The 1972 Cleveland Browns were a very good football team. They lost to the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs, at the time the 14-0-0 Dolphins, by a score of 20-14. But they should have won the game. They had Miami, but let the game slip away.
This season marked a nine-year span in which Cleveland made the playoffs seven years.
The year began by going 0-5 in the preseason. With a 26-10 opening day loss to the Green Bay Packers, all the work, hopes and dreams created in training camp for head coach Nick Skorich appeared to be for naught. But they went 2-2 in the next four games with victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and division rival Cincinnati Bengals in order to develop a more fruitful 2-3-0 record.
Showdown with the Emerging Steelers
Next up was a tear as the Browns ripped off four wins. This set up a heated division matchup with the division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were just now beginning to become a good club after hiring Chuck Noll as their head coach and had only one winning season to this point. They were not the team of the 1970s just yet, but this season was the beginning of that trend. They were 7-2-0 at the time while Cleveland was right behind at 6-3-0. The contest was exciting in front of 83,009 patrons at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.
After trading field goals, the Browns went ahead by 17 points with a Mike Phipps score from the one, a 17-yard TD pass from Phipps to Frank Pitts, and a second Don Cockroft FG. Right before the half, Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw hit tackle-eligible Gerry Mullins with a 3-yard pass to cut the lead to 20-10.
In the third quarter, another Cockroft FG brought the score to 23-10. But the Steelers came back with two TD runs, one a spectacular 75-yard gallop by Franco Harris, to go ahead 24-23. Then Cockroft nailed a 26-yard FG, his fourth of the game, the end result a 26-24 Pittsburgh defeat. And suddenly the Browns and Steelers were all tied up with identical 7-3-0 records.
A Team of Potential Stars
Cockroft was an absolute gem that season. He finished with 22-27 FGs and 28 PATs, but his punting double-duty was incredible. He led the league in punting in 1972 with a 43.2 average, over two yards a punt better than the player listed number two and netted more yards total than any other punter.
The Browns that year were led by QB Mike Phipps. He was in his first year behind center after being drafted the third overall pick in the first-round in 1970 out of Purdue after the Browns traded WR Paul Warfield to Miami. Bill Nelsen started the year at the QB position, but had bad knees and after the horrid 2-3 start, Phipps was inserted. This season he would pass for 1,994 yards from 144 completions tossed from 305 passes for a below-average 47.2 completion percentage. Not to mention his 16 INTs did not eclipse the 13 TDs he threw. But he was a steady player and could run when he needed to. He wasn’t the most accurate QB the Browns ever employed, but he was finally the starter after being taken in the first-round and could make plays when needed.
The running backs were Leroy Kelly and Bo Scott. Kelly was basically an anomaly since being taken in the eighth-round in 1964. Coming into the 1972 season he had been named to six Pro Bowls, was an NFL champion (1964), led the league three years straight in rushing TDs (1966-1968) and led the league in rushing twice (1967-1968). But now he was older and although he had lost a step, he was still the pounding back the club had always depended upon. He also had great hands out of the backfield.
With Kelly’s 811 rushing yards coupled with Scott’s 571 yards, the Browns had a sweet tandem backfield with a great change-of-pace from Kelly’s ramrod style to Scott’s speed.
A Playoff Run and a Great Defense
After defeating the Steelers and a share of the division lead, the Browns beat the Buffalo Bills 27-10 while the Steelers bested the Minnesota Vikings 23-10. This set up a rematch with the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The Browns defense was superb in the first half, with the Steelers only getting a Roy Gerela FG in quarter one and a one-yard goal line stand rushing TD by Harris to take a 10-0 halftime lead. But Pittsburgh netted another TD in the third stanza to go up 17-0 as the Browns offense was stagnant. Another TD coupled with two more Gerela FGs took a close game into a 30-0 rout. Phipps had just 59 yards passing while Kelly and Scott combined for 71 yards on the ground. Phipps was sacked four times and the offense lost two fumbles.
The Steelers and Browns both won their final two games, with Pittsburgh winning their first-ever division title at 11-3-0 with the Browns right behind at 10-4-0.
