Browns reason to believe found in 1974.
What would you make of this NFL team’s prospects:
- 50-ish head coach in the second year of his first try as an NFL head coach;
- QB is an unheralded draftee from a D2 school who has managed to hang around the league into his 30s; decent size, decent arm, not too mobile, sub .500 record as starter, overcame early turnover tendencies to become a known as a ‘game manager;’
- No name defense whose only consistent pro-bowler is a 27 year first round pick at cornerback;
- Second year starter at running back, 23 years old and explosive;
- No wide receiver with a notable track record of success, the best of the bunch had 29 catches last year;
- Shares a division with two teams who have been in the Super Bowl in the last five years;
- Recent franchise history is “hapless.” Two playoff appearances in the past three decades.
Pretty soft team wouldn’t you say? But let me add one more wrinkle:
- The offensive line includes one future Hall of Famer, an all-pro, and two multiple pro-bowlers, and the tight end is known to be a strong run blocker. It is the best offensive line in the living memory of all but their oldest fans.
What would you predict of this team’s performance? Four wins? Six? Two?
If you guessed a win percentage over .700 and also that for the next three years that team would go 31-11 with three playoff appearances and two division championships, you were right.
Because while the team I described is this year’s Browns, that team was also the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals.
If you are looking for a reason to be hopeful about the Browns this year, this is where to start. I know this is what I’ve been using to prop up my optimism so let’s see how this stands up to some scrutiny.
Don Coryell and Mike Pettine.
Oh sure, this seems an absurd comparison: Lunch pail Mike against Air-Coryell. But in 1974 Coryell was just another second year coach hired by a franchise grasping for anyone to coach them. It’s not like Don Shula’s top coordinator, the glamor hire of 1973, Howard Schnellenberger was coming to St. Louis after Baltimore called. Another notable assistant, Chuck Knox, went to LA. Want a college coach from a top program? Oklahoma’s Chuck Fairbanks was on the market but he flew over St. Louis in favor of Boston. It’s hard to say whether Coryell was St. Louis’ first choice, but it’s hard to think the 1973 Cardinals would have been any coach’s top choice.
The similarity is that Mike Pettine wasn’t the Browns first choice after the inexplicable firing of Rob Chudzinski and whether Pettine was the Browns’ fifth choice or fifteenth is just quibbling.
Coryell’s first year was not spectacular, 4-9-1. Pettine clocked in at 7-9. But in both cases their “systems” are one year advanced in year two. Going their second year, coaches now know how to run an NFL training camp, know that that first game comes upon you fast, know how to manage the locker room, know their personnel. NFL head coaching experience matters (provided the coach is trending in the right direction). Pettine seems to be; Coryell absolutely jumped forward in his second year going from 4-9-1 to 10-4.
Jim Hart and Josh McCown.
Here is the comparison that started me thinking about this year’s Browns and those old Cardinals teams: two journeymen QBs who are under the radar and better than you’d expect. One from SIU, one from Sam Houston. Much as you would not perceive Josh McCown as a probable winning quarterback in 2015, few in 1974 expected much from Jim Hart.
Your top QBs in 1973 were Roman Gabriel and Roger Staubach and Fran Tarkenton and Ken Anderson.1 Hart’s just a slow QB from a small school on a shitty team. That’s what I thought. But check out the arm strength:
There’s some back foot throws going 30 yards on a tight parabola there. Arm strength is huge. Hart had it; McCown has it.
Both QBs stay away from interceptions.2 Both are crafty veterans who will read your blitzes and find their safety valves. Now then Jim Hart’s safety valves were a HOF tight end and Terry Metcalf. Jackie Smith isn’t walking through the door for the Browns, but who knows what Duke Johnson might turn into? Or Isaiah Crowell for that matter.
Roger Werhle and Joe Haden.
Lookit: I don’t know anything about Roger Wehrli but like Joe Haden, the guy was 6-0/190 cornerback and he is in the Hall of Fame. No word on whether had over 1000 pairs of sneakers. Here’s a Wehrli clip and there’s a Bill Nelsen interception baked in the middle.
I’m not impressed either but there you go — the 74 Cardinals’ best defensive player was a 27 year old cornerback; the 2015 Browns’ best is a 26 year old cornerback.
Do we have Terry Metcalf or Mel Gray on this team?
We don’t know. And that is right where the 74 Cardinals were at the start of their season. Donny Anderson was their top RB in 73; Ahmad Rashad was the top WR. Metcalf and Gray didn’t emerge until 74. Jim Otis was on his third team before gaining a 1000 yards for the Cards in 1975 (further poking holes in the playmaking running back imperative). So who’s to say whether Duke Johnson and Dwayne Bowe don’t emerge for us this year?
