After the Browns suffered through 4-10 and 3-11 records in 1974 and '75, respectively, going 9-5 in 1976 was a marked improvement.
The club was in its second year under head coach Forrest Gregg, a Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers. He was a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, which was something the Browns needed after playing for the more lax Nick Skorich from 1971-74.
Gregg's plan was simple: He was going to toughen up the Browns -- re-make them in his own image, as it were -- so they could compete with the likes of the physical Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Central. Although that trait wasn't really evident in 1975, when the Browns had their worst record in history to that point and lost by 36 and 14 points in their two games with Pittsburgh, it was easy to see in '76.
Aside from the much better record, which put them just a game behind division co-champions Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (10-4), they were able to beat the Steelers for the first time since 1973. And in that contest, an 18-16 decision at Cleveland, the Browns showed their physicality when defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones spiked Steelers HOF quarterback Terry Bradshaw on a sack, putting him out of the game.
That was a huge triumph, for it pumped new life back into the Browns after a 1-3 start that included three straight one-sided defeats, 31-14 at Pittsburgh, 44-13 at Denver and 45-24 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals. The two-point decision over the Steelers was the first of three straight wins, and began a stretch in which the Browns would capture eight of nine games to jump into playoff contention for a time.
However, the year ended on a sour note when a bad Kansas City Chiefs team whipped the Browns 39-14. Gregg was infuriated. The Browns had been eliminated from postseason consideration just before kickoff, and he felt the club, feeling there was nothing left to play for, simply went through the motions.
Still, after winning six more games than they had the season before, 1976 was an unqualified success.
Defensively, the Browns made a real upgrade. After a slow start in which they gave up 120 points in those three consecutive losses to the Steelers, Broncos and Bengals, they surrendered no more than 21 points in a span of nine contests leading up to the finale with the Chiefs.
All-Pro defensive tackle Jerry Sherk was his usual dominant self, and safety Thom Darden had eight interceptions as he came back strong after missing the 1975 season with injuries.
The Browns were winning all the close ones, capturing five games by four points or less. Those spreads would have been larger had the Browns gotten more help from the offense. The attack was better - much better - than it had been the previous two years, but there was still plenty of room to grow.
The Browns scored over 24 points just once - and that was in the season-opening 38-17 win over the New York Jets of first-year coach Lou Holtz, an East Liverpool, Ohio native and an assistant coach on Ohio State's 1968 national championship team.
That game against the Jets was symbolic for another reason, for it represented the passing of the torch at quarterback and the end of the Mike Phipps era.
Phipps had come in the 1970 NFL Draft after the Browns traded future Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for the third overall pick. After helping lead the Browns to the playoffs in 1972, his play regressed along with that of the team overall.
But in 1976, the Browns believed that with a better supporting cast, Phipps could excel. They were right -- partly so, at least.
Phipps was masterful against the Jets until separating his shoulder in the third quarter. His career in Cleveland was over at that point.
Brian Sipe, an obscure 13th-round draft pick in 1972 who had languished on the taxi squad -- the forerunner of today's practice squad - for his first two years, took over and played well by throwing for 17 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. But it would be two more years before he really blossomed.
The Browns' best offensive weapon overall was running back Greg Pruitt, who rushed for 1,000 yards for the second straight year and was No. 2 on the club in pass receptions with 45.
Wide receiver Reggie Rucker led the club in catches for the second time in as many years with the Browns. He had 49, good for eight TDs, or 38 percent of the Browns' total of 21.
|9/12||W 38-17||New York Jets||67,496|
|9/19||L 14-31||at Pittsburgh Steelers||49,169|
|9/26||L 13-44||at Denver Broncos||62,775|
|10/3||L 24-45||Cincinnati Bengals||75,817|
|10/10||W 18-16||Pittsburgh Steelers||76,411|
|10/17||W 20-17||at Atlanta Falcons||33,364|
|10/24||W 21-17||San Diego Chargers||60,018|
|10/31||L 6-21||at Cincinnati Bengals||54,776|
|11/7||W 21-7||at Houston Oilers||39,828|
|11/14||W 24-3||Philadelphia Eagles||62,120|
|11/21||W 24-7||at Tampa Bay Buccaneers||36,930|
|11/28||W 17-13||Miami Dolphins||74,715|
|12/5||W 13-10||Houston Oilers||56,025|
|12/12||L 14-39||at Kansas City Chiefs||34,340|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||259||244|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||89/202||76/188|
|3rd Down Pct.||44.10%||40.40%|
|Total Net Yards||4,542||3,793|
|Avg. Per Game||324.4||270.9|
|Avg. Per Play||4.9||4.4|
|Net Yards Rushing||2,295||1,761|
|Avg. Per Game||163.9||125.8|
|Net Yards Passing||2,247||2,032|
|Avg. Per Game||160.5||145.1|
|Net Punting Avg.||66/31.2||71/32.1|