Saturday, February 29, 2020

The 1954 Cleveland Browns

by Andy Piascik 

The Cleveland Browns were in an odd position as the 1954 season began. They were unquestionably one of the elite teams in the NFL after only four seasons in the league and their streak of playing in their league championship game every year was at a remarkable eight straight. Even in just their four years in the NFL, their 40-8 record was far and away the best in the league in that span.

On the other hand, the Browns had lost three consecutive Championship Games. Included in those were losses by the 1951 and 1953 teams which had both posted records of 11-1, the best in the NFL in those seasons. All three of the games had been up for grabs until almost the very end but, as the Browns and their fans were learning all too well, a narrow, late defeat in a big game often leaves a more bitter taste than a subpar season or a blowout loss. The taste from three straight close losses is that much more bitter. And the 17-16 title game loss to the Lions the previous December was the most bitter-tasting of all, as Cleveland led until a Detroit touchdown with 2:07 remaining decided the game.

There was also uncertainty around key personnel. Cleveland’s great middle guard Bill Willis retired in the offseason, and the great fullback Marion Motley did likewise in training camp after being told by coach Paul Brown that he was not going to make the team. Two mainstays who had been with the team from the beginning, offensive guard Lin Houston and defensive end George Young, also retired. And five-year veteran linebacker Tommy Thompson, a First-team All-Pro the year before, was forced to quit when it became clear he would not recover sufficiently from a serious knee injury suffered near the end of the 1953 season.

Mike McCormack
The final piece of one of Brown’s best trades, middle guard Mike McCormack joined Cleveland in 1954 after two years in the army. McCormack had come to the Browns from the Colts in a 15-player deal the year before in which Cleveland also acquired defensive tackle Don Colo and linebacker Tom Catlin. McCormack would move to offensive tackle in 1955, but in 1954 he took over for Willis at middle guard and added another dimension to the Cleveland defense. Willis was incredibly quick and was tremendous in pursuit but McCormack was 25 pounds heavier and somewhat tougher against the inside running game. Colo, who had joined Cleveland in 1953, was a bruising presence who played with a bit of nastiness that was one of the reasons Brown traded for him. As Brown put it, the fact that his players didn’t like playing against Colo was as good a recommendation as any.

Doug Atkins
One other very big personnel question concerned 6’8”, 260-pound defensive end Doug Atkins. Atkins had been Cleveland’s first-round pick in the 1953 draft, the 11th selection overall, out of the University of Tennessee. He had been a superb athlete in multiple sports in high school and college, and had agility, leaping ability and specifically the ability to hurdle blockers, that is rarely seen in a man his size. In short, Atkins was the rare player that a team could potentially build its defense around for a decade and more.

The problem was that Atkins was not Paul Brown’s kind of player or person. Atkins had an individualistic streak and was somewhat lacking in desire, and Brown rode him hard throughout 1953. Despite his great ability, Atkins played behind George Young in his rookie year. He did not take well to Brown’s riding and has said that his weight was all the way down to 220 pounds by season’s end because of the stress.

Even with Young’s retirement, Atkins did not crack Cleveland’s starting line-up in 1954. Brown instead chose for the job nondescript Carlton Massey, a rookie who would be traded a few years later and played just five seasons, compared to Atkins’ 17. Atkins would endure another stressful year under Brown’s hypocritical standards that he never applied across the board and then be traded in the first of a succession of terrible personnel decisions by the Cleveland coach and general manager.

A Slow Start
Cleveland’s season began badly as they were soundly beaten in two of their first three games. At 1-2, the Browns were two and a half games behind the 4-0 Eagles in a season with only 12 games and no wildcards. In what was likely a big break, Cleveland’s game against the Lions from the second week of the season on October 3rd was postponed to December 19th because of a possible conflict with the World Series. The Lions were two-time defending champions, had blown out the Bears in their opener, and had a penchant for beating the Browns. The postponement of the game at a time when Cleveland was clearly struggling may very well have prevented a 1-3 start.

Righting the Ship Big Time
Paul Brown was probably not a happy camper in the week leading up to the October 24th game against the Cardinals. No Browns team had ever been 1-2 and there were likely many fans, players, coaches, sportswriters and others around the league wondering if this might finally be the year when Cleveland did not finish first. The Cardinals were easy fodder as usual, however, and the Browns romped in Comiskey Park, 31-7, to improve to 2-2. What not even Paul Brown or the most optimistic Browns follower could have foreseen is that the game marked the beginning of a run of defensive play unlike any in Cleveland’s great 1946-55 run, which is saying something because the Browns did some incredible things on defense during those ten years.

