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THE '50s
Paul Zimmerman
August 30, 1999
The upstart Browns crash the party
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August 30, 1999

The '50s

The upstart Browns crash the party

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We were both kids in 1950. Mike Brown was a high schooler, wired to the Browns, the four-time champions of the All-America Football Conference, who were coached by his father, Paul. I was a football-wacky teenager who loved the AAFC and the New York Yankees, and was hoping that, somehow, in their first season in the NFL, the Browns could give the defending champion Eagles a game when the two teams met on Sept. 16.

"We spread our three receivers, Dub Jones, Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie, all over the field, in a three-wideout offense," recalls Mike Brown, now the president of the Bengals. "The Eagles' defensive backs couldn't cover them. They didn't hold up receivers at the line in those days. When the linebackers tried to help out, we hit them with [fullback] Marion Motley on traps and draws."

I had talked my mother into driving me to Philly from our home in New York City for the game. In fact, I still have my program, so I checked my notes, which I'd written on the back, right under Robert Preston's ad for Schenley Reserve Blended Whiskey. "Eagles too slow covering sideline passes...great passing exhibition by [Otto] Graham...Speedie sensational...best pro receiver ever seen...Motley ran well...used sparingly...why not run him more?" I'd dream about seeing the 238-pound Motley carry the ball 25, 30 times a game and run up numbers no one had ever seen. It never happened. As great as he was, Motley was just another cog in Paul Brown's machine.

The 35-10 victory launched the Browns on their march to the NFL championship that year, and they would play in the next five title games, winning two more. Another championship game appearance (in 1957), plus one in an Eastern Conference playoff, rounded out their postseason record for the '50s.

The Browns put their stamp on the decade, and on decades to come, with their innovative approach to the passing game. Widen the field by making the defensive backs cover greater areas, take them deep and then bedevil them with breakoffs and comebacks—and throw the ball from any place on the field. Cleveland junked the haphazard pass-blocking principles of the past and introduced cup blocking, with the linemen simply turning out. That offense jolted NFL teams into switching to the 4-3 defense that remains the standard set today. Scouting that Browns-Eagles game and shocked by what they saw, the New York Giants unveiled the 4-3 two weeks later against Cleveland.

"Could these guys play today?" Mike Brown says. "Oh, hell yes. Graham and Motley would be devastating. Lavelli, Speedie and Jones had all the speed you'd want, plus they never dropped the ball. I mean never. They say the linemen of that era couldn't play today. Too small. Well, the linemen of today couldn't have played then, either. My father wanted offensive linemen who could pull and trap and move. They could all run 4.8 or better."

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