There will, of course, be no Cleveland Browns Legends class this year,
as the team has taken what it calls a temporary hiatus to reassess the
criteria being used to get into the exclusive club.
But what if the Legends were continuing on as usual? Who would be my
four picks for the class of 2009, one each for the 1940s/50s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s/90s eras? I'm on the selection committee, so making
these decisions is something I would normally be doing now anyway.
After a lot of thought, here are my choices, and why:
1940s/50s – You could easily induct every starter on the first 10 Browns teams from 1946-55, which played in the league championship each season, winning seven times. That's an unprecedented streak, one that will never be matched in pro football. So those players all had to be special. Think that's a crazy thought? Not really. Consider the 1940 Massillon (Ohio) High School team on which Browns Legend Horace Gillom was a senior. The Tigers shut out their first nine foes by lopsided scores and then gave up just six points to arch rival Canton McKinley in the season finale. The team was considered to be so good that all of its starters were named first-team All-Ohio. With all that having been said, though, we'll pick just one player. We considered several Browns great from those early days, including linebacker Tony Adamle, but we're going with someone who, for years, has flown under the radar and seemingly slipped through the cracks when it comes to being recognized. We're talking about barrel-chested Abe Gibron, who people may remember more from his having gone on to become a head coach with the Chicago Bears. The 5-foot-11, 243-pounder was selected by the New York Giants in the sixth round of the 1949 NFL Draft but opted instead to play that season with the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference. He landed with the Browns in 1950 when they went from the AAFC to the NFL and immediately became a starter at left guard, where he played between two Pro Football Hall of Famers in center Frank "Gunner" Gatski and left tackle Lou Groza. He remained in that role for the next 6½ seasons, helping lead the Browns to six consecutive NFL Championship Game appearances, three of which they won. In addition, he was selected to four straight Pro Bowls, following the 1952 through '55 seasons. Four Pro Bowls is a pretty good total. Keep in mind that a guard who followed Gibron, Gene Hickerson, made it into the Hall of Fame with six trips to the Pro Bowl.
1960s – Like the players from the 1940s/50s, many of the 1960s Browns
have already been honored in some way, and many more deserving players are waiting to get their due. Among them are Ernie Green, a
complementary back to two Hall of Famers in Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly and the team's No. 7 career rusher, Monte Clark, a fixture at right tackle for six seasons, and Milt Morin, a pretty fair tight end in his own right before someone named Ozzie Newsome came along. Morin has 271 receptions, which puts him just five short of cracking the club's top 10 career list. However, the choice here is another guard, John Wooten. He played for the Browns for nine seasons, being a starter for the last six, and as such was overshadowed by the likes of Hickerson, left tackle Dick Schafrath and, for a while, guard Jim Ray Smith. But he was a fine player in his own right, being just as fast and athletic as Hickerson, thus enabling him to get out on the edge and help lead Brown and Kelly on those famous sweeps. He made it to the Pro Bowl twice but undoubtedly suffered because so many of his teammates were getting picked and the voters – the players – didn't want to overload the all-star squad with Browns.
1970s – Last year, cornerback Warren Lahr, the man who is No. 2 on the Browns career interceptions list, was named a Legend as the representative from the 1940s/50s. Now it's time to induct the leader – and someone who had five more picks than Lahr. That would be Thom Darden, who had 45 in a nine-year career from 1972-81 (he missed 1975 with a knee injury). That's an average of five interceptions per season. Not bad. Not bad at all. What's impressive, too, is that he led the NFL in 1978 with 10. That got him into the Pro Bowl for the first and only time in his career. That's laughable. The product of Sandusky (Ohio) High School deserved to go much more than that, but he suffered from the fact that the heart of his career came during the seven-year span from 1973-79 during which the Browns failed to make the playoffs. Another defensive back, Clarence Scott, linebacker Charlie Hall and running back Cleo Miller also were strongly considered.
1980s/90s – He could – and maybe should – be in the 1970s, because almost all of his overall and Browns careers was spent in that decade. But because his most memorable season came with the Kardiac Kids in 1980, we'll move wide receiver Reggie Rucker up an era. Rucker, who played in the NFL for 12 years, from 1970-81, and with the Browns for seven seasons, 1975-81, is sixth on Cleveland's career receptions list with 310, just five behind Brian Brennan and Kevin Johnson, who are tied for fourth. He is also fifth in career receiving yards with 4,953, sixth in touchdown catches with 32 and 10th in average yards per reception at 16.0. In addition, in that 1980 season in which the Browns captured the AFC Central with a slew of late heroics, he was one of five players on the team to have 50 or more catches, getting 52, second-best on the club and the best among wide receivers and tight ends. It's obvious he's Legend-worthy. Another wideout, Webster Slaughter, is right on the cusp of being elected.
Putting these four names out there now will give the other members of the selection committee a year's time to come up with rebuttals to my picks, or finding reason to agree with them, before the Legends club hopefully returns in 2010.