7.2 Per
 Beginning with that Cardinals game, the Browns won eight straight. During that span, plus the season finale loss to the Lions, Cleveland allowed only 72 points. That doesn’t come close to what the Steelers did over the same number of games in 1976, for one, but it’s pretty darn good, all the more given that the 1950s were a high-scoring era.  Since seven of the points Cleveland allowed came as a result of a punt return, their defense’s share was actually 65 points in nine games or 7.2 per.

Spearheading the turnaround was a run-stuffing front seven par excellence as Cleveland allowed only 1,050 rushing yards for the season, a mere 87 per game. Over the final nine games, the Browns allowed 67 yards a game and 2.36 per carry. The spirited play of newcomer McCormack at middle guard was a big factor. The Browns also had three tackles who were extremely difficult to move and enjoyed nothing more than wreaking havoc on misguided ball carriers who dared to invade their turf. The 6’3”, 250-pound Colo was the best of the bunch and he was not averse to adding a well-aimed fist or forearm to the mix.

John Kissell was much like Colo, though maybe even nastier. Teammates described him as the nicest guy in the world until he got on a football field. Two decades before Bob Brown made an impression on John Madden and his new Raiders’ teammates by destroying a goalpost one day in practice, Dante Lavelli remembered Kissell doing the very same thing.

Bob Gain was the third of the tackle trio. Cut from the same cloth as Colo and Kissell, he was even bigger at 6’4” and 260 pounds. Though he only played the latter part of the season because of an army commitment, the 1950 Outland Trophy winner was a welcome addition. Gain had a strong surge off the ball and a certain fondness for landing on the back of downed quarterbacks and ball carriers, preferably with both knees.

Overall, the 1954 Browns defense was a very well-coordinated unit. None of the tackles had particularly good lateral movement nor did any of the three get to the quarterback more than a few times. What they did do consistently was shut down the inside running game and crush the pass pocket from the middle, likely even to the satisfaction of a stern taskmaster like their head coach.

Len Ford
For getting to the quarterback, the defense relied primarily on right end Len Ford. Perhaps the first great pass rushing defensive end, Ford was the main beneficiary of all that pocket crushing. His sack total in 1954 may not have been as high as previous years but he was still as feared a defensive player as any in the league. With push from the tackles, Carlton Massey at least holding his own at left end and Ford overpowering from the right, we see again and again on film jittery quarterbacks scrambling for their lives or forced into incompletions and interceptions from having to throw earlier than planned.

They Can’t Pass, Either
Linebackers Tom Catlin and Walt Michaels, with Tony Adamle as a back-up, were Paul Brown types much like Colo, Kissell and Gain: rugged but disciplined players. While Brown allowed Ford some freedom, he required middle guard McCormack and the linebackers to pay strict attention to their responsibilities. They did, and the results were games where teams simply could not run the ball no matter how hard they tried: the Redskins ran 25 times for 33 yards and an average of 1.3; the Bears rushed 22 times for 37 yards and 1.7; the Eagles 32 times for 57 yards and 1.8; and the Cardinals 25 times for 60 yards and 2.4. The Western Conference champ Lions, who averaged 4.2 per rush in the rest of their games, went for just 2.7 on 33 carries and 90 yards. Then there were the Giants, who in their second game against the Browns totaled 4 yards on 21 rushes good for 0.1 yards an attempt.   

Cleveland’s pass defense was the best in the league, too. The front seven consistently created favorable down and distance situations and the experienced secondary of Warren Lahr, Don Paul, Tommy James and Ken Gorgal did its part. Cleveland allowed the fewest passing yards good for an average of just 134 per game highlighted by games in which they allowed impressively low net totals of 31, 53, 64 and 75. Opponents’ passer rating, using the system in place since the 1970s, was 44.1.

Overall, the total yardage figure was 221.5 allowed per game, by far the best in the NFL. After the slow start, Cleveland allowed 169 total yards per game over their final nine. In their four games in the month of November, the Browns allowed a total of 444 yards from scrimmage or 111 a game. They also achieved something only a handful of teams in NFL history have by allowing the fewest rushing and passing yards in the same season. And for the third time in four seasons, they allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

Otto Graham and Company
As for the offense, though not as powerful as in some previous years, it was hardly chopped liver. Otto Graham had an okay season for him that was good enough for second among the league’s passers and First-team honors on virtually all of the All-Pro teams. End Dante Lavelli remained one of the best receivers around as he finished fifth in the league in receptions and seventh in touchdown catches. Third-year man Darrell Brewster had a solid season at the other end position as he finished 11th in receptions good for an above-average 16.1 yards each.
Dante Lavelli
As had been the case since Marion Motley suffered a knee injury in training camp in 1951, the running game was mostly by committee. Rookie back Maurice Bassett was a big surprise as he finished fifth in the league in rushing yards, and all among Curly Morrison, Dub Jones, Ray Renfro, Billy Reynolds and another rookie, Chet Hanulak, had their moments. It was certainly not a dominating group but it fit with a great defense and a coach who preferred caution over big playmaking.

