January 26th, 1997; New Orleans, Louisiana. The Superdome is rocking. Streamers and confetti are coming from all directions as the Cleveland Browns celebrate their victory in Super Bowl XXXI, their first in generations. Owner Art Modell, head coach Bill Belichick, and GM Ozzie Newsome are elated: they had done it, finally bringing the championship back to Cleveland. Art Modell was forgiven for thinking about moving the team the previous year, and Belichick chuckled as he thought about what a job he could have done in New England; Parcells? Ha! Who needed him?
On the field, Ray Lewis, the defensive rookie of the year, was jumping up and down like a schoolboy. Jonathan Ogden stood there, taking the moment in. The moment was perfect…
This is the vision that many sportswriters and fans of the Cleveland Browns have had since 1995. The coaching staff was stacked, and is one of the few times where a lot of coaches can trace their style of management back to one specific time. Imagine having runners (referred to humorously as “slappies”) on your staff named Jim Schwartz, Mike Tannenbaum, Eric Mangini, Scott Pioli, Ozzie Newsome, Tom Dimitroff, Kirk Ferentz, Phil Savage, Michael Lombardi; the defensive coordinator was Nick Saban for a few years there.
Even if you don’t recognize all the names up there, all you need to understand is that they have become NFL general managers, successful college head coaches, NFL head coaches; Belichick had come in with a long-term plan for long-term success, which was beginning to manifest success in the 1994 season, and the early part of the 1995 season. Nick Saban had left the previous year to become the head coach at Michigan State.
I won’t go into too much more detail, but you see my point: there was so much potential there. The team was buzzing, the staff was charged, and there was nothing that could stop them.
When Art Modell dropped the bombshell of a generation, his intent to move the franchise to Baltimore, the team crumbled. Some guys quit. Some guys were fired; Belichick was one of them. Many of the lower guys did move to Baltimore, en route to achieving greatness on their own. Unfortunately for Cleveland, nothing could rebuild what was lost; the reborn Browns have not had the success the 1994 and 1995 squads were achieving before the news broke.
For easy going fans, they might not see the loss, but for those with their eyes on the field and ears to the ground, it is nothing but painful. The Baltimore Ravens, who were essentially the Browns moved to Baltimore, and who were led by Ozzie Newsome, “Cleveland’s former favorite son,” won the Super Bowl in 2000; the next three out of four Super Bowls after that were led by Bill Belichick-lead Patriots squads, with Belichick executing his plan for success to perfection. Jim Schwartz has had a lot of success with the Detroit Lions. Eric Mangini would return to Cleveland, where he failed to find success. Hell, they see Nick Saban winning National Championships at LSU.
The future executives’ success is especially stinging; nothing hurts like seeing the men who could have been your general manager build successful teams elsewhere.
All this is conjecture of course, but given that the Browns were on the rise before Art Modell pulled the floor from under them, and the depth of talent in the coaching ranks (many of whom could have become full fledged assistants and coordinators under Belichick), as well as the almost universally held belief the Browns could have established a dynasty, all adds credence to the idea. The rise of Ozzie Newsome as a general manager the next year, in which they had a brilliant draft, only adds to the idea, especially since his eye for talent, working alongside Belichick, would have been one nasty combo for the rest of the league to deal with.
However, the real tragedy of Cleveland isn’t just what could have been, it’s what actually happened, which was truly tragic; the city of Cleveland, it seems, just can’t catch a break. Outside of The Decision, the Cleveland teams just seem to be snakebitten in a vicious way, to the point that I would love to see one of their teams win the big one just so the city can have something to celebrate.
The city of Cleveland, however, still has the Browns, and for all their struggles, that is something they can still say with pride. The fans there would rather have the team, in rough shape as it is, than not have it there. The fans there continue to justify why the franchise there should never, ever, be moved, and why they deserved better treatment than what Art Modell gave them.