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Browns QB Frank Ryan passes – Led 1964 NFL Championship team

Last Browns league title 

Cleveland Browns v New York Giants

The Cleveland Browns have captured eight pro football championships: four in the All-America Football Conference (1946, 1947, 1948, 1949), and four in the National Football League (1950, 1952, 1953, 1964)). The franchise is listed as tied for third with the New York Football Giants for the most titles for any professional team behind the Green Bay Packers (13) and the Chicago Bears (9).

The 1964 squad was quarterbacked by Frank Ryan. He passed away on January 1, 2024 at the age of 87 years old in a nursing home in Connecticut. The cause of death was due to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is suspected to have played a role in the progression of the disease. His family was with him when he perished including his wife of 65 years, Joan, who he met in college. The Ryan’s live on 78 acres of heavily wooded land in Grafton, Vermont.

Ryan’s brain has been donated to the Boston University CTE Center for study so that researchers can better understand the effects of repetitive brain trauma on the human nervous system. He is survived by his sons Frank, Jr., Michael, Stuart, and Heberden, a sister Patricia, 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Funeral and memorial arrangements are still being finalized.

1964 NFL Champions

Ryan’s journey to the Browns was an odd experience. He was the backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams after being taken in the fifth round of the 1958 NFL draft out of Rice University where he received a bachelor’s degree in physics.

He played backup to Billy Wade for head coach Sid Gillman’s explosive offensive attack which emphasized the pass more than any other NFL club.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, head coach Paul Brown was having issues with his starting quarterback position ever since Otto Graham had retired after the 1953 season and had gone through an army of signal callers. He settled on Jim Ninowski, who had a cannon for an arm. In training camp of 1962, Coach Brown approached Nino and asked him about the two younger quarterbacks on the roster, and wanted to know which would likely become his backup.

Ninowski gave his analysis on each and then stated that neither was ready to be inserted into a live game in the event he became injured. With that statement, Coach Brown suggested working out a trade with another NFL club to bring in an experienced backup. Player trades back then were very common. Coach Brown offered up Zeke Bratkowski and Frank Ryan of the Rams, or King Hill of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Nino told Coach Brown he liked Ryan because he had played against him when he was with the Rams and thought he would be a good backup.

RELATED: JIM NINOWSKI INTERVIEW

In Week 7 of the 1962 season, Nino was having a terrific season as the Browns began 5-3-0. But Ninowski broke a collarbone in the game. Ryan came in to finish the win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, and for the remainder of the season going 3-3-1 with 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

Backup QB Frank Ryan with head coach Paul Brown

After the season, Coach Brown informed Nino that the job was still his. There was an unwritten rule that the starter could not lose his job due to injury. Then suddenly, Coach Brown was fired. In his stead was his offensive assistant Blanton Collier. Before the following training camp, Cleveland owner Art Modell told Ninowski that he was the team’s starting quarterback.

Ninowski was a teammate of Ryan on that 1964 championship team. He recalls about his and Ryan’s relationship:

“He was a good teammate. We got along well and helped each other out.”

But Coach Collier made it an open competition. Before the final preseason game, he informed both Nino and Ryan that whoever started that game would be the season’s starter. It was Ninowski. Ryan congratulated him before the 16-7 loss. Days later Nino was eating breakfast at a restaurant, picked up the newspaper to which the sports headline read, “Browns to Start Ryan.”

Ninowski continued from his home in Michigan:

“Even though (Ryan) took my job, we never had any issues. But that was more Blanton Collier more than Frank. We played the same position and competed. That is what you do. We competed against each other but were good teammates towards one another. I was sad to hear of his passing.”

Coach Collier had reversed his decision and chose Ryan as his starting quarterback. In 1963, Ryan passed for 2,026 yards with 25 touchdowns, 13 picks, a 52.7% completion ratio, and a QB rating of 90.4. The Browns went 10-4-0 and missed the playoffs by one game.

Frank Ryan On The Field Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

Ryan was a long, athletic guy with a strong arm who was fearless throwing the ball deep down the field. One thing Ryan was: intelligent with an IQ of 155.

He didn’t turn mathematics off during the season but had to find a way to tune it down. Collier and Ryan’s superior brain were a match. Coach Collier had dozens of theories on football, and one of them covers a system of training based on psycho-cybernetics. He believed for years that you can break down any action into its elements and practice each element.

Just so happened that Ryan had been fooling around with this concept for years. There’s a book on it called “Psychocybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz. Ryan’s copy sat at his bedside.