The offensive line, long a Cleveland strength, was as good as ever with center Frank Gatski, left tackle Lou Groza and left guard Abe Gibron leading the charge. Fifth-year man John Sandusky held down the right tackle spot. Lin Houston’s retirement after eight seasons left a hole at right guard that was capably filled primarily by Chuck Noll, though newcomers Harold Bradley and Herschel Forester also saw action in Brown’s messenger guard system.

Overall, Cleveland’s offense was hardly scary aside from Graham, yet they averaged 28 points a game on 336 points that was second best to Detroit by a mere one point. Compared to other teams that season, that number of points is out of whack for an offense that finished fifth in total yards. The Rams and 49ers, for example, both finished with fewer points despite gaining far more yards.

 One big reason goes back to the magnificent play of the defense. Opposing teams were so often completely stymied on offense that Cleveland frequently got the ball with good or great field position. That good balance between offense and defense resulted in a 14.5 point differential per game that is 26th best in NFL history, close to the top 1%.

Gillom and Groza
Lou Groza
Compounding matters for the opposition, the Browns also had the best punter and far and away the best placekicker in the league. When opponents did pin the Browns deep or force a quick three and out, Horace Gillom was there to punt them out of danger. Gillom posted a 42.9 yard average to go along with a 38.9 net.   

In addition to playing tackle at an all-pro level, Lou Groza followed up his record-smashing season as a kicker in 1953 with another outstanding year. While the rest of the league averaged 9.4 field goals per team, Groza led the NFL for the third straight season with 16. His .667 percentage was also best in the league and head and shoulders above the league average.

 Beyond the numbers, Groza’s clutch kicking was the margin of victory in crucial back-to-back games in November against the two teams Cleveland trailed in the standings, the Eagles and Giants. In Philadelphia, his two field goals were all the points in a 6-0 win. And the following week in New York, Groza’s ten points on three field goals and an extra point were the difference in a 16-7 victory over the Giants.

As Cleveland rolled into December, the Lions were doing likewise in the West. By the time of their re-scheduled game on December 19th, both teams had clinched. The rotation system meant the Championship Game would be played in Cleveland so home-field advantage was not at stake. In a game played in a heavy snowstorm, the Lions again rallied for a late touchdown to win, 14-10. Though it was a meaningless game, the Browns could not have been happy about losing another close one to Detroit. The good news was that they would get another chance a week later for all the marbles. 

The Rebellion That Wasn’t
A number of Browns have told over the years of the offensive unit’s late-night meeting on the eve of the Championship Game. The feeling among Graham, Lavelli, and others was that they had lost the two previous title games to Detroit and the 1951 game to the Rams in no small part because of Paul Brown’s conservative game plans and play-calling. Their collective decision was to do something about it.

 Graham had decided he would retire after the Detroit game. Perhaps emboldened by that fact, he agreed, according to Lavelli and others, to 1.) reject plays Brown sent in that he did not think were appropriate and 2.) change plays as needed at the line of scrimmage based on Detroit’s defensive alignment. Both went against Brown’s requirement that Graham strictly adhere to the coach’s play-calling, a phenomenon that had evolved from their early years together when Graham called most of the plays to 1954 when, by Graham’s estimate, Brown called 90%. 

Brown was the unquestioned boss and even a player as great as Graham had little leeway in such an important matter. Believing it was his final game and more frustrated than anyone over the 1953 title game loss in particular in which he played perhaps the worst game of his career, Graham by all accounts decided to risk his coach’s wrath. It is difficult to know what the repercussions would have been, as it’s hard to imagine Brown benching Graham in favor of back-up George Ratterman. Still, Brown had pulled Graham in favor of Ratterman for a brief period the year before.

56-10
In the end, no rebellion was necessary. The game unfolded such that Cleveland surged to an early lead that ballooned to 35-10 by halftime. Known for especially conservative play calling in the early going, Brown this time had Graham take advantage of coverage and matchup advantages that resulted in two long first-half touchdown passes to Ray Renfro.

