The CLEVELAND BROWNS have historically been one of the most successful clubs in professional football history. From 1946 to 1983, they won 18 divisional titles, captured 8 league championships, and made the playoffs in 24 seasons. As of 2012, 16 Browns had been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Jim Brown, PAUL BROWN, Len Ford, F. Gatski, Otto Graham, Lou Groza, Gene Hickerson, Leroy Kelly, Joe DeLamielleure, Dante Lavelli, Mike McCormack, Bobby Mitchell, Marion Motley, Ozzie Newsome, Paul Warfield, and Bill Willis.
The Browns organization was founded on 20 April 1945 by ARTHUR B. "MICKEY" MCBRIDE with the help of Robert H. Gries, whose family continued to own an important minority share of the Browns into the 1990s. The team, named after its first coach, Paul E. Brown, played in the newly formed All-American Football Conference in 1946-49, winning all 4 conference titles. The Browns joined the National Football League in 1950. Brown, head coach from 1946-62, was an innovative and influential football practitioner whose many contributions earned him the nickname, "the father of the modern offense."
Brown also played a key role in the racial integration of professional sports when the Cleveland Browns signed Bill Willis and Marion Motley to contracts in 1946, joining the Los Angeles (formerly Cleveland) Rams in breaking the 13-year-old color barrier in professional football one year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. During Paul Brown's tenure, stars such as Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Lou Groza, Marion Motley, and Bill Willis dominated the AAFC, and in their first NFL season, in 1950, defeated the Los Angeles Rams 30-28 in the NFL championship game.
On 9 June 1953, McBride sold his interest in the Browns for $600,000; 50% went to a group of investors headed by local industrialist Dave R. Jones. With Otto Graham still as quarterback, the Browns won back-to-back league championships in 1954 and 1955. They endured their first losing season in 1956, which was also their first year not to play in their league's championship game, a streak of ten years. That offseason, the Browns drafted Syracuse's Jim Brown, who set several NFL records during his outstanding career (1957-65). In 1957, the Browns once more returned to the NFL Championship game, but were defeated by the Detroit Lions.
In 1961, former advertising executive ARTHUR B. "ART" MODELL bought a majority share in the Browns for $3.925 million, and in a controversial move, fired Paul Brown in 1963. Under new head coach Blanton Collier, the Browns won the NFL crown in 1964 and from 1965-69 won 4 divisional titles, but no league championship.
The realignment of the league in 1970, following the merger of the NFL with the American Football League, placed the Browns in the Central Division of the new American Football Conference. Nick Skorich served as head coach from 1971-74, leading the team to the playoffs in 1971 and 1972. After 2 years under Forrest Gregg, 1975-77, Sam Rutigliano took over in 1978.
In 1980, quarterback Brian Sipe led the team to a divisional title in 1980 and earned himself the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award. The season would be remembered as one of the Browns' most exciting years because of the high number of games decided in the games' final seconds, leading fans to call the team the "Kardiac Kids." The season would end, however, in an endzone interception with less than a minute left in the AFC Division Playoff Game against the Oakland Raiders. In 1982, the Brown's managed to reach the playoffs despite going 4-5 in a strike-shortened year, but were once more defeated by the Raiders. The team's poor performance at the beginning of the 1984 season prompted Modell to fire Rutigliano and promote defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer to head coach.
That offseason, the Browns acquired quarterback Bernie Kosar in the supplemental draft. After taking over midseason, Kosar led the team to an 8-8 record that was good enough for a playoff berth. The Browns were then defeated by the Miami Dolphin, after giving up a seventeen point lead in the third quarter. In 1986, the Browns won the Central Division title, and defeated the New York Jets in an AFC Divisional Playoff overtime thriller. The Browns were defeated in the next round by the Denver Broncos. The game became one of the most memorable in NFL history after Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway led a 98 yard drive to tie the game with less than a minute left. The following year, the Browns once more faced the Broncos in the AFC Championship, after a solid 10-5 season and defeat of the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Playoffs. The Browns, however, were once again defeated by the Broncos in heart-breaking fashion. A costly fumble on a potential game-tying drive at the two-yard line with about a minute remaining remains one of the most agonizing moments in Cleveland sports history.