The 1964 season was anything but spectacular. Cleveland was not looked at as the league’s best team as they began 3-1-1 and lost two of their final four games. But they managed to win the Eastern Conference one game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. This placed them into the NFL Championship Game. That was the good news. The bad news was their opponent was the 12-2-0 Baltimore Colts whose offense was explosive and had a very stingy defense. Baltimore was so good they clinched their division with three games remaining on the schedule.

Cleveland Browns vs Baltimore Colts, 1964 NFL Championship

In all, that Colts club had six future Hall of Famers including QB Johnny Unitas plus head coach Don Shula. Baltimore came into the NFL Championship Game as seven-point favorites despite being on the road.

The score at the half was 0-0 with attendance announced as 79,544 which was the largest at the time for the championship game. It was the first NFL title game to be televised by CBS Network broadcast in black and white. The game-time temperature of 34 degrees felt much colder in 15- to 25-mph winds coming off of Lake Erie.

WR Gary Collins caught three second-half touchdown passes from Ryan with two Lou Groza field goals as the Cleveland defense stymied the vaulted Colts’ offense to win 27-0 as Collins was named the game’s MVP. Ryan went 11-18 for 206 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, one sack, and a QB rating of 117.1.

The Browns’ 1964 NFL title would become the last championship the city would win in professional sports until the Cleveland Cavaliers took home the NBA title in 2016.

Later, Ryan made national news when the New York Jets signed QB Joe Namath with the NFL-rival American Football League for $400,000. This was a time when most quarterbacks were making in the neighborhood of $15,000-$25,000 a year. Ryan made $18,000 in 1964.

Ryan was quoted in the papers as saying, “If a fellow who hasn’t even pulled on his cleats in pro ball is worth $400,000, then I must be worth a million dollars.”

But that quote had been shortened. It seems this one sportswriter slipped up on Ryan and Sonny Jurgensen and two or three other players at an event when the men were speaking amongst themselves. Jurgensen said, “If Namath is worth $400,000 I guess you’re gonna ask for a $300,000 raise,” implying that Ryan made $100,000.

Frank Ryan’s 1964 NFL Championship ring

Then Ryan replied, “No, but if Namath is worth $400,000 then I’m worth a million and Unitas is worth $10 million.” The headlines in the Los Angeles papers read “RYAN SAYS HE’S WORTH A MILLION.”

Ryan telephoned the sportswriter and asked him why he rearranged the story. The writer confessed that he had scribbled some notes and then had to reconstruct the details from memory, and then place quotes around it.

Because of this one incident, Ryan had a very low regard for sportswriters during his playing career and was very particular about being quoted correctly. He steered clear of interviews including later in life. Oddly enough, his wife Joan was a nationally syndicated sports columnist for the Washington Post. She became one of the first female writers to enter an NFL locker room after a game.

Reporters didn’t always print Ryan’s intent and subtleties and he had to learn the hard way. Sportswriters weren’t going to change all the techniques of journalism just to please Frank Ryan. He just seemed to be one of those people who was misunderstanding-prone.

Post-Browns

Ryan was a math whiz. He always was even as he played the game of professional football. Always as a player, Ryan would attempt to make the game better or different by applying his intellect and theories to strategies that would or would not work. Coach Brown had once told him he had sure better sharpen his pencil in football. He would have issues switching from play-calling to the mechanics. Every time he tried to mastermind the game, he would achieve failure instead.

As the quarterback, the art of play-calling was a matter of intuition. A lot of what is called in the game came from film study which would require concentration. He would work very hard to weed out all the superfluous stuff and get to the heart of the matter so that his intuition was attuned to the heart of the matter when he played the game. To him, learning a multitude of plays was the easiest part of the game.

Cardinals v Browns Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Being the brain, Ryan had to learn of how to corral his intuitions and rely on his instincts more. Ryan also had to learn how to relax and not place so much responsibility on his own shoulders during each game. He was blessed with an exceptional offensive line led by Gene Hickerson, John Wooten, and Dick Schafrath, plus had Jimmy Brown and Ernie Green in the backfield and Collins and Paul Warfield to throw to.

After the championship season, Ryan’s numbers dropped. He had been playing on a sore shoulder for 1964 that lingered. By training camp of 1965, the shoulder was fine but he had a sore elbow and an injured arch early in the season. His inconsistent play was heckled and booed by Cleveland faithful during the year. The Browns again won their division and met the Packers in the NFL Championship Game but lost 23-12. Green Bay went on and played in Super Bowl 1.

In 1966 Ryan had a spectacular season leading the league in TD passes (29) and was second in passing yards (2,976). This was the first season without Jim Brown, who had abruptly retired during the off-season.

