King: Echoes of 1975

The Browns current season is reminiscent of a rough inaugural campaign for Forrest Gregg. Steve King, the OBR's "walking encyclopedia of Browns history" takes us back to the time a disciplinarian coach started off with a string of losses...

For fan angst and media criticism in a Browns season, 1975 has always been the measuring stick.

It's the granddaddy of them all.

But is 2009 worse – already?

That's the question some longtime observers of the team are beginning to ask as the Browns get ready to face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium. The Browns, mostly with the fact they've had three lopsided losses to open the season and are at – or near – the bottom of the NFL in most statistical categories, are getting blistered off the field as well as on it both locally and nationally by the fans and media. Ditto for first-year head coach Eric Mangini.

That's pretty much the way it was in 1975 under another first-year, tough-minded, no-nonsense disciplinarian of a head coach in Green Bay Packers Pro Football of Fame offensive tackle Forrest Gregg. There was no Internet then. Cable TV was strictly for people in rural areas to be able to pick up the basic network channels, so there were no 24/7 TV sports stations. Sports talk radio barely existed, save for a handful of people scattered across the country such as Pete Franklin on WWWE (now WTAM) in Cleveland.

Thus, there was a limit to what could be – and what was – said and written.

Still, with what was out there both electronically and in print, there was venom – and lots of it – in every word.

And with good reason, for a proud franchise had fallen upon the harshest of times to that point.

The team set a club record that still stands for losses to open a season with nine. Even the 1999 expansion Browns didn't do that, going 0-7 before finally gaining a 21-16 win in New Orleans when Tim Couch found wide receiver Kevin Johnson with a 56-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired.

And whereas the 1999 team got blown out just twice in those first seven games, falling 43-0 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opener and then 34-3 to Ryan Tucker and the St. Louis Rams the week before they defeated the Saints, the 1975 team was getting crushed nearly every week.

After losing just 24-17 in the opener on the road to a Bengals team that would finish 11-3 and gain the AFC's lone wild-card playoff berth handed out at the time, they returned to Cleveland and lost three straight games there to pretty good teams, 42-10 to the Minnesota Vikings (who finished 12-2 and won the NFC Central), 42-6 to the Steelers (who were on the way to capturing their second straight Super Bowl championship) and 40-10 to the Houston Oilers (who finished 10-4). Add those three games up, and the Browns were outscored by a combined total of almost 100 points – 98, to be exact, 124-26.

The Browns then started being more competitive, but they still lost – 16-15 at Denver when Jim Turner hit a 53-yard field goal at the end, 23-7 to the Washington Redskins, 21-7 to the AFC East champion Baltimore Colts, led by quarterback Bert Jones, the son of Cleveland Browns Legend Dub Jones, 21-7 to the Detroit Lions and 38-17 to the AFC West champion Oakland Raiders.

Finally, the Browns began playing much, much better. They defeated the Bengals 35-23 at home to get their first win, then edged the Saints 17-16 in Cleveland the following week.

That was followed by a 31-17 loss at Pittsburgh after they blew a 17-7 lead, a 40-14 home win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the mud when Greg Pruitt rushed for 214 yards, still the seventh-most in franchise history, and then a 21-10 season-ending loss at Houston.

But the fact the Browns won three of those last five gave them hope for the future, and that momentum did indeed carry forward to 1976 as they finished 9-5 and barely missed making the playoffs, earning Gregg the AFC Coach of the Year award.

The damage, though, had already been done. The Browns finished 3-11, their worst mark ever to that point.

There were a lot of reasons for that. First of all, the Browns' success through their 27 years of existence finally caught up with them. Getting low draft choices again and again because of finishing high in the league, the Browns' stream of talent dried up considerably. And when they did get high draft picks, such as in 1970 when they got the No. 3 overall selection as the compensation for trading HOF wide receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins, and then took Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps, they didn't cash in.

