with the Oilers in the season finale.
On the season as a whole, the Browns started games well and ended them well, being outscored just 62-61 in the first quarter and outscoring their foes 73-63 in the fourth. But in the middle two quarters combined, they were out-done by a whopping 219-117 count, and therein lies most of the reason why they gave up 344 points, the most in team history at the time.
Phipps struggled for the second straight year, throwing just nine TD passes while being intercepted 17 times. He had tossed nine scores and 20 picks in 1973.
But not all of it was his fault. The offensive line was in a state of flux, and there was a dearth of talent at wide receiver.
Plus the running game sputtered as the Browns tried to cope with the retirement of HOF back Leroy Kelly after the 1973 season. It wouldn't be until 1975 before quick, darting Greg Pruitt, the team's second-round draft pick in '73, really began to make his presence felt on a consistent basis.
But Pruitt would do so under a new head coach. Nick Skorich, who had had the job since 1971 and was just the third head coach in the 29-season history of the team, was fired at the end of the year. His replacement would be offensive line coach Forrest Gregg, thus ushering in a new era for the Browns.
|9/15||L 7-33||at Cincinnati Bengals||53,113|
|9/22||W 20-7||Houston Oilers||58,988|
|9/29||L 7-29||at St. Louis Cardinals||43,472|
|10/6||L 24-40||Oakland Raiders||65,247|
|10/13||L 24-34||Cincinnati Bengals||70,897|
|10/20||L 16-20||at Pittsburgh Steelers||48,100|
|10/27||W 23-21||Denver Broncos||60,478|
|11/3||L 35-36||at San Diego Chargers||36,631|
|11/10||W 21-14||at New England Patriots||61,279|
|11/17||L 16-26||Pittsburgh Steelers||77,739|
|11/24||L 10-15||Buffalo Bills||66,504|
|12/1||W 7-0||San Francisco 49ers||24,559|
|12/7||L 17-41||at Dallas Cowboys||48,754|
|12/15||L 24-28||at Houston Oilers||37,910|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||223||247|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||67/196||74/193|
|3rd Down Pct.||34.20%||38.30%|
|Total Net Yards||3,651||4,440|
|Avg. Per Game||260.8||317.1|
|Avg. Per Play||4.2||5|
|Net Yards Rushing||1,924||2,415|
|Avg. Per Game||137.4||172.5|
|Net Yards Passing||1,727||2,025|
|Avg. Per Game||123.4||144.6|
|Net Punting Avg.||90/32.6||76/31.1|
Cleveland holds 11 draft picks
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