Going into the 1964 season, the Cleveland Browns had already won seven championships. Head coach Paul Brown had been fired at the conclusion of the 1962 season after a 7-6-1 finish. In his stead was his OC, Blanton Collier. The 1963 roster went 10-4-0 and just missed the playoffs.
FB Jim Brown was drafted by Coach Brown in 1957 out of Syracuse University. Since he came into the league, Brown had been to six Pro Bowls, was the NFL rushing yards leader six times, NFL rushing touchdown leader four times, was the NFL scoring leader in 1958, was named First Team All-Pro six different years, and was the NFL MVP twice.
At that point, Brown had rushed for 9,322 yards in just seven seasons and had scored 76 touchdowns.
The last championship Cleveland won was in 1954 and again in 1955. After that final title game, legendary quarterback Otto Graham officially retired. At the end of his career, he had won the most pro football championships in the history of the sport with seven. Only Tom Brady has equaled that accomplishment since. Graham won his titles with one club while Brady gathered a championship with two teams.
At the beginning of 1964, as head coach Collier was preparing for training camp, there was some buzz about the Browns possibly trading their superstar runner Jim Brown.
Maybe it wasn’t a buzz, but more of a statement.
Graham had watched his Browns flounder for seven years after hanging up his cleats. One thing Cleveland had always accomplished when Graham was under center, was play for championships.
But now the franchise was different and wasn’t the scoring machine it once was while Graham was the offensive’s commander. The passing game had fallen by the wayside as the team now ran three out of four plays.
When Graham was invited to a social event in Canton, Ohio as their featured guest two weeks before the 1964 season opener, after the meal was completed and while waiting for the dessert phase, Graham took the podium. He reminisced, spoke of championship years and title runs, former players, and his former head coach, and then he proceeded to discuss the state of the current roster.
What was said next was unexpected – and shocking.
He told the house of about 150 die-hard fans that the Browns should trade Jim Brown.
Graham’s reasoning was that the talented fullback was not a complete team player. In fact, he was a poor blocker and additionally did not even attempt to fake getting the handoff on deception plays which resulted in a pass.
As Graham proceeded, since Cleveland was running so many times in each game usually to Brown, a good fake by Brown would draw defenders away from the offensive backfield, garner more time for the quarterback to survey the field and go through his progressions. A half-ass fake did not fool anyone.
Back then, fakes and disguises were more prevalent. The quarterback had a wider array of faking options and used them constantly in order to move defenders away from the actual play. Blocking became a more nuanced process of delaying or interfering with a defender rather than flattening him.
And blocking skills? According to arguably Cleveland’s greatest quarterback, Brown consistently did not even attempt to block when another runner had the rare chance to get a carry or especially on passing downs.
That part was pretty much the truth. Brown rarely blocked or even attempted to engage.
“The Browns will not win anything as long as Jim Brown is there. Chew on that for a while,” was Graham’s take. “I would tell the fullback that I would trade him if he didn’t block and fake.”
Rally to Jim Brown’s defense
Understand that teams in those days usually had three players in the backfield at all times who could run the ball: quarterback, halfback, and fullback. Early on in Jim Brown’s career, the halfback was Bobby Mitchell while Brown was listed as the fullback even up until his retirement. Being a fullback changed in later years as mostly a blocking back, but in these times, all three were runners and got carries each game.
Cleveland owner Art Modell was very vocal about Graham’s comments when he got wind of the former QB’s comments. Graham was long gone when Modell bought the Browns in 1961 so the love and respect wasn’t there. They never had any sort of relationship.
Modell stated: “It’s tragic that a man who has taken so much out of pro football and played so brilliantly himself sees fit to demean one of the greatest players of all time, especially at the onset of a new season. It’s obvious that Otto Graham is not the coach of the Browns.”
Collier offered, “Don’t blame him until we ask him to do that consistently. Blame me, not Jim. He has done everything I asked.”
The local newspapers took Graham’s comments and examined if his accusations were indeed factual. After all, they were at every game.
Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor Gordon Cobbledick wrote: “In the judgment of his coach, Blanton Collier, he performs a more useful function in other areas, as a decoy rather than a blocker. This is an option that also was shared by Paul Brown.”
It is true that Brown was used in situations to garner attention from the defense. He was also kept in as an extra blocker at times but would chip a man and then flare out into the flats as a final option for a short pass if all of the other receivers were covered downfield.
Bill Scholl noted in the Cleveland Press, “It is true that Jim Brown is not a good blocker. Sometimes he doesn’t block at all. But he carried the ball on 74% of the running plays last season. This means there were only seven running plays a game where Jim Brown had the opportunity to block for someone else.”
Some agreed with Graham. The future owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ted Stepien, offered this in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as an opinion letter:
“In the past several years, you writers have set up Jim Brown like a great idol. I read his article in Look Magazine - that was enough for me. I have no regard for someone who takes this kind of position. His personal attitude about the races and his lack of blocking ability won't produce a winner here.”
Then Browns’ starting quarterback Frank Ryan chimed in.
“What Graham doesn’t realize is that the pro football parade has passed him by,” Ryan said. “There have been many changes since he played. It wasn’t Jim Brown’s fault that we lost out on the title last year, it was mine. If Otto Graham has any advice, he should direct it at me.”
Brown and Graham had never been teammates as Graham had retired two years earlier. Graham also stated that his teammate Marion Motley was the franchise’s greatest fullback.
After hearing Graham’s comments, Brown stated very politely, “Every fan has a right to his opinion.” Calling Graham “a fan” pretty much said it all.
Before the 1964 season commenced, Modell surprised everyone on the roster when he gave Jim Brown a new contract for $50,000 a season which was a $10,000 raise from 1963. This made Brown the highest-paid player in the league.
For Brown, the response he received from his owner, head coach, and the press gave him positive affirmation.
But it also did something else. Graham’s comments inspired him. Being an obstinate man, Brown was now on a mission and wanted his critics to retract their statements. Brown began to work on his blocking skills and during the 1964 season became a bruising force when he led other runners such as Ernie Green.
In 1964, Cleveland went 10-3-1 and won the Eastern Division title. This set them up in the NFL Championship Game as a 17-point underdog against the mighty Baltimore Colts which had posted a 12-2-0 record. Played in temperatures of 15 degrees wind chill, the Browns won 27-0 in front of an overflow home crowd of 79,544.
Receiver Gary Collins had three touchdown catches as the Browns stymied Baltimore with more of a passing attack. Brown did not score but ran well and played more of a decoy.
And he blocked.