An unshakable legacy of suckitude.
The stench of losing history was as heavy for the 74 Cardinals as it is for today’s Browns and probably worse. In 1974, the Cardinals had not gotten to the playoffs since the start of playoffs in 1967. They had a franchise move 15 years earlier in 1959. 1948 was the last post season appearance and 1947 the last championship. Two post season appearances in 27 years. How does that compare to the Browns? Two post-season appearance in 25 years and this version has been in place after a franchise move for 16 years.
Growing up, never in a million years did I think my Browns would share a comparable legacy of fail with the Bidwell Chicago/StLouis Cardinals.
So how did this team turn it around and what makes you think the Browns can do the same?
The best offensive line in living memory.
There is one overriding reason the mid-70s Cardinals beat out the Cowboys and Redskins for a couple division titles. It is the three stud rule.
When I first started pulling the thread on the concept that all teams with three strong offensive linemen are successful with most such teams winning multiple Super Bowls I was pretty excited. The rule held for the 90s Cowboys, 70s Vikings, Dolphins, Packers, Steelers, Niners.. name a dynasty and the o-line had at least three multiple pro-bowl linemen.
To test the theory, I started looking at HOF linemen. John Hannah was great lineman on bad Pats teams.. but those teams only had two studs (Hannah and Leon Gray). Mike Munchak only got Bruce Matthews; Anthony Muñoz, Max Montoya. None of those HOF-ers got their third stud and their teams never got over the top.
Then I came to HOF Dan Dierdorf and I thought my emerging rule would die there. Dierdorf had all-pros in Tom Banks and Bob Young and multiple pro-bowler Conrad Dobler. That’s four studs. Add in HOF tight end Jackie Smith and this crappy Cardinals team is going to kill my brilliant idea.
But it didn’t. It actually proved my concept. The mid-70s Cardinals were a pretty pedestrian roster with an exceptional offensive line. The line allowed the roster to go from nowhere to 31-11 over three years.
Jim Hart, Terry Metcalf, Mel Gray these were good players. But Hart was 8th in passer rating (Anderson), Metcalf had a nice 4.7 yds per rush attempt good for 5th in the league, and Gray seven receiving TDs but that’s half as many as Cliff Branch in 1974. So were they good? Or were they just ok and propelled into league leadership by their outstanding o-line?
I’m saying it’s the line.
If you still need proof, fullback Jim Otis3 gained a 1000 yards behind this line for the first and only time in his career. Jim Otis is in the ‘just ok’ running back category as Buckeye fans learned out when he left and John Brockington took his place. That Jim Otis gained 1000 yards and that is probably all you need to know about the impact a great offensive line can have.
And that why I’m saying there’s a hope for these 2015 Browns.
Alex Mack is Tom Banks.
Joel Bitonio is definitely Conrad Dobler.
Joe Thomas is Dan Dierdorf.4
John Greco is Bob Young. Ennhh… BUT. Bob Young was 32 in 1974 and didn’t make all-pro until 1978. Greco is 30,,, hey maybe he’ll become an all-pro in four years? We know he’s a good run blocker, maybe if we run we’ll be happy to have him.
But even if Greco isn’t the stud we want, Cameron Erving should be. That this year’s second first rounder hasnt cracked the starting lineup is more a reflective of the strength of the current line than a disappointment in the rookie. Report from Berea is that Erving is “meeting expectations and [the coaches are] pleased. They threw a TON at him, multiple positions, responsibilities, etc.”
The net is that this year’s Browns have three studs on the o-line plus a first round rookie guard/center for a spare. And in the course of my research, I found no instances where a team with three stud offensive linemen wasn’t a winning team.
This Browns team will be the greatest test this theory. Well the greatest test of the theory since 1974.
- Mike Phipps was also among the leaders… leader in interceptions and most times sacked. [back]
- Unless it’s a 3rd/16 in a preseason game where a 40 yard INT is a punt with a 5% chance of a big play… I’m talking to you #brownstwitter. [back]
- Yes yes, OJ/USC beating, Rose Bowl winning, Michigan 50-14 thrashing “because I couldn’t go for three” OSU 1968 “Super Soph” national champion Jim Otis. Although he himself was a junior on that team, not a sophomore. [back]
- Thomas has even adopted Dierdorf’s penchant for spewing banalities with his blame Goodell for the Pats cheating hot take. You’ll fit right in on ESPN and if you really dumb it down maybe you can be the next Mike Golic buffoon-lineman caricature. It’s a cottage industry in media. [back]