In 1988, the Browns qualified for the playoffs, but were defeated by the Houston Oilers in the Wild Card Playoff matchup. The following year, the Browns new coach Bud Carson led the team to a 9-6-1 season and back into the Playoffs. The Browns defeated the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Playoffs in a game that went down to the final play. This set up yet another matchup with the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. This time the Browns were defeated 21-37. It was the third time in four years that the Broncos had defeated the Browns one game away from the Super Bowl.
In 1991, Bill Belichick was hired as head coach, following a horrendous 3-13 season in 1990. The Browns posted losing records the next three years. In 1993, quarterback Bernie Kosar was cut midway through the season. In 1994, the Browns posted an 11-5 record and defeated the New England Patriots in the AFC Wildcard game. The Browns were then defeated 29-9 by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoff game.
In late 1995, Modell announced the move of the franchise to Baltimore. Browns owner Art Modell claimed financial hardships, but announced the move before Cleveland was able to propose an offer to keep the Browns. In fact, voters approved a renovation of Cleveland Municipal Stadium that November. Outraged Browns fans launched numerous protests and lawsuits to fight the move. These frustrations were most memorable during the last home game when fans tossed seats and other pieces of the stadium on the field. In February 1996, the NFL agreed to leave the team name and colors in Cleveland. The city was promised a new franchise by 1999, pending completion of a new stadium. The relocation controversy had national implications. The relocation of such a storied franchise with a loyal fan base impelled many cities across the country to construct sports stadiums and arenas, lest their home-teams re-locate. Furthermore, the Browns' fans' ability to organize an effective protest set an important precedent for other fans of teams facing relocation.
In 1997, Mayor Michael White unveiled plans for a $247 million stadium and commenced the process of bringing professional football back to Cleveland. On 8 September 1998, Al Lerner, chairman and CEO of MBNA Corp., was awarded the new Cleveland Browns by offering the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise. The Browns opened the 1999 regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Stadium on 12 September 1999. The Browns were trounced by their arch rivals, 43-0. The Browns finished the season 2-14, but managed to avenge their loss to the Steelers with a victory in Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
After a 3-13 2000 season, University of Miami (Florida) head coach Butch Davis replaced Chris Palmer as head coach. In Davis' first year (2001-2002), the team went 7-9. The following year, the Cleveland Browns earned their first winning record since their reestablishment by defeating the Atlanta Falcons after a dramatic goal line stand on the final game of the season. Later that day, the Browns earned their first trip to the Playoffs since 1994. The Browns faced their archrival Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the Playoffs. Despite a twelve point lead with under five minutes to go, the Steelers rallied to win the game 36-33. The team struggled through the next two years and Butch Davis resigned late in the 2004 season.
In 2005, New England Patriots Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel was named head coach of the Browns. The Browns posted a 6-10 record in 2005 and 4-12 in 2006. The following year, the Browns posted their best year since their re-entry into the NFL (10-6), but missed the playoffs. In 2008, the Browns won only four games. That offseason, head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage were fired. In 2009 New York Jets coach Eric Mangini was hired to replace Crennel, but only managed a 5-11 record in both of his years as coach. During one stretch that spanned the two seasons, the Browns only managed one offensive touchdown in nine weeks. The next year, the Browns hired St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur as head coach, the Browns' sixth since 1999. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was the team's sixteenth to start since that time and the seventh different opening day quarterback in eight years.
