All-time teams are divided into eleven starters on offense and defense. Offenses are organized in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers). Defenses are in base sets with front sevens in either 3-4 or 4-3 alignments, which are selected based on the front that has been played through the majority of the Super Bowl era by each respective franchise, along with a standard four defensive backs.
While I recognize that kickers and punters are people too, I have skipped their inclusion on this list due to the wide variance in kicking and punting stats through time. Rather than try to parse kicking performance in context and then examine them within and across eras, I chickened out and skipped them altogether. Sorry.
The Browns are one of the National Football League’s most storied franchises. Before joining the NFL in 1950, the Browns won All-America Football Conference championships every year of the upstart league’s existence (1946-1949). Paul Brown’s squad carried that dominance into the NFL winning the 1950 NFL Championship. The Browns followed that by losing NFL Championship games from 1951-1953, once to the Los Angeles Rams and twice to the Detroit Lions, but again won the 1954 and 1955 titles defeating the selfsame Rams and Lions in subsequent years. The Browns again lost to Detroit in the championship game in 1957, but returned to defeat the Baltimore Colts and captured the 1964 title. The following season they lost their crown to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. The Browns then narrowly missed out on representing the NFL in Super Bowls III and IV, losing the last two NFL title games to Baltimore in 1968 and the Minnesota Vikings in January of 1970. For those of you keeping score at home, the Browns won a total of four AAFC titles, four NFL championships, and were runners-up seven times before the NFL-AFL merger. Only the Packers and Bears have more titles to their names in the pre-merger era. Both teams, though, were founded in 1919, which was well before the birth of the Browns.
Following the 1970 merger, the Browns have made it to the playoffs only eleven times. In 1986, 1987, and 1989 they reached the AFC Championship game, but lost each time to the Denver Broncos. 1986 saw “The Drive,” “The Fumble” in 1987, and the unnamed loss in ’89. These crushing defeats are emblazoned in the mind of every Cleveland sports’ fan. Under Bill Belichick, the Browns became contenders again in 1994, making it to the second round of the playoffs, but Art Modell’s announcement of the franchise’s impending move lampooned any chance of contention in ’95. The Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, but they have managed only two winning seasons and a wild-card playoff berth since. Their recent ineptitude is highlighted by the lack of star talent on the roster since ’99, aside from left tackle Joe Thomas. Not one New Brown is on this list. The only player even considered was the aforementioned Thomas. The Browns do have an amazing history littered with Hall of Famers and championship glory, but current fans deserve far better than they have received. But I digress, to begin our list, first we will examine the greatest quarterback in franchise history, and we don’t mean Bryan Sipe.
During discussions of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Otto Graham rarely gets mentioned. This is a glaring omission. Over the course of Graham’s Hall-of-Fame tenure as the Browns’ starting quarterback, the team won seven championships. In an era when quarterbacks just didn’t complete 60% of their passes, Graham achieved this milestone twice, only narrowly missing a third season in 1954 when he completed 59.2%. Seriously, not one other primary starting quarterback in the AAFC or the NFL completed 60% or more of their passes during Graham’s career. His nine yards per attempt are still an NFL record that no one has come close to toppling. The guy averaged 10.6 yards per attempt in 1953, while completing 64.7% of his throws, which is just an otherworldly statistic. And, by the way, he also scored 44 rushing touchdowns, intercepted seven passes on defense, and averaged 11.4 yards per punt return for his career.
Joining Graham in the backfield is arguably the greatest runner in NFL history and the running back who replaced him and went on to have a Hall of Fame career, as well. Jim Brown might be the greatest Cleveland Brown of them all. If not for his noted disinterest in blocking and penchant for fumbling we likely would remove the “might be” from the previous sentence and install an ”is.” He was fast, violent, and decisive as a running back for a team that never had a losing season during his tenure. The Browns, with Brown as their primary offensive weapon, appeared in three league championship games, winning one, and finished within the top-five offensive teams in yards and points in a season in all but two of the years he played. Brown retired after nine seasons as the most productive runner in NFL history. The great Walter Payton surpassed his record in 1984. Brown currently ranks ninth on the all-time rushing list. Luckily for the Browns, Leroy Kelly was waiting in the wings to replace Brown as the featured runner in Cleveland’s offensive attack. He didn’t disappoint. Kelly is still the second most productive runner in Cleveland history. The Browns never had a losing season during Kelly’s career, and they stood on the doorstep of Super Bowl berths in 1968 and 1969 with Kelly as their centerpiece.
At wide receiver is Hall of Famer—and original Brown—Dante Lavelli. Nicknamed “Gluefingers” and “Mr. Clutch,” Lavelli helped lead the Browns to seven championships during his eleven –year career, playing key roles in the Browns’ first championship game victories in the AAFC and later the NFL. In 1946, he caught the game-winning touchdown to clinch the Browns’ first championship in the AAFC’s inaugural season. After joining the NFL in 1950, Lavelli set a league championship game record, at the time, by catching eleven passes in the Browns’ defeat of the Los Angeles Rams to win it all in their first NFL season. Even though Lavelli last played in 1956, he still is the Browns’ career receptions leader at wideout. Ray Renfro and Mac Speedie have more yards. Paul Warfield is a Hall of Famer. Gary Collins, though, has more receptions than all of them and is the franchise leader in career touchdown receptions. Collins was Cris Carter, before Cris Carter. All he did was catch touchdowns, on 21% of his receptions to be exact. Carter only caught touchdowns on 12% of his catches. Collins was even the Browns’ starting punter for six seasons, and he was a damn good one, too.