Perhaps the biggest key to the game, not surprisingly, was the Cleveland defense. They didn’t shut down the Lions the way they had lesser opponents during the season. Instead, they did something they hadn’t been particularly good at in the regular year: they took the ball away, especially via interceptions. Again and again, the Browns snuffed out Detroit possessions with takeaways, nine in all: six picks and three fumble recoveries. Probably the most striking and pivotal of all was literally a take away as McCormack took the ball out of the hands of Detroit quarterback Bobby Layne in the second quarter when the Lions were still in position to make a game of it.

 It got so good for Cleveland that Len Ford intercepted two passes, a rarity for a defensive lineman in any game, let alone the biggest game of the NFL season. Ken Konz also intercepted two and the Browns also benefitted from a Detroit penalty for roughing punter Gillom. The penalty kept a Cleveland drive alive when the game was still close that resulted in a touchdown.   

 In winning 56-10, Cleveland went a long way to exorcising the demons of the three previous seasons. Rather than going downhill after three difficult big game losses, not to mention one of the longest runs of greatness in pro football history, the Browns bounced back in 1954 as good as ever. That the rousing victory came over the same team that had defeated them in the previous two title games was all the better.

Otto Graham threw for three touchdowns and ran for three others. If not as spectacular as his performance in the 1950 Championship Game, it was a memorable one nonetheless. Paul Brown talked Graham out of retirement the following summer and he led the Browns to one more championship.

Unsung Heroes
Cleveland had a number of great players on their sixth championship team and second in five years in the NFL. That is reflected in the many who were all-pros both that year and in other seasons as well as by the 1954 team’s ample representation in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Graham, Groza, Lavelli and Ford were among those widely recognized for their greatness by people around the NFL and fans alike.

 Mention should be made of some who flew below the radar. Three in particular who stand out based on what they did in 1954 are Abe Gibron, Don Paul and Mike McCormack. Gibron was firmly established as one of the best guards in the league in 1954. His play that year was superlative and it was recognized as such by players around the league who voted him to the first unit of the NEA’s all-pro team. Watching Gibron fire out of his stance time after time on film to knock his man out of the way of a Cleveland ball carrier is firm testament to his great play that year. His excellence goes a long way in explaining why the Browns could have been as successful as they were with a running game that was average at best.

Cornerback Paul arrived in Cleveland not long before the start of the season. He was traded by the Chicago Cardinals to Washington in 1954 and then to the Browns without ever playing for the Redskins. Paul was outstanding at right corner both in coverage and as a tackler. His acquisition and stellar play also proved valuable when left safety Ken Gorgal was injured during the season. Without Paul, Brown may have had to shift personnel around in the secondary. With him, Ken Konz simply stepped in for Gorgal and the defense never missed a beat

Much has been said above about McCormack. His capably replacing Bill Willis, a player long regarded as the best middle guard in football, was key to Cleveland’s 1954 success. He was a heady player who also fit right in with the bruising play of Colo, Kissell and Gain. That middle guard may not have been McCormack’s best position, as evidenced by his making it to the Hall of Fame based on his play at offensive tackle the next eight years, indicates he was quite the all-around football player.

No team has played at such a high level as the Browns in their first ten years. Even just considering their first five seasons in the NFL, they are the only team in pro football history to play in five consecutive Championship Games or Super Bowls. They would make it back a sixth time in 1955, winning again, to make it a total of seven championships in ten seasons. With the exception of the one in 1950, none was as satisfying as 1954’s.

4 comments:

  1. great piece, Andy....as anyone who reads these posts knows, I love 1950s pro football and you rightfully point out the majesty of the early Cleveland Browns...6 consecutive NFL title games (which is what the SB really is) plus their 4 AAFC wins....simply unparalleled....a v-e-r-y minor nitpick/correction.....the 10/24 game at Comisky was a 35-3 Browns win according to PFR....the 31-7 win over the Cardinals was week 2 at home

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  2. Enjoyed that article. Thanks

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  3. That 56-10 win for the Browns in the Championship game was an anomaly if there ever was one.

    This Detroit team led by Bobby Layne had won I think,eight straight against the Browns including back to back Championships, giving up only 23 points in the wins.

    Once again, as in 1942 with the Bears, a team fails to get that third straight championship. This time, Layne is making uncharacteristic mistakes and the Lions defence plays terrible, giving up what, eight TDs ?
    Of course the Lions offence turned it over 9 times and no defence could overcome that. Easily the worst game in Laynes career and maybe Grahams best.
    Ironically, the next year, Norm Van Brocklin for the Rams would have his worst game against the Browns and a defence that did a great job for Paul Brown.

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  4. Really impressive post. I read it whole and going to share it with my social circules. I enjoyed your article and planning to rewrite it on my own blog. @ Packers And Movers Mumbai

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