In January of 1967, Ryan had surgery to repair the effects of his injuries. This eliminated the pain he suffered, but the end result was that his throwing motion was different. During the year he had two sprained ankles along with shoulder and knee issues. He also suffered a concussion from a head-to-head collision with Chicago Bears LB Dick Butkus. The following season after a 1-2-0 start, Coach Collier benched Ryan. The Browns won their division with Bill Nelsen under center. After training camp in 1969, Ryan was released.

The Washington Redskins were now coached by Vince Lombardi. He signed Ryan as his new backup. He played in two games in two seasons and then retired.

Dallas Cowboys v Cleveland Browns

During his 13-year playing career, seven with Cleveland, Ryan passed for 16,042 yards with 1,090 completions on 2,133 attempts, 149 touchdowns, 111 interceptions, a 51.1% completion ratio, and a QB rating of 77.6. He went 57-27-3 as a starter. With his accurate throwing arm, his 14.7 yards per completion still ranks as one of the all-time leaders.

Paul Wiggin played defensive end for the Browns and was another teammate of Ryan’s on that 1964 Championship team. He was also one of Ryan’s friends despite one being a defensive player and the other suited up on offense. He said:

“Ryan had gotten a house and then bought another house. My wife Carolyn and I rented the first house from him. He was special and I was close to Frank. Just a brilliant man and an effective passer. My wife and I were talking about how much of a loss his passing is.”

RELATED: PAUL WIGGIN INTERVIEW

Ryan had been named to the Pro Bowl three times all with the Browns and led the league in passing touchdowns in 1964 and 1966. He would later be inducted into the Browns Legends in 2005.

The Wiggin family and the Ryan’s once took a trip together to Mexico. Frank had rented a house for a month and invited Paul and his family to join them for two weeks.

“They were great friends and we did a lot of things together away from the field and even got together many times after we both retired from the game. I think he won’t go down in history as an effective leader because he was so damn bright. He had a great relationship with offensive coordinator Dub Jones. Frank was a unique and complicated guy in a positive way. I really cared for him.”

During his playing career, Ryan attended Rice and started teaching in the off-season. In 1965 he earned his Ph.D. and later received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. In 1967 he became an assistant professor at the Case Institute of Technology and had a full teaching load until each season’s training camp began. And even then, he taught math in the morning and attended practices in the afternoon.

After retiring from the Redskins, now Dr. Ryan was named director of information services for the U.S. House of Representatives in D.C. He was part of a team that helped advance the computer age in politics by playing an integral role in establishing the body’s first electronic voting system. By the time Dr. Ryan left, the office had an annual budget of $8 million with a staff of 225.

Dr. Ryan then served for 10 years as athletic director and lecturer in mathematics at Yale University. He was elevated to the school’s associate vice president for institutional planning. His tenure at Yale is how the Ryan's became enamored with living in Vermont.

In 1990, Dr. Ryan went back to Rice and became their vice president for external affairs and helped raise that school’s annual gifts to a three-year average of $32.8 million. He ended his institutional career as a professor of mathematics, and professor of computational and applied mathematics at Rice.

Regarding Dr. Ryan’s intellect, Wiggin further explained:

“Frank was absolutely brilliant. He took the House of Representatives voting system and changed it completely from 45 minutes to 15. He had the ability to come to the conclusion so fast on so many different levels.”

Dr. Ryan’s next venture was to become President and Chief Executive Officer of Contex Electronics. A large corporation, this company designed and manufactured cable and interconnect products for the computer and communications industries until his retirement. Even after retiring, he remained busy. He ran a self-designed program that helps micro-analyze the statistical behavior of the up-and-down pricing movement that underlies the pricing behavior of the futures market.

Dr. Ryan’s retirement years were mostly in good health. He had cervical disc replacement in later years that he credited as an after-effect of the Butkus collision.

Dr. Ryan ranks fourth all-time among Browns quarterbacks with his 13,499 passing yards and second behind Brian Sipe with 134 touchdowns.

Wiggin concluded:

“Frank was an anomaly in the world we lived in playing professional football. We were never on that level. Brilliant. Frank had once told his wife that playing quarterback and getting a barrage of defenders hitting him was like taking a chair, placing it on a table, and then someone pushing you off backward onto the floor. For my wife and me, it is an emotional loss.”

What Dr. Frank Ryan did in the classroom had nothing to do with what he did on the football field. He studied game films intently but also blended in with his teammates’ camaraderie, though his life off the field was decidedly odd for a pro football player.

But there is one thing that Dr. Ryan always had in common with his Browns teammates: a championship ring with the numbers 1-9-6-4 inscribed on it.