It was supposed to be the season of dreams.
The 1995 Browns were finally going to make it to the Super Bowl, adding to their already impressive resume the one thing that was lacking.
The fans were primed for it.
So, too, were the players and coaches.
And also the national media. None other than Sports Illustrated picked the Browns to get to the big game and lose to the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, 34-13.
All this came after the Browns finished 1994 at 11-5 and made it to the AFC playoffs for the first time in five years by earning a wild-card spot. With most of the key components returning, and with a core of young, talented players all maturing at the same time, there was every reason to believe they would make the next step -- or two or three.
They were everybody's hot pick that year.
The Super Bowl would be held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. The Browns played a preseason game there against the Arizona Cardinals to get the lay of the land for what they hoped would be a return trip in about five months.
And in a bizarre, sad way, 1995 did indeed turn out to be a season of dreams for the Browns.
Only these were bad dreams, nightmares.
The Browns ended the year far from home, but not in the Greater Phoenix area. Instead, it was in Baltimore.
And not on that long-awaited glorious journey to the Super Bowl, but instead for a journey into oblivion.
The Super Bowl teams that year, the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, eventually returned home. The Browns did not. Once the 1995 season was over, they packed up and moved to the East Coast to be renamed the Baltimore Ravens -- all in the franchise's 50th year.
Members of the Browns ownership team were going to wait until after the year to announce the move, but their plans were thwarted when the story broke late on Friday night, Nov. 3, just as the club was finalizing preparations to host the AFC Central rival Houston Oilers at Cleveland Stadium about 36 hours later.
The official announcement was made in Baltimore on Nov. 6 in a parking lot next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. On that site would be built a state-of-the-art stadium for the transplanted Browns, returning football to Baltimore for the first time since the Colts moved to Indianapolis following the 1983 season.
The move caused outrage in Cleveland and elsewhere, the likes of which no one in pro sports had ever seen. The Browns became a national story after all.
All the furor cast a pall over the final seven games of the season. The Browns played out the schedule -- they had to -- but for the first time in history, their games were just small sidebars to everything else that was transpiring.
Ironically, beginning in training camp and continuing into the preseason and the first part of regular season, the Browns backed up the optimism about them by playing impressively. Just a week into camp, the Browns went to Platteville, Wis., Chicago's training site, for the third straight year to work against the Bears. The three-day event ended with a Saturday morning scrimmage, and the Browns beat up a club that had finished 9-7 and made the playoffs in 1994 and would go 9-7 again in '95. It looked like men playing against boys.
Two weeks later, on a Monday night, the teams met at Cleveland in the second preseason game and the Browns crushed the Bears again, 55-13, scoring the second-most points in club preseason history. The fact the team record was set against the Los Angeles Rams in a 56-31 win in 1964, the last time the Browns won the NFL championship, made everybody believe even more convincingly that the stars were aligning themselves in just the right way for postseason history to repeat itself for the club.
In addition, the Browns played that game without starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who was hospitalized with concussion problems. Starting in his place was rookie Eric Zeier, the first of the team's two third-round picks in the NFL Draft. He looked like Otto Graham, completing 14-of-16 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown, thus fueling an already simmering quarterback controversy between him and Testaverde.
In the regular-season opener at New England, the Browns lost a late lead and the game, 17-14. But there was no shame in that, for the Patriots, after falling to the Browns in the playoffs eight months before, had lofty aspirations as well.
Then the Browns got rolling, winning three straight, the last of which was a 35-17 whipping of the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that had made five straight playoff appearances. Now there could be no denying it: The Browns, at 3-1 and flexing their muscles, outscoring their three victims by a combined total of 71-30, were a team to be reckoned with.
The city was agog. The streaking Browns were set to host the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football in their next game, and the following evening, the Cleveland Indians would play their first postseason contest in 41 years when they hosted the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series.
Then, for whatever reason, just as it seemed when nothing could stop them, the roof started caving in on the Browns. They lost 22-19 to the Bills on a field goal with five seconds left, then followed that up with two more defeats, 38-20 to the Detroit Lions and -- in embarrassing fashion -- 23-15 to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.
They were 3-4 and in a free fall as they prepared to visit Cincinnati. About 18 hours after the Atlanta Braves had clinched the World Series with a Game 6 victory over the Indians, the Browns edged the Bengals 29-26 in overtime. The hero was Zeier. Given the start after Testaverde was benched for ineffective play, Zeier he responded with a career performance, connecting on 26-of-46 passes for 310 yards and two scores with one interception.
At 4-4 and coming off that big win, the Browns seemed to have their confidence back and looked ready to make a big push in the second half of the year. By the time they played again, though, playoff possibilities would be the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
Entangled in the mother of all controversies with the news of the team's impending move, the Browns were down against a bad Oilers team and got flattened, 37-10. It was the most points the Browns would surrender all year, and the most since early in 1991, in Bill Belichick's sixth game as head coach.
That was also the first of six straight defeats, by far the longest losing streak in the Belichick era.
With emotion flowing for both players and fans, the Browns righted themselves to defeat the Bengals 26-10 at Cleveland in their final home game. Ironically, it came against the team founded by the man who had served as their first head coach in 1946, Paul Brown. The contest was marked by the surreal scene of fans ripping up portions of the Stadium and carting them home.
The holiday season had already been ruined for all Browns fans, but an exclamation point was put behind their misery when, on Christmas Eve, the Jaguars completed the season series sweep with a 24-21 triumph.
So in these last two weeks, things had pretty much come full-circle for the Browns.
They finished 5-11, a complete turnaround from their 11-5 mark of the previous year. And in many other aspects, too, obviously, their season was a 180-degree turn from what everyone thought it would be.
For the first time in a half-century, Browns fans wouldn't be spending the offseason looking to the following year. Instead, they would be digging in to try to get their team back, or to get the promise of a team of some kind coming to Cleveland as soon as possible.
|9/3||L14-17||at New England Patriots||60,126|
|9/10||W22-6||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||61,083|
|9/17||W14-7||at Houston Oilers||36,077|
|9/24||W35-17||Kansas City Chiefs||74,280|
|10/8||L20-38||at Detroit Lions||74,171|
|10/29||W29-26||at Cincinnati Bengals (OT)||58,639|
|11/13||L3-20||at Pittsburgh Steelers||58,675|
|11/19||L20-31||Green Bay Packers||55,388|
|12/3||L13-31||at San Diego Chargers||56,358|
|12/9||L11-27||at Minnesota Vikings||47,984|
|12/24||L21-24||at Jacksonville Jaguars||66,007|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||293||342|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||85/211||112/226|
|3rd Down Pct.||40.30%||49.60%|
|4th Down: Made/Att||10/21||7/14|
|4th Down Pct.||47.60%||50.00%|
|Total Net Yards||5,076||5,648|
|Avg. Per Game||317.3||353|
|Avg. Per Play||5.2||5.2|
|Net Yards Rushing||1,482||1,826|
|Avg. Per Game||92.6||114.1|
|Net Yards Passing||3,594||3,822|
|Avg. Per Game||224.6||238.9|
|Net Punting Avg.||65/39.0||59/37.4|