Long-Forgotten Perfection by the Lake
By DAVE ANDERSON
During the Patriots' journey to their Super Bowl XLII opportunity for a record 19-0 season, they upstaged the N.F.L.'s only other unbeaten and untied team, the 1972 Dolphins, who were 17-0. But buried in a forgotten pro football graveyard is a forgotten unbeaten and untied team, the 1948 Cleveland Browns.Those early Browns, named for Coach Paul Brown and led by quarterback Otto Graham, went 14-0 during the regular schedule, then routed the Buffalo Bills, 49-7, in the All-America Football Conference championship game for a 15-0 sweep in the midst of what would be a 29-game unbeaten streak (with two ties) over three seasons.The All-America what? Surely you mean the American Football League?No, the A.F.L. didn't arrive until 1960, a decade after the All-America Football Conference had vanished after four seasons following World War II, mostly because the Browns were so good. They had wrecked the league's competitive balance. The Browns won all four titles, compiling a 47-4-3 regular-season record, winning a playoff game and going 4-0 in championship games, including two with the New York Yankees.In the truce that ended the N.F.L.'s expensive duel for players with the A.A.F.C., the N.F.L. absorbed the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts. It also took the best players from the other five franchises, notably defensive tackle Arnie Weinmeister and defensive back Tom Landry, who joined the Giants after having starred for the New York Yankees, who played at Yankee Stadium.Unlike the N.F.L.'s later acceptance of all A.F.L. team and player records in their 1966 merger agreement, the N.F.L. refused to recognize the All-America Football Conference statistics. The current Browns media guide still lists the team's results and starting lineups for 1946 through 1949, but the N.F.L. tossed all those names and numbers into an unmarked grave, as if they never existed.In 1950, the Browns' first season in the N.F.L., they proved they existed. They stunned the two-time reigning champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, 35-10, in the opener, posted a 10-2 record (both losses to the Giants), nipped the Giants, 8-3, in an East Division playoff at Cleveland, then rallied to defeat the Los Angeles Rams, 30-28, in the championship game on Lou Groza's 16-yard field goal with 28 seconds left.Over a 10-year stretch, the Browns, who also captured the 1954 and 1955 championships, won 7 N.F.L. and A.A.F.C. titles and 10 division titles. But to Brown, his unbeaten and untied '48 Browns were the best Browns team of all.
"Even greater than the 1950 N.F.L. championship squad, and probably the greatest pro football team ever up to that time," he wrote in his 1990 book, "PB: The Paul Brown Story" in collaboration with Jack Clary. "Since we didn't play in the N.F.L., it didn't count. I know this, though: the Browns, 49ers and Yankees were better than any of the N.F.L. teams that year, and we beat those other two teams twice."In addition to Brown, who later guided the Cincinnati Bengals to two Super Bowl appearances as general manager, six early Browns are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Graham (one of four quarterbacks on the N.F.L.'s all-time team along with Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana), fullback Marion Motley, wide receiver Dante Lavelli, center Frank Gatski, middle guard Bill Willis and Groza, who was a kicker and offensive tackle."The real measure of our '48 team," Brown wrote, "was its ability to play and win three games within eight days, something no football team before, or since, ever has been asked to do."All three games were on the road. On a Sunday in New York before 52,518 at the Stadium, the Browns beat the Yankees, 34-21; boarded a 16-hour flight to Los Angeles, where they stopped the Dons, 31-14, before 60,031 in the Coliseum on Thanksgiving Day; then edged the 49ers, 31-28, three days later before 59,785 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco."The main thing about Paul Brown," Lavelli said from his home in the Cleveland area, "was how articulate he was and how everything had to be perfect."Lou Saban, a linebacker on the '48 Browns who later coached the Denver Broncos and the Buffalo Bills, recalled asking Brown why he made his players create a new playbook every year at training camp when it was mostly the same plays."When you write it, you remember it," Brown said.
Around that time, Brown turned running back Dub Jones into what most historians consider football's first flanker back."I had been the man in motion, but one day, Paul just told me to set out there on either side," Jones said.Mike Brown, Paul's son, who is the Bengals' president, hung around the '48 Browns as a 13-year-old. The only Browns photograph in his office is the 1948 team photo. And he keeps hoping that someday, the N.F.L. will insert all those All-America Football Conference statistics into its record book."It would be a fitting reminder of how great those Browns teams were," he said.Especially the forgotten '48 Browns, who were 15-0 long before the Dolphins were 17-0 and six decades before the Patriots would be shooting for 19-0.