In 2012, Randy Lerner, who’d inherited the team from Al Lerner, sold the team for more than $1 billion, nearly double what his father had paid to re-establish the team in 1999. The new buyer was Jimmy Haslam, a Tennessee native and the owner of Pilot Flying J, a nationwide chain of truck stops. Haslam had been a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, divesting himself of that team before buying the Browns.
With Haslam as owner, a new management team was installed. Team president Mike Holmgren was bought out and Shurmur was fired, going 9-23 in two seasons as coach. Joe Banner was named team chief executive officer, and he hired Rob Chudzinski as head coach in 2013. Chudzinski, a northwest Ohio native, had been an assistant on the Browns’ two best post-return teams, coaching the tight ends for the 2002 playoff team, and serving as offensive coordinator for the 2007 team that won 10 games.
Chudzinski went 4-12 in his lone year as head coach, and was fired and replaced by Mike Pettine. Shortly after Pettine’s hiring, Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi were also fired, and Ray Farmer was elevated from assistant general manager to general manager.
The drafting of Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M brought some optimism in 2014, as did a 6-3 start that had the Browns in the division lead as late as November, but the team finished 7-9 and followed that with a 3-13 record in 2015. Both Farmer and Pettine were fired. Hue Jackson was named the new coach, and Sashi Brown was elevated from the team’s general counsel to general manager.
The Browns flirted with a winless season in 2016, finally winning their penultimate game on Christmas Eve against the Chargers, but finished 1-15, securing the first overall pick for the first time since 2000 and using it to draft Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. The following year, the Browns went 0-16, just the second team in NFL history to do so, after the 2008 Detroit Lions. The lone bright spot in the season was Joe Thomas, who was recognized for playing 10,000 straight snaps at offensive tackle for the Browns, believed to be the first player in league history with that kind of durability.
Brown was fired in the waning days of the 2016 season and replaced as general manager by John Dorsey. For the second straight year, the Browns had the first overall draft pick, and used it on Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. After eight games, in which time the Browns went 2-5-1, Jackson was fired, as was offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was named interim coach, and running backs coach Freddie Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator. The Browns finished the season 5-3 for a 7-8-1 record, and on 12 January 2019, Kitchens was named head coach.
In March 2019 the Browns acquired superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr from the New York Giants. Leading up to the 2019 season the team was surrounded with optimism due to their group of star offensive players including Mayfield, Beckham, receiver Jarvis Landry and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. However, weaknesses in the offensive line and defense limited the team’s success and they finished 6-10. Freddie Kitchens, who was often criticized for questionable on-field decisions and play calling, was fired along with John Dorsey following week 17.
In January 2020 the Browns hired Andrew Berry as general manager and former Minnesota Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski as head coach. During the 2020 offseason the team made several key additions to improve the offense including offensive tackles Jack Conklin, who was signed in free agency and Jedrick Wills Jr, who was taken in the first round of the draft. Combined with the breakout success of guard Wyatt Teller, the Browns offense was able to succeed behind a strong line as they finished third in the NFL in total rushing yards with Chubb and Hunt leading the way. Baker Mayfield also bounced back from a sophomore slump finishing with 26 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. The receiving corps led by Landry excelled even after Odell Beckham Jr suffered a season ending injury in week 7. Despite Myles Garrett’s 12 sacks and four forced fumbles, the Browns defense struggled all season due to lack of depth, injuries, and players missing time due to COVID-19. However, the offense was able to lead the team to eleven victories for the first time since 1994 and a playoff appearance for the first time since 2002. In the wild card round of the NFL playoffs the Browns faced the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the first play of the game the ball was snapped over the head of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and recovered by the Browns for a touchdown. Cleveland never looked back and gained a 28-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and hung on for a 48-37 win. In the divisional round the Browns faced the reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs and lost 22-17 despite a second half rally.
In the 2021 offseason the Browns signed star safety John Johnson and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in addition to several other free agent signings and draft picks of defensive players.
Updated by John Elrod
Henkel, Frank M. Cleveland Browns History. Arcadia Publishing, 2005.