All season long the offense had its issues, but it was the defensive effort that came through for the Browns game-after-game. Only twice did this unit give up more than 30 points plus netted a shutout. Four games were won with the opponent scoring less than 10 points. Led by safety Thom Darden and CB Ben Davis, along with Walter Johnson, Jerry Sherk and Bob Briggs along the defensive line, and Billy Andrews and Charlie Hall at LB. This unit finished ninth in both league total points (249) and points per game (17.8), and sixth in total TDs allowed with 27.
When the playoffs were slotted, the Steelers were set up with a rematch of the Oakland Raiders, which they defeated in Week One 34-28. This playoff game, a 17-13 Pittsburgh victory, is the home to the “Immaculate Reception.”
The Browns were pitted against the undefeated Dolphins down in the Orange Bowl in Miami on Christmas Eve. Before a standing-room only crowd of 78,196 under perfect warm, sunny skies, the Divisional Round game had the Dolphins as 12 1/2 point favorites.
The irony of the game was that it was the trade of former Brown Paul Warfield that allowed Cleveland to select Phipps. Now, they would face off on opposite sides of the field. Warfield was one of the most talented receivers in the NFL and would eventually be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Phipps first pass of the game was tipped and then intercepted by Dolphin LB Doug Swift. It would mark the beginnings of a horrible first half effort for the Browns. Later in the first quarter, Miami’s Charlie Babb blocked a Cockroft punt, then picked up the loose ball for the game’s first score. Later, Warfield was wide open for a long pass when DE Bob Briggs broke free and hit Miami QB Earl Morrall just as he released the ball to make an erratic throw, but could have been a 14-0 advantage. Garo Yepremian would add a 40-yard FG as the Dolphins would lead 10-0.
In the second quarter, Scott broke free for several big runs. Sitting at the Dolphins’ 25, Phipps just missed hitting Pitts for a TD pass. The very next play Phipps threw an INT which negated the Browns’ best drive of the day. The Browns’ defense played magnificent and stifled the Dolphins torrid running attack time-after-time. Sherk and Johnson were also constantly in the Miami backfield disrupting the passing attack of their opponent. The Dolphins netted just 12 yards through the air in the first half.
After a scoreless second quarter sparked by the Browns’ defense, Cleveland saw that they were only down 10 points at intermission.
Early in the third quarter, Darden ran back a punt 38-yards down the right sideline. A 21-yard Phipps to TE Milt Morin placed the ball at the Dolphins 23 followed by a Fair Hooker catch that now set the ball in scoring position at the nine. Phipps then rolled out to his right then continued a scramble and then scored. With Cockroft’s PAT, the Browns had cut the lead to 10-7.
Going into the final stanza, Yepremian added a 46-yard FG to up the score to 13-7. Scott continued his success of several large gains for great field position in Miami territory. Phipps then threw another INT to Dolphin safety Dick Anderson, who then fumbled the ball on the runback to which Hooker recovered at the Miami 27. The following play, Phipps found Hooker in the end zone for a TD. The Browns fans in attendance went wild. With Cockroft’s PAT, Cleveland now led 14-13 with 8:11 to go in the fourth quarter.
Enter Warfield. Morrall hit his favorite wideout who had gained a step on CB Ben Davis for 60-yards. An interference call then placed the ball on the eight, to which Dolphin RB Jim Kiick scored up the middle.
With less than a minute remaining, the Browns mounted a last ditch effort to win the game 20-14. But another Swift INT at the Miami 20-yard line sealed the hard-fought victory for the Dolphins. The Browns were on the cusp of beating the unbeatable Miami Dolphins, and had their chance. Turnovers killed Cleveland in the game. In the end, Phipps had tossed five interceptions.
There have many NFL clubs that have ended their season undefeated but had tied a game or two, but never one that went undefeated and untied. Two games after the Browns near defeat, the Dolphins would capture Super Bowl VII and cement their place in the annals of one of the greatest teams ever with a perfect 17-0-0 record.
But with 8:11 left on a game clock, the Browns had visions of being the better team.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.