At tight end is one of the more recent Browns on this list, Ozzie Newsome. While today’s fans likely know Ozzie best as the personnel architect of the Baltimore Ravens since the teams inception in 1996, which is a touchy subject in Cleveland to say the least, but before his run as an executive in Baltimore he was arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game of football. The Hall of Famer last played in 1990, but still holds franchise records for receptions and yards, not just for a tight end, but also at any position. He also was a critical component of the Browns’ squads in the 1980s that came ever so close to the Super Bowl, led the team in receptions five times, and the dude could block too.
Unsurprisingly, the offensive line is composed largely of players that cleared the way for the Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly-led rushing attacks. While both runners were excellent at creating their own opportunities, Brown was in fact a transcendent player in that regard; the exceptional blocking they received should not be dismissed. Gene Hickerson and Mike McCormack both earned places in Canton for their exceptional run-blocking prowess. Jim Ray Smith earned five Pro-Bowl nods and was elected to three consecutive All-Pro teams at left guard blocking for Brown. If not for disenchantment with Art Modell’s firing of Paul Brown, a trade to the Dallas Cowboys, and a string of injuries that prematurely ended Smith’s career, he likely would have ended up in Canton with Hickerson and McCormack. Left Tackle Dick Schafrath, on the other hand, played 13 seasons with the Browns, earned six Pro-Bowl berths, and was selected for four All-Pro teams. He was one of the finest run and pass blockers of his generation, and has somehow not been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the pivot is another original Brown, Hall of Famer Frank Gatski, who spent his years snapping to the great Otto Graham and blocking for the explosive Marion Motley.
While the teams of the 40s, 50s, and 60s were built around explosive offenses, the mid to late-80s squads were defense-first teams. Linebacker Clay Matthews was the centerpiece of the defense with an all-around skillset that few players of his generation could match. In his sixteen seasons with the Browns he tallied 62 sacks, 14 interceptions, and earned four Pro-Bowl nods. Three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro Hanford Dixon starred at corner with four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All Pro Frank Minnifield. This dynamic duo helped make the Browns one of the top pass defenses of the 1980s. And for the twilight years of the Browns’ 1980s defensive dominance, the team was anchored up front by interior pass-rush phenom Michael Dean Perry, who continued to wreck havoc on opposing offenses until his run with the Browns ended at the close of the 1994 season. Perry made it to five Pro-Bowl squads and was selected All Pro twice while in Cleveland, and still ranks second on the Browns’ all-time sack list behind only Clay Matthews.
At safety, are two of the three greatest pick-off artists in Browns’ history: Thom Darden and Clarence Scott. Darden started his career at strong safety, but switched to free in his second season and held down the spot reliably for the next eight seasons, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in 1978. Clarence Scott began his career at corner, but moved to safety in 1979 where he continued to star until his retirement following the 1983 season.
Mike linebacker Vince Costello was a super-athletic middleman, who excelled in pass coverage. Costello is the franchise leader in interceptions by a linebacker, but strangely enough never earned a Pro-Bowl or All-Pro bid. Jim Houston mans the other linebacker spot in our 4-3. Houston was a key piece of the 1960s defenses that helped the Browns capture the 1964 title and come up just short of the title in 1965, 1968, and 1969. During his career he was selected to four Pro Bowls and is tied for second in career interceptions for a linebacker with Clay Matthews at 14.
Joining Perry on the defensive line’s interior is Hall of Fame middle guard Bill Willis at left defensive tackle. Willis, an extremely undersized d-lineman even for his era, was absolutely dominant at the nose, and earned three Pro-Bowl trips and three All-Pro selections during his short five-year run in the NFL. At right end is Len Ford, who is arguably the first pass-rush specialist in NFL history. Ford rushed from both three-point and two-point stances and offenses structured their game plans around his varied abilities. Ford earned Pro-Bowl and All-Pro selections from 1951-1954 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976. Opposite Ford is Paul Wiggin, who earned two Pro-Bowl berths as a Brown. Wiggin was known as an excellent tactician and an extremely knowledgeable player, who used his preparation and know-how to beat opponents. Wiggins later served as a head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs and at Stanford University.
So without further ado, here are the greatest players in Browns’ history by position, as determined by Punts and Fumbles. Enjoy and leave your comments and critiques at the bottom.
QB-Otto Graham (1946-1955)*
RB-Leroy Kelly (1964-1973)*
FB-Jim Brown (1957-1965)*
WR-Dante Lavelli (1946-1956)*
WR-Gary Collins (1962-1971)
TE-Ozzie Newsome (1978-1990)*
LT-Dick Schafrath (1959-1971)
LG-Jim Ray Smith (1956-1962)
C-Frank Gatski (1946-1956)*
RG-Gene Hickerson (1958-1973)*
RT-Mike McCormack (1954-1962)*
LDE-Paul Wiggin (1957-1967)
LDT-Bill Willis (1946-1953)*
RDT-Michael Dean Perry (1988-1994)
RDE-Len Ford (1950-1957)*
LOLB-Jim Houston (1960-1972)
MLB-Vince Costello (1957-1966)
ROLB-Clay Matthews (1978-1993)
LCB-Frank Minnifield (1984-1992)
RCB-Hanford Dixon (1981-1989)
FS-Thom Darden (1972-1981)
SS- Clarence Scott (1971-1983)