Other than defensive tackle Jerry Sherk, defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones and offensive tackle Bob McKay in 1970, cornerback Clarence Scott and left tackle Doug Dieken in ‘71, safety Thom Darden in '72 and Pruitt in '73, the Browns hadn't gotten much help in recent drafts heading into 1975.

In addition to the one involving Warfield, they also made a number of poor trades.

Then there was the fact that a lot of great players who had led the Browns to success beginning in the late 1950s into the early 70s, all seemed to retired at the same time in the early 1970s, and the Browns didn't have nearly enough of those kinds of players to replace them.

The Browns also had big-time issues at quarterback, which really hurt them. It was becoming painfully obvious that Phipps wasn't the man to lead them to the Super Bowl. He played the majority of the season but finished with just four TD passes and a whopping 19 interceptions for a quarterback rating of but 47.5. There was a young passer who was in his second year on the active roster named Brian Sipe, but he was nowhere close to being the man who would break nearly every Browns passing record in 1980 en route to winning the NFL MVP Award and leading the Kardiac Kids to the division title. To indicate just how desperate the Browns really were, even someone named Will Cureton got a start that year against the Lions.

It was not pretty to watch, particularly for Browns fans who had been so used from the very start of the franchise to seeing their team succeed.

The Akron Beacon Journal  did something at the time whereby readers mailed in questions – remember, there was no email then – for beat writer Ray Yannucci to ask Gregg at his daily press conferences. One such question was: "Do you think the Browns could beat Ohio State?" Led by two-time Heisman Trophy-winning running back Archie Griffin, the Woody Hayes-coached Buckeyes were annually contending for national championships at the time.

But the Bucks played in the Big Ten and the Browns played in the big leagues, so, as you might expect, the always-gruff Gregg reacted to a question trying to equate the two programs with same cheeriness as a rattlesnake being roused from a sound late-afternoon sleep in the hot sun.

Nonetheless, that exemplifies just how bad it got in that long-ago time.

However, 1975 was only the second year in a row that the Browns had been bad. Just three years earlier, they had made it to the playoffs as the conference's wild-card team with a 10-4 record and, in a divisional-round game, gave the Miami Dolphins their biggest scare en route to a perfect 17-0 season, failing to hold a lead down the stretch and losing 20-14. In 1971, the Browns had won the AFC Central. In 1968 and '69, they had made back-to-back trips to the NFL Championship Game.

In addition, there were some individual players to watch on the Browns.  Sherk may have been the best defensive lineman in the game at the time, wide receiver Reggie Rucker led the AFC with 60 receptions, the second-highest total in franchise history to that point, Don Cockroft was one of the NFL's top kickers, and Pruitt, with his first 1,000-yard rushing season, and the fact he was second on the team with 44 catches, was one of the best, most multi-faceted and most electrifying young backs in the league.

That's a lot different than the situation now, with the Browns having posted just two winning records with but one playoff appearance – and no victories – in the 10 previous years since their re-birth in 1999. And unless something miraculous happens, 2009 won't amount to anything, either.

In fact, in the 20 years since 1990, there have been just three winning records and two postseason trips with only one victory. The city even went three years without a team.

Just a little over a year ago at this time, Browns fans thought the club was going to the Super Bowl. Then they thought they were going to get fiery and popular Bill Cowher as head coach once Romeo Crennel was fired.

So there was – and is – tremendous disappointment with the fact that what the fans thought was going to happen, and what they wanted to happen, didn't materialize. And the team's woeful start has merely added salt to that wound.

The fans are mad, and, with no individual stars to watch on offense or defense to make the losing a little easier to stomach, they see no light at the end of the tunnel.

Hopefully for Browns fans, things will, in the very least, be as they were late in 1975, and then into '76, when the situation did an abrupt about-face. Until – or even if – that happens, though, 2009 may well go down as the Browns season with the most fan angst and media criticism.

And that's a team record the Browns don